Thursday, August 16, 2012

Three-letter words about four-letter words

[No issue of The Nation this week, so no new puzzle.]

Hot and Trazom offer a discussion of heteronyms this week over at Word Salad.  Go over and offer your opinions.  I'll usually note them as "pun" in my solutions, and they do show up frequently in some of the puzzles.  With all the wordplay they get into with the National Puzzlers' League, it's no surprise they want to share the good ones.  

Rather than carry on with that topic, I'd rather turn last week's theme around and address the issue of vulgarity, profanity, and innuendo in the crossword world.  Solvers tend to be pretty civilized people, and publishers don't want to make their customers upset at them, so any language that could be interpreted as offensive either gets self-censored by the constructors or edited out by the editors (that's part of their job).

There are a few exceptions though, most notably The Onion.  For a few months last year, they published a print edition here in Philly, and since one of their boxes was at the trolley stop outside my office, it was easy to pick up a copy and do the puzzle if I had to ride the trolley to Center City or walk somewhere on campus.  Between the pop culture references and the sometimes-weak fill, it was a pretty low-priority puzzle in my life; but the themework is usually clever, so I'd solve enough to get all the theme answers.

Keeping with the whole irreverent theme of the paper, you could usually count on at least one clue or entry in The Onion's puzzle that wouldn't pass muster with the Times.  It usually wasn't too rude, especially in comparison to the ads that usually appear in that section of The Onion.  I figure that if you can read the rest of that paper without getting yourself to a fainting couch, you can take a few sexual references in the crossword, most of them reasonably funny or clever in their cluing.

With a comic tradition exemplified by Benny Hill and Monthy Python, and a whole lot of Cockney rhyming slang as raw material, British constructors seem to slip a little more innuendo into their puzzles.

I imagine that most red-blooded constructors have come up with a few such clues of their own: private jokes that they know won't ever see print, except maybe in a run of a few copies made for friends and passed around under the table like "party records" (think of a vaudeville show made about three times as vulgar).

And it works the other way too: I hear a lot of four-letter words around the hockey rink, particularly in late night mens' league games, and we refs are strongly discouraged from replying in kind.  Thanks to my crossword habit, I can change words on the fly and use something more articulate instead of using the same old profanities.

Do you do the same?  Maybe if we get more people into crosswords, we can turn the culture back from Madonna and gangster rap back to Cole Porter and Ella Fitzgerald (who if you listen closely were definitely not innocents)....

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