David Carlson: Fancy a crossword?

There must be a particular type of person who is drawn to crossword puzzles. First of all, people who spend part of each day on crossword puzzles must love words. I suspect that if a person doesn’t like words — the sound of them, their meanings, their spelling — that person would shy away from crossword puzzles.

In school, I always looked forward to spelling contests. On the other hand, I always struggled with mathematics. Not surprisingly, I’ve never been tempted to even try one of the many number puzzles that are available.

In contrast, I’ve rarely met a crossword puzzle I didn’t like. That is not to say that I solve all the crossword puzzles that I’ve begun. Not by a long shot, but I experience a rush of joy when, on a really hard crossword, I’m able to fill in just a few of the boxes.

That’s true of the Sunday crossword in the New York Times. In a good year, I might be able to finish one or two of them without help from a dictionary, a computer or my very knowledgeable wife. I might be able to finish another four or five crosswords per year when I seek help from those founts of wisdom. That leaves another 45 Sunday crosswords that stump me. No matter; just trying gives me a great deal of pleasure.

I know there are people who take crossword puzzles to another level. Not only do they solve the hardest puzzles without any help, they time how long it takes them to solve those puzzles and post their times online. I read somewhere that Bill Clinton is one such crossword wizard.

But recently, I realized that there are yet others who live even higher up on the Mt. Olympus of crossword puzzles. They are those who create the puzzles. Just think of the skills that they must possess. First of all, they must be able to find words that fit together left to right and top to bottom. Second, they must be able to do this not just a few times, but up to a couple hundred times for a complicated crossword. If anyone reading this column thinks that is easy, I invite you to try it.

But the challenge facing crossword creators doesn’t end there. A necessary third skill for crossword puzzle creators is an ability to offer word clues that can be puzzles in themselves. Take the clue “fancy” for a six-letter answer. Now the fun begins. Is that the verb “fancy,” the noun version, or “fancy” used as an adjective? Is the clue to be taken literally or as a clever pun? (I’ll give you a hint. The third letter of the six-letter answer is “n.”)

The jury seems to be out on whether or not working crosswords on a regular basis can help a person avoid dementia. What I do know from personal experience is that my brain experiences a rush of endorphins when I solve a crossword puzzle clue that has eluded me for hours or sometimes days.

So, hats off to the folks who create crossword puzzles, from the folks who create crosswords for grade-school students to the folks who create puzzles for the Bill Clintons of this world. Please continue to challenge us. You give millions of us joy every day.

Oh, by way, the six-letter answer to the “fancy” clue is “ornate.”

David Carlson of Franklin is a professor emeritus of philosophy and religion. Send comments to letters@dailyjournal.net.