CTS #12: Splice, Twice and Slice

Last two times out, we dwelt upon the algebraic crosswords, which involved altering naturally-occuring phrases by the addition, subtraction or swapping-out of strings, and camouflage crosswords, which involved the concealment of strings. But a few aspects of said puzzles went unconsidered.

Firstly, are the theme entries in a puzzle natural or artificial? That is to say, are they perfectly innocuous phrases you’d expect to encounter regularly outside a grid… the kind sometimes called “in the language?” Or are they invented specifically for the puzzle, and thereby the twisted, experimental freaks that only a cruciverbaholic could love? (Although, love them we do, love them we do.)

For a lot of genres, this is a question with a clear answer. For fact-finders, the answer is “natural.” For algebraics, it’s “artificial.” For themelesses, the answer is “trick question, themeless puzzles have no theme entries, but if they did, they’d be natural, except for the anything-goes, which is almost purely artificial.” For camouflages, the answer is “natural…”

[Long silent pause]


Here’s one of my flawed attempts to put some artificial entries where most people think they aren’t meant to go, Frankenstein-fashion. I can already hear Amy Reynaldo hissing at SSSSS crossing SISS [boom bah], the use of two Roman numerals (one in a theme entry), and A FAN, which I wanted to clue as “Enthusiastic.” But, c’mon, Amy, the theme entries! Aren’t they something?? LYNX XXY SYNDROME (“It leads to calicos with ear tufts”) and a T.J. MAXX XYLOPHONE (“Kids can hammer this in the toy section while you chase clothing deals”), SPANDEX XXL (“If you buy this, it better be exercise wear”) and REMIX XXVII (“Title that says, ’26 tributes to this classic tune just weren’t enough’”). Eh? Eh?

Okay, I’m prepared to admit that this one is straining a bit too visibly, too often, to really dazzle the solver. But at least the idea at the heart of it is a fun one: phrases with a “*xxx*” configuration spread across two words. The configuration suggests “XXX” and its forbidden connotations, and it’s so exceedingly rare that one pretty much has to invent phrases to fit the requirements. Cobbling such crazy phrases for a more common string, like “*ton*,” wouldn’t feel as justified.

For a second example, let’s go to one of the masters: Matt Gaffney. In “Our True Enemy Has Yet To Reveal Himself,” Gaffney camouflages the names of four famous “enemies” in two different ways. Each theme phrase contains the name of their rival as one word– and their own name, concealed within the second word. KGB MUSICIAN, HARVARD VEGEMITE, FRAZIER LOYALIST, VHS TIBETANS. The theme calls for this “two-way” approach, since ALI, CIA, MIT and BETA have nothing in common except being one-half of famous rivalries. Obligingly enough, that two-way approach calls another question to mind…

Second question: is only one part of each theme entry in the camouflage participating in the theme (tokenist), or is more than one independent part doing so (fractal) or is more than one overlapping part doing so (merger)? So far we’ve only seen tokenists. I’m treating the fractal as a subcategory of camouflage, but it could be seen as a subclass of additive, too. Here’s one with a Marian-esque collective nouns theme and natural entries. This example from Brendan Emmett Quigley includes ORCHESTRA PIT, STRING BAND, BUSINESS SCHOOL, DROPPING DOWN, and LABOR PARTY… each familiar, natural phrases containing two collective nouns for animals. Quigley may have misstepped a bit by cluing the phrases in terms of their collective-noun components rather than their literal meanings. It could have made a fine “guess the theme” contest had he used the latter. (More on contests later. You’ll just have to be patient.)

In this Matt Gaffney, “There’s More To This Tale…”, each part of the artificial theme entries is an anagram of TALE plus one “more” letter: LEANT LATER, EILAT LATTE, OLETA ECLAT, CLEAT LATHE.

There’s more to this tale, but we’ll return to this particular crossword later.

You’ll just have to be patient.

[slight pause, irritating whistle]


Mergers behave like fractals, but they need an inspirational category containing overlapping strings, and their theme answers are virtually guaranteed to be artificial, as in this Brendan Emmett Quigley piece, “Merge Records.” BEQ 08122010 Music-loving Quigley merges ten album names into five new phrases:


Third question: what’s the configuration of the camouflaged string? So far, all the camouflages we’ve seen have been chunky. Their key strings have all been in one place. But camouflages can feature their strings in a variety of other configurations: parenthetical, initial, blended and Vector Three.

