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Answers depend on how you define 'define'


I n a recent "My Turn" column, I poked good-natured fun at what I suggested were ridiculously obscure terms and hints in the New York Times crossword puzzle ("New York Times crossword eats egos for lunch," Dec. 26). Suddenly, my e-mail lighted up with polite but disgruntled letters not only from the group called CRU, a forum of crossword enthusiasts, but also from Will Shortz, the editor of the New York Times crossword himself.

Rather than being stuffy and (as one member put it) "good-natured prima donnas," these likable people just wanted to point out that I misunderstood how modern crossword puzzles are put together. Shortz wanted to emphasize that he tries hard not to be obscure and unfair to his readers.

I have certainly learned a lesson, though I can't remember whether it was 6-down or 34-across. It is that for every topic and human activity, there is a group of defenders ready to do battle to protect and uphold that particular faith. I seemed to have inadvertently run into the American crossword militia.

I have on my desk a list of topics and their defending groups that a humorist has to be wary of. (Proper English would be "of which one has to be wary." I know that the English teacher brigade is out there somewhere watching and keeping score.) The list includes religion, bridge, chess, disease, terrorists, puppies, and now, crosswords.

Not that crosswords don't have a funny aspect or that their enthusiasts are not good-humored. The fact is, they are such a bunch of good guys that I don't want to offend them by teasing them about their passion; "passion" being defined by Andrew Swanfeldt's "Crossword Puzzle Dictionary" as "fire, fury, zeal," and by "Bradford's Crossword Solver's Dictionary" as "ardour, fervour, mania."

Bradford's definitions, by the way, will drive the New York Times people to distraction. Bradford spells "ardour" and "fervour" with a "u," because it is published in London, where they do such inexplicable things with their language as add letters where extra letters are not necessary.

Note that I didn't include politics in my list of humor no-nos. Politics is the ultimate source and most legitimate target for the majority of humor on the planet. So I think we can make an exception to the dictum that one ought not to discuss religion and politics in polite company.

While religion may not be a barrel of laughs, politics and those comedians called politicians certainly are. They have, after all, their defenders called political parties -- a party being defined in "Webster's New World Dictionary" as "a group assembled for amusement or recreation." Kind of like a circus troupe.

Remember, these are the same people who have a hilarious time using our money for outlandishly expensive dinners, vacations disguised as political junkets and trying to develop practical joke propositions and ballots incomprehensible to the average voter.

But getting back to the New York Times crosswords, editor Shortz and the fellowship of the CRU objected to my characterization of many of the puzzle terms as "obscure". I went back to the half-erased and well-chewed puzzle of Dec. 29 and looked again.

Clues included: 29-across, "Article in Die Zeit"; 47-across, "Verse, part 2"; 60-down, "Central principle of Baha'ism."

Ladies and gentlemen of the jury, I rest my case.

Victor Chaney is a substitute teacher in the Beaverton School District and a freelance writer. His humor vignettes appear regularly in Mature Living Magazine.

©Copyright 2003, The Oregonian (OR, USA)

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