CTS #13: The Punster Crossword

“The lowest form of humor.” – Samuel Johnson (paraphrasing John Dennis)

“If I were punished for every pun I shed, there would not be left a puny shed of my punnish head.” – Samuel Johnson

“A pun is the lowest form of humor – when you don’t think of it first.” – Oscar Levant

There’s a healthy contingent that say sarcasm is the lowest form of humor instead. Personally, I think it’s “Carlos Mencia.” But let’s not split hairs. (About this.) The point is that puns are a much-derided form, yet one that even their best-known detractor couldn’t quite stay away from. How come?

Levant’s little riff on Johnson may indicate why: more than most ideas, puns seem really quite wonderful when you think of them and a silly waste of time when you see others thinking of them.

For a certain value of “you,” of course. The lowly pun has its partisans, especially among crossword enthusiasts. But a hardcore fan base alone can’t explain how crosswords get away with so much pun-drunkenness in a national culture so pun-down. Marshall McLuhan’s Understanding Media to the rescue:

There is a basic principle that distinguishes a hot medium like radio from a cool one like the telephone… A hot medium is one that extends one single sense in “high definition.” High definition is the state of being well filled with data. A photograph is, visually, “high definition.” A cartoon is “low definition,” simply because little information is provided…

Any hot medium allows of less participation than a cool one, as a lecture makes for less participation than a seminar, and a book for less than dialogue.

Crosswords are one of the “coolest” of mass media that the audience members still follow through to a predetermined end. (Almost always. There are a few crosswords with non-predetermined ends, but later for those.) The solver fills in every letter himself or herself, checks almost every clue, thinks of things. All media rely to some degree on inception, on making the audience feel that the artists’ thoughts are their own. But crosswords’ gentle approach to this illusion makes a pun seem far less eye-roll-worthy when it comes to you in the middle of a solve than when you watch James Bond improvise some “witty” epitaph for someone he’s slaughtered in the name of queen and country, just prior to having better sex than you.

You may have noticed we’re not exactly barreling through the definitions and subsubsubcategories like we have been in the previous few chapters. That’s because the punster crossword is a more modest creature than the multitalented algebraic and the secretive camouflage. Oh, look, now we’ve made it blush.

Granted, some students of the pun are quick to distinguish between homophones (same sound but different spelling), homographs (same spelling but different sound) and homonyms (same spelling and sound but– like the other two– different meaning). As in most aspects of puzzle design, it’s best either not to mix these types at all or to mix evenly. Homographs, an uncommon type, see little exercise, but near-homophones (same-ish sound if you don’t listen too hard) see a lot. Near-homophones could be heard as word algebra, but in punster crosswords, they’re not done in an organized enough pattern for a single “operation” to emerge.

For a source of homophones, I haven’t run into anything that beats RhymeZone’s “find homophone” feature. Owned by the same company as OneLook, RhymeZone has been around forever and its design was old in 1999, but its database keeps getting updated, and isn’t that what counts? But it’ll still miss things like IV/IVY and ACCEPT/EXCEPT. Probably the best resource for heterophonic homographs is John Higgins’ list of 594. Homonyms are often confused with homophones, making it depressing even to google them, but almost any word has a homonym if you look hard enough. Try searching “define:[yourword]” in Google instead. Please share any better resources you’ve found in the comments! I am only one man.

Also worth a brief mention are capitonyms, kinda-sorta heteronyms whose meaning changes when capitalized, like polish/Polish. These are popular among writers of tricky crossword clues (i.e., “Polish jokes” for EDIT and “August body” for CALENDAR), but it’s difficult to find a usable list of them, because what one person finds a familiar capitalized word, another might find laughably obscure. This one‘s not a bad start, but– Ewe? Liver? I don’t think so. Wikipedia‘s not omniscient, either.

There are only two real categories of punster, and even their primary distinction is one we’ve already been over. Call them the Groucho, and the Burns and Allen.

The Groucho has artificial theme entries. He really just puts it all out there. There’s no pretense in his grid, and his clues are the type that call for question marks, if not interrobangs.

Merl Reagle, well-known for this form in particular, crafted this list of “near misses” during the 2011 Oscars:

“Unnominated film featuring Inspector Clouseau?” – THE SOCIAL NITWIT (The Social Network)
“Unnominated film (part of a series) about the making of War and Peace?” – TOLSTOY 3 (Toy Story 3)
“Unnominated film about a CPA’s family?” – THE KIDS ARE ALL WRITE-OFFS (The Kids Are All Right)
“Unnominated film about an average week in Seattle?” – 127 SHOWERS (127 Hours)
“Unnominated film with a fuzzy subject?” – THE KING’S PEACH (The King’s Speech)
“Unnominated film with a corny plot?” – THE FRITTER (The Fighter)
“Unnominated film about a guy who dreams of getting cable?” – RECEPTION (Inception)
“Unnominated film about the recipe that got Hans Christian Andersen arrested?” – BLACKENED SWAN (Black Swan)
“Unnominated film about a Southern diner with really tiny portions?” – TWO GRITS (True Grit)
“Unnominated film about the cold, hard life of a horn player?” – WINTER’S TROMBONE (Winter’s Bone)

Sometimes the theme of the puns in a Groucho relates to what the phrases were before their transformation (root-phrase theme). That’s a tricky theme to do well, and usually requires the near-homophones to be a bit… further out. THE KING’S PEACH is a true homophone, but WINTER’S TROMBONE and BLACKENED SWAN have taken some liberties.