Region capture 1In a parenthetical crossword, the key string is torn in two and placed at both ends of each theme entry. Behold Dan Naddor: STORM TRACK, STEADY AS A ROCK, “STOP THE CLOCK!”, STICKER SHOCK, STARTING BLOCK and the defining entry STOCK SPLIT. Unfortunately, “STOP THE CLOCK,” while unquestionably correct, could be “split” two different ways: “STOP THE CLOCK!” “STOP THE CLOCK!” If it’s split the second way, that leaves only one out of five entries with the STO/CK split, instead of ST/OCK. Still, replacement options are slim. Would STAY IN HOCK (“Don’t get out of debt”) work for you? Is it natural enough? It would make the ST/OCK split uniform across all five entries, firmly mono-position. These are the decisions that try our souls.

In an initial crossword, the key string is spread out over the first letter of each word in the theme entry. Randall J. Hartman: HEADS OR TAILS, HELEN OF TROY, HOLD ON TIGHT, HAMMER OF THOR.

The repetition of OF doesn’t thrill me here; even though HELEN OF TROY and HAMMER OF THOR are both strong, mythological entries, the latter looking even sexier in light of the summer movie. How about replacing Helen with HEADED OFF TO (“Made for”)? Oh, you’re just mad you didn’t think of it first.

Region capture 16Though rarer, multi-string parentheticals and initials do exist if a clever enough gimmick, or rare enough letters, justify their existence. In this Eshan Mitra, an accompanier parenthetical which evokes four BREAKABLES– [BROKEN] SEAL, [BROKEN] HEART, [BROKEN] BONE and [BROKEN] MIRROR– within SEQUENTIAL, BORDERLINE, HEAD START and MINOR ERROR.

Note the use of circles in the grid. These aren’t really worth considering as a separate class of crossword– aren’t you relieved? They’re just a hint, a tool to direct the solver’s eye and make the hard solves easier. Or perhaps a way of saying, “I may have gotten a bit too big for my britches here. Enjoy this extra help, on the house, so that you can enjoy my idea as much as I obviously do.”

Region capture 1No such help is needed for these two works, by Joe DiPietro and Derek Bowman, respectively. Both initial crosswords camouflage the most familiar of alphabetic strings: A B C D E F G H I J K L M N O P Q R S T U V W X Y Z. (If this string is not familiar to you, see a doctor.)


…while Bowman goes for a slightly more homogeneous approach, with each entry two words long: ARMY BRAT, CARBON DATING, EXHAUST FANS, GRAY HAIRS, INSIDE JOB, KITTY LITTER, MIXED NUTS, OUTER PLANET, QUICK READ, SPEED TRAP, USED VEHICLE, WINTER X-GAMES, YEAR ZERO. It works out nicely that even though these two were published almost concurrently, they still manage not to repeat a single word in those whole sequences.

Blended crosswords just chop up the string and stick its parts any old where amongst the theme answers. These puzzles usually require the aforementioned circled squares. In this one, from a fourteen-year-old Ben Pall, it turns out that the names of the four BEATLES are hiding within JOIN THE NAVY, POLE VAULTER, AGENT ORANGE and READING ROOM. A fourteen-year-old who knows the Beatles (or knew them in 2009, when this puzzle was released) is as much a beacon of hope for the future as a fourteen-year-old who makes crosswords.

And what about this “Vector Three” thing, hmmm? Long story short, it’s a puzzle with hidden features that transcend the simple across and down dimensions… becoming even more blended than blended, violating the seeming laws of crossword physics. But for that reason, it’s as much a trickster crossword as it is a camouflage crossword– and since we’re running long yet again, we really should save it for later in the series. You’ll just have to be patient.

Merl Reagle brought the humble camouflage into the light with the title puzzle in every crossword-lover’s favorite documentary, Wordplay, reproduced at left. The camouflage crossword is but an inanimate collection of letters, meanings, patterns and ideas. Such concepts as “gratitude” are beyond it. But if it could speak to Reagle, it would probably say…

Oh, and speaking of Merl Reagle…

Next time out: PUNS! There will be no mercy.

About T Campbell

T Campbell is a crossword constructor and comics scriptwriter. Among his cruciverbal accomplishments are the Ubercross C-Spot (the largest puzzle to follow New York Times standard rules), Crossworlds, a collection of 50 science-fiction-themed puzzles, and the forthcoming On Crosswords: Callin' Out Them Squares.
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3 Responses to CTS #12: Splice, Twice and Slice

  1. Amy Reynaldo says:

    T, I loved this walk down memory lane! So many great themes, so many creative constructors working today.

  2. sandirhodes says:

    Just because there may be few comments doesn’t mean we don’t read and appreciate the posts!!!

  3. Kalle resa says:

    Which I was there when they destroyed the berlinwall.

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