Ogee, nene, etui: An acrossionado's peculiar vocabulary


Sandisfield part-timer Michelle Arnot knows a lot of four-letter words. It's not what you think.

Arnot is an "acrossionado," a word she uses to describe a career spent solving, making and publishing crossword puzzles. Crossword constructors tend to develop a rather odd lexicon.

"The embarrassing truth is that my vocabulary is disproportionately skewed toward four-letter words. Not the naughty ones that have made themselves at home in print nowadays but the cute, oddball four-letter words that grout the grids of American crosswords," Arnot writes early on in "Four-Letter Words: And Other Secrets of a Crossword Insider."

The 2008 book offers examples of such head-scratchers, including "ogee" (a curved molding), "etui" (a type of case) and "nene" (a Hawaiian goose). These short words frequently appear in crosswords because of the requisite black squares that break up rows above and below the longer theme-oriented phrases. While these "filler" words can range from three-to-five letters, most of them are four letters, according to Arnot.

"They are the bane of the puzzle constructor's profession because they are unoriginal and have turned into cliches. In fact, crossword editors try to limit their number per puzzle. To the puzzle solver, however, they are good news. "They serve as stepping-stones into the grid," Arnot writes.

The author's entry point into crossword puzzle construction arrived during high school. An enthusiastic solver, Arnot was working on a New York Times puzzle before history class when her teacher, E. Ira Marienhoff, revealed that he had created it; there were no bylines on the puzzles at that time. He told Arnot that the Times' crossword puzzle editor would provide guidelines to freelancers upon request. Arnot was intrigued, but it wasn't until graduate school at Columbia University that Arnot began pursuing her passion for crosswords, spurred on by her husband, Roger Brown.

"He said, 'Why do you want to get a Ph.D. in French? Why don't you do something with puzzles? You're good at it,'" Arnot recalled him saying over coffee on a recent Monday morning in Great Barrington. She took his advice and submitted to The New York Times.

"I got the guidelines. I wrote a puzzle. And I got $20," Arnot said of her first sale in 1977.

Software allows for easier puzzle-making today than back then.

"I needed to get graph paper and a pencil," she said.

The Times' puzzle is 15-squares-by-15-squares Monday through Saturday and 21-by-21 on Sundays. Typical puzzle standards also require symmetry with no more than one-sixth of the squares colored black. Puzzle constructors build around themes that often span the length of multiple rows. The rest of the puzzle is the aforementioned "fill," the short words. Consequently, themes are how puzzle constructors can distinguish themselves.

"Cleverness," Arnot said of what makes her respect another puzzle-maker. "Recently, there was a really clever puzzle where some of the answers were written backwards. And then you just think, 'Wow, this person really is amazing, this constructor.'"

At Columbia, professor emeritus Dr. Eugene J. Sheffer recruited her to assist him with his King Feature Syndicate puzzle. At the time, Sheffer had dystonia.

"He couldn't hold a pencil," Arnot recalled.

She would visit him at his Morningside Heights home, where he had about 30 13-square-by-13-square grids.

"He would then say to me, 'I need you to create numbers 20 to 30, and I need them in two weeks.' I still have some of these patterns," Arnot said, noting that he paid her $5 for each puzzle she made.

She soon wrote "What's Gnu?: A History of the Crossword Puzzle," which Vintage Books published in 1981.

"Of course, every editor likes to do crossword puzzles," she said of her ease in finding a publisher. "And at that time, there was no history [of crosswords]."

Arnot, who also went on to pen "Crossword Puzzles for Dummies," delves into that history in "Four-Letter Words," as well. Sheffer inspired her interest in crosswords' past.

"He would regale me with how the puzzle started," she said of her late mentor.

Sheffer was born in 1905, eight years before Arthur Wynne published what is widely considered the first crossword puzzle, appearing in the Dec. 21, 1913, edition of the New York World.

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"It was just supposed to be a one-off thing, but he got a lot of good feedback, so he kept it going on a weekly basis in New York," Arnot said.

Readers began submitting their own crosswords, but they were often flawed. Eventually, Smith College graduate Margaret Petherbridge began managing the puzzles. Her expertise caught the attention of Dick Simon and Max Schuster, founders of Simon & Schuster. Petherbridge produced their first book, "The Crossword Puzzle Book." It took off, leading to more crossword puzzle books and establishing Simon & Schuster as a major publisher. It also broadened the New York activity's reach.

"It just exploded into a national craze," Arnot said. "People were just doing puzzles constantly. They had dictionaries on trains and all over the place."

Petherbridge later launched The New York Times' crossword puzzle, becoming its first puzzle editor in 1942. (By that time, she had married John Farrar, taking his last name.)

"She is really the person that we have to thank or blame [for crossword puzzles]," Arnot said.

Now, men have taken over crossword puzzle construction, according to Arnot.

"There's a huge influx of these tech guys [now]," she said.

It's a small community, mind you; Arnot estimated that there are less than 100 crossword puzzle builders today. Arnot and The New York Times' current crossword puzzle editor Will Shortz, for instance, emerged around the same time but took different paths.

"He's in the really deep end of puzzles. I'm like the mass-market person," said Arnot, who has worked as a publisher of puzzle magazines.

She still has tips. A solving course she taught at The New School informed "Crossword Puzzles for Dummies."

"Do not begin at one-across," she said of her first bit of counsel.

Instead, she advises puzzle-solvers to scan for fill-in-the-blank clues.

"If it's like, 'Notre-blank' — Dame. You get it quickly. That's the first thing you do. You look for the fill-in-the-blank clue, and that will give you a head start," she said.

Famous names are another easy access point; late poet Maya Angelou and actress Mia Farrow's first names are common solutions, "Four-Letter Words" reports in a "crosswordese" glossary. Some celebrities were once banned from puzzles, but Shortz, for instance, is less restrictive.

"Idi Amin was banished because he was a dictator, horrible man," Arnot said of the former Ugandan president. "But now, Will has allowed him in because his [name] — I-D-I-A-M-I-N — it's perfect for puzzles because it's alternating vowel with consonant. I'm always shocked when I see that he's allowed Idi Amin into the puzzle."

Arnot isn't one to overlook such an inclusion. She is a stickler for details, describing herself as a "compulsive speller" and "excellent proofreader." Completing crossword puzzles keeps her mind fresh and serves as an escape.

"You can't worry about the front page when you're doing the puzzle," she said.

Arnot enjoys other games, too.

"Until minutes before I came here, I was playing with Words With Friends," she said.

She encourages others to test their minds on a regular basis.

"Everyone is a solver of some sort of a puzzle," she said.

Benjamin Cassidy can be reached at bcassidy@berkshireeagle.com, at @bybencassidy on Twitter and 413-496-6251.


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