Other times, the root phrases are more varied and the theme is in their transformation process (conversion theme). Take this Emily Cox and Henry Rathvon, with its puns based on fabrics. You can see it’s much more “tightly woven!” HAR HAR HAR HAR HAR [dodges tomatoes]

“Inns for quilters?” – BATIK HOTELS
“Prelude to quilting fights?” – WAR CHINTZ
“Layer under a crazy quilt?” – MADRAS PAD
“Daring quilter?” – TWILL-SEEKER
“Quilter’s whatsit?” – GINGHAM-A-BOB
“Madonna’s ode to stretchy quilts? – LYCRA VIRGIN
“Watch TV under a quilt?” – CHINO SURF
“TV fare for a quilter?” – CREPE SHOW

Tighter still, though, is this Groucho with another movie theme– but this one encompassing all well-known movies, with its theme located in the clues (clue theme). You can Google around to see who did this one. Since the puzzle rips off its theme entries from Four Word Film Reviews, without attribution, I don’t really feel like giving David Poole credit– oops.

Okay, maybe it wasn’t Poole’s fault. Maybe he posted an attribution which got accidentally edited out. Maybe posting this will draw him out of hiding and into the comments section. Issues of fair use aside, the results for the solver are entirely pleasant. “Taxi Driver tagline?” becomes A FARE TO REMEMBER and “Titanic tagline?” becomes the delightful ICY DEAD PEOPLE, both pure homophones. The “Back to the Future tagline?”, A COMEDY OF ERAS, and “Return of the Jedi tagline?,” LUKE BACK IN ANGER, are both very, very close to pure homophones, and might even qualify as pure for you, depending on your accent. Look, some of my best friends are Bostonians, it’s cool.

The Burns and Allen crossword works like a comedy duo, with the natural theme entries acting as the George Burns, the “straight man,” for the punny, madcap Gracie Allen clues. Nothing seems snarky when you look at the completed grids, only when you couple those grids with their clues. Here’s one by Greg Kaiser and Steven Ginzburg with the defining entry CAPITAL OFFENSES, (“Pun-crimes committed by the answers to the six starred clues?”) Each starred clue leads to a national capital: “Final resting place for old autos?” leads to KHARTOUM ["Car tomb"], “Father of the Ziploc?” to BAGHDAD ["Bag dad"], “Wide shoe specification?” to TRIPOLI ["triple-E"], “Recently opened sandwich shop?” to NEW DELHI ["new deli"], “Multiplyin’ by 2?” to DUBLIN ["doublin'"] and “Base of a fragrant tree?” to BEIRUT ["Bay root"].

Region capture 2Since the transformation in a Burns and Allen only affects the phrase’s meaning, not the phrase itself, there’s no parallel to the quilting puzzle above. But the capitals puzzle parallels the Oscars puzzle: both of their themes concern the theme entries’ original phrases. And just like the tagline puzzle, some Burns and Allens’ themes tie together their clues. In John Lampkin’s “Funny Business,” “Fishmonger’s workplace?” clues SCHOOL BUILDING, “Justice of the peace’s workplace?” clues HITCHING POST, “Cattleman’s workplace?” clues STOCK MARKET, “Matchmaker’s workplace?” clues CHEMISTRY LAB, “Dentist’s workplace?” clues FILLING STATION, “Racetrack owner’s workplace?” clues OVAL OFFICE, “Slapstick comedian’s workplace?” clues CORNFIELD, “Hard rock musician’s workplace?” clues METAL SHOP and “Ammunition supplier’s workplace?” clues POWDER ROOM.

The difference between a Groucho and a Burns and Allen is the difference between brazenness and refinement, between slapstick and wit. But a good comedy club owner books a little bit of each.

Then again, puns always bomb at the comedy clubs, so what do they know? They’re an un-re-wording venue!

[fails to dodge tomatoes]

Next week: the furry, funky freakshow.

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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4 Responses to CTS #13: The Punster Crossword

  1. Amy Reynaldo says:

    This article was a lot less painful than some of the more tortured pun themes.

    I think Poole said his friend had emailed a couple of the movie things, and he came up with the others on his own, unaware of the existence of Four Word Film Reviews. Maybe his friend didn’t visit the site either, and was just forwarding a forwarded email the way the 55+ age group likes to do (nearly always without source attribution). Who knows?

  2. joon says:

    interesting. i’d say that the burns & allen is neither a subset nor a superset of the pun theme, just an overlapping set. while i’m okay with saying that any pun theme is either a groucho or a B&A, there are some B&A themes that aren’t really about puns at all, and your lampkin “funny business” example is one of them. i guess it’s a pun theme if you consider homonyms (in your strictest definitional sense) to be puns, but i personally don’t. to me, puns = sound-alikes.

  3. JanglerNPL says:

    I haven’t contributed in a while, but I had several reviews accepted on fwfr…my favorite is probably “Triple play, numerous errors” for “Noises Off!”. If you want to try submitting, be forewarned, you’ll probably get a fair number of rejections often for seemingly capricious reasons, but hey, a lot of us are crossword constructors as well so we’re used to it :)

  4. JanglerNPL says:

    Gah, ate my comment…

    I haven’t contributed in a while, but I have had a few reviews published on fwfr…my favorite is probably “Triple play, numerous errors” for “Noises Off!”. If you want to contribute, be forewarned that you will probably have reviews rejected for seemingly capricious reasons, but hey, a lot of us are crossword constructors, so we’re used to it :)

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