Wednesday, March 10, 2010

Overcoming Dictionary Resistance

"It's de-lightful, it's de-lovely, I'm de-listing . . . "

Spring is nigh. Time to turn over a new leaf. I'm de-cluttering, downsizing the bookshelves and de-listing from on-line time vampires: the web of social networking (notworking?) groups and lists has gotten out of hand. Life is too short to spend on line, any more than is absolutely necessary.

This spontaneous de-listing was prompted by, among other things, Ammon Shea's book: Reading the OED: One Man, One Year, 21,730 Pages. MrShea devoted one year of his life to reading the entire Oxford English Dictionary--all 20 volumes. And he survived! The story is set in this beautiful and engaging book.

That's where I discovered that there's a word for Mr. Know-It-All on the music blog who thinks that J.S. Bach is an overrated composer. As an experienced cluing professional, I had always called upon my razor-sharp descriptive skills in referring to this man as--"that guy who doesn't know what he's talking about."

But deep into Reading the OED I came across this word:
  • ultra-crepidarian (n.): one who offers advice or criticism in matters beyond his scope; an ignorant or presumptuous critic.
Hah! A word that perfectly describes the object. An ultra-crepidarian (U-C) is the polar opposite of Mr. Shea. The U-C never consults the dictionary. In the on-line puzzle world, a U-C has never heard of . . . well, just about everything.

The ultra-crepidarian assumes a relationship between a candy bar and The Gift of the Magi . . . but refuses to look up either.

My impatience with this personality type is not rooted in his lack of knowledge on a certain subject--but rather, his refusal to look up anything. Fortunately, most of us aren't that bad.

Reading the OED celebrates, on a grand scale, what we word lovers have done since day one of our reading lives--we look up one word in the dictionary and come away with five more. We love them like potato chips--you can't look up just one.

Today I searched for GOBY (freshwater fish) in my little desk dictionary. Soon I was swept along India's GODAVARI river, then up to Germany's GODESBERG, where a GO-DEVIL (log-carrying sled) took me to GOD'S ACRE (a churchyard). Collateral words, all on one page.

With great pleasure, I add two new definitions for crossword regulars SHEA and OED:
  • Ammon SHEA: vocabularian, puzzle soul brother, and author of Reading the OED. He joins SHEA butter and SHEA Stadium (now Citi Field). A butter, a stadium name, a person--a nice variety of choices for the constructor.
  • Ammon Shea's "Reading the ___"   This is a new fill-in-the-blank clue for OED, according to Jim Horne's NYT clue database.  Jolly good. 
Solvers often ask: "Is it cheating if I look things up?" The answer is: No. "Cheating" is a myth peculiar to the crossword world, promulgated by ultra-crepidarians who want you to quit puzzle solving altogether. That high school bully who beat up the smart kids grew up to be the guy who makes you feel guilty for looking things up.

There's no such thing as cheating with a dictionary. There are no late-night booty calls. No Tuesday afternoon trysts at the Iroquois Hotel on 44th Street. Webster's Third doesn't care if your wife doesn't understand you.

If you choose not to consult reference materials and tough it out--I don't mind. Really, I don't.

But to graduate, say, from Wednesday to Thursday, it's necessary to isolate and learn Wednesday's problem answers. Focus on the 3- and 4-letter words. OONA, OLAN and OMOO will be back.

Solver's Takeaway: Look up just one word per puzzle (isolate the trickiest one) and I guarantee that your solving will improve exponentially.

For puzzlers with a recurring case of Dictionary Resistance, be gentle with yourself. No sharp movements, please! Slowly move away from the puzzle . . . and pick up a copy of Reading the OED. Word lovers will savor each chapter of Mr. Shea's book, as he makes his way from A to Zyxt.

If Mr. Shea can look up the entire OED in one year, we puzzle solvers can look up one puzzle word per day. We're all on the same page, right?

I don't own the 20-book OED collection . . . but as a member of the trade, maybe I can score a volume discount. I'm just sayin' . . .

Puzzle regular Anita O'Day sings "It's De-Lovely". . . it's delightful.


moseylou said...

Love the blog - and your puzzles.

Cannot WAIT to use the word ultra-crepidarian! It does seem that the online world brings out the ultra-crepidarian in people. I guess it's easier to be that way in the virtual world.

Elizabeth said...

Moseylou, how right you are--the virtual world is the perfect hiding place for the drive-by ultra-crepidarian ...

Thanks for your kind words, and for stopping by!

Joe Krozel said...

Paraphrasing page 82 of Dean Olsher's book "From Square One" ... Will Shortz is often asked whether it is cheating to use references to solve a crossword, and apparently he always answers with a quote from his predecessor (at NYT) Will Weng: "It's your puzzle. Solve it any way you want." I think that's the definitive answer on this subject! So, for instance, if your objective is to actually learn something new from your puzzle, you might have to look something up!

Elizabeth said...

When I'm asked the same question, I ask back: "Do you want to improve?" If the answer is "yes," then it's not cheating. If the answer is "no," then there's no debate.

Invariably, the answer is "yes," which suggests that folks who don't care about improving wouldn't ask the question.

I didn't have the pleasure of knowing Will Weng, but from what I've heard about him, he'd welcome my contrarian views and buy another round of drinks for all. :)

Elaine said...

My granny (from whom I caught the crossword virus) kept a dictionary--with a biographical gazetteer in the back; an atlas; and an almanac, on the sofa (oops, I mean davenport) where she always took her newspaper crossword puzzles. Everything sat next to her ashtray, cigarettes, and lighter. After she lost her eyesight, I read her the clues, gave the number of letters, and added any other information (such as the crossings) and she whipped out the answers. That's where I learned OLIO, URALS, and AGRA.

Elizabeth said...

Wow, Elaine . . . you've described the scene beautifully. I feel as though we're sitting across from granny's sofa watching solving unfold. You must be psychic . . . I just watched "Dr. Zhivago" and felt totally at home as the Yuri's train chugged towards the URALS.

I'm glad your granny's tradition was passed on to young folks who will, in turn, inspire others . . . BTW, the one reference book I buy each year is the almanac--it's endlessly fascinating.

Thanks for visiting!

Matt said...

I've discovered that many public libraries have subscriptions to the on-line OED. So, there's a good chance that all you need to peruse the OED at home is your library card.

Elizabeth said...

Matt, I will check out the NYPL system on-line OED. This never occurred to me. I don't think I'll manage to resist such temptation. :)

Thanks so much for your advice, and for visiting!