Tag Archives: Google

The training wheels are definitely still on: my repeated attempts to crack the code of cryptic crosswords

26 Jun

If there’s one language I’d really like to speak, it’s that of the cryptic crossword.  Those little black and white boxes taunt me from the corner of the newspaper, begging to be filled, if I only I could master the strange, impenetrable clues.  I see other people, including my mother, happily preoccupied for hours, even a whole weekend, wandering around with a folded newspaper in hand, trying to crack the mystery the crossword setter has laid out before them.  Quite frankly, I’m jealous; it’s a club to which I want to belong.

So every few years, I have another go at decrypting the code.  I’ve bought a book of crosswords, a book on how to solve crosswords, I’ve read articles and I even watched a documentary series about this very British hobby.

What I’ve managed to learn so far is that a cryptic crossword clue has two parts: one half of the clue is a literal definition, the other half the cryptic.  But a clue is much more than simply this mix of the literal and metaphorical: it’s often part poetry, part pun, part general knowledge and large part sheer puzzlement.   A great crossword clue is all these things in one – and there is many a time when, having found the right answer by fair means or foul, I am awestruck by the setter’s brilliance.

I give you this one, from my well-thumbed book: How to Master The Times Crossword

Eccentric as three-quarters of the characters in Fiji (5)

The answer?  Dotty.   Dotty is another word for ‘eccentric’ – so that’s the literal definition.  And three out of four of the letters of the name ‘Fiji’ are dotted, so it’s definitely a dotty word.   Clever, eh?

My current attempt to speak the lingo involves a Times cryptic crossword app and online access to OneLook, the brilliant site that scours several dictionaries simultaneously, and allows you to search with missing letters.  I will confess now that I am cheating – I try and solve the clues, and then use the ‘solve’ function on the app to see if I’m right.  If I’m not right (which is more often than not), I do enter the correct word to give me a few letters to help with other clues.  If I have a few letters but no idea otherwise, I might use OneLook to see there are any words fitting the pattern that make sense of the clue.   Crossword purists would probably hate what I’m doing – but my excuse is that I’m just learning!

I’ve discovered so far that I’m quite good at the anagram clues.  There’s usually at least one or two in each of the crosswords on the app.  I look for clues where there is a really strange phrase and see if the number of letters in the phrase matches the number of letters in the solution. There’s often a word like ‘mixed up’ or ‘change’ in the clue to indicate it’s an anagram as well.

Some of the anagrams I’ve solved so far are:

Marine attacker Cuba radar picked out (9)

My immediate thought was that ‘Cuba radar’ was a strange phrase and that it might be an anagram.  Playing round with the letters produced ‘barracuda’ – definitely a mariner attacker!  Way hey!

Pa’s nice girls get into trouble in Aussie town (5, 7)

I started this one by thinking about Australian towns – and the only one I could think of that was 5, 7 was Alice Springs.  But what did this have to do with ‘Pa’s nice girls’?  I noticed that phrase was 12 letters, and the ‘get into trouble’ could mean an anagram – and lo and behold, Pa’s nice girls rearranged itself perfectly into Alice Springs.

Letter-opener produced by Eppie and Frank working together (5, 5)

Again, I looked at Eppie and Frank and thought that looked quite unusual – and given the length of the letters involved, it could be an anagram for the 5, 5 solution.  ‘Paper knife’ appeared quite easily – although I could have got this from the first half of the clue!

I’m doing less well at other sorts of clues, but I’m managing to pick up a few from each crossword.

Diligent student’s grub (8) – I guessed this one was ‘bookworm’ and after a quick cheat, I was actually right!

Failure of explosive device (4) – I figured this one was ‘bomb’. It was probably the easiest clue I’ve come across so far!

I was particularly pleased to get this long clue:

Ready to start all over again – having landed on a snake? (4, 2, 6, 3)

Which I correctly figured out as ‘back to square one’.

This then gave me a ‘b’ as the fourth letter in this clue:

Various blood groups make up this extensive tree (6)

I tried to think about what blood groups I knew – A, B, AB etc – and then I remembered that there is an African tree called something like ‘baoabo’.  A quick search on Google produced ‘baobab’, which fit perfectly.  Hooray!

One clue that I blatantly should have got, but didn’t, was:

Seed said to be effective in opening spell (6)

I already had the letter ‘S’ at the start of this word from another clue.  ‘Opening spell’ made me think of Macbeth, so I looked up the opening scene to see if there was an ingredient that the witches hubbled and bubbled – but I couldn’t find anything.  I gave up and looked up the answer, which turned out to be the entirely obvious ‘sesame’ – which is both a seed and a spell “Open Sesame!” from Ali Baba!

And I wish I’d got this clue as it’s just so brilliant:

Childish housebreaker, one breaking metal fastenings (11)

The answer is ‘Goldilocks’, who was, according to the fairy tale, a child who broke into houses, and a gold lock is also a metal fastening.

I’m not sure this is a language that I’ll ever speak fluently, but I love the sheer self-satisfaction I feel when I get even one simple clue right!


Are verbs the English language’s avant-garde? On ‘verbising’ English

31 Mar


I read this great article on TechCrunch about “The 6 Verbs For The Next 20 Years Of The Connected World” – and it really got me thinking about verbs in general.

Are verbs the avant-garde of English?  Do we use verbs to push the boundaries of language?  Are verbs ‘early adopters’ of language change – and other parts of speech mere fast followers?

The reason I say this is that it seems to me that the trend of recent years is ‘verbisation’ – taking a perfectly good word, particularly a noun, and making it into a verb.

Just like the brand ‘Hoover’ has come to stand for any vacuum cleaner, and indeed the act of vacumning, we’ve seen Google and Facebook move from noun to verb – ‘Google it’ or ‘Facebook me’.   Google’s also achieved the same ubiquity as Hoover in that it just means looking something up on t’internet.

Here are a couple of other ‘verbisations’ that have crossed my path recently!  Or should that be ‘path-crossed’ me?

  • ‘Sunset’ – I’ve heard this used as a verb, carrying the meaning of ‘retire’.  ‘It’s about time we sunsetted that infrastructure’.
  • ‘Demise’ – I’m most familiar with ‘demise’ as a noun – ‘the demise of the Roman empire’ – but I’m increasingly hearing it used as a verb, with a similar meaning to ‘sunset’ above.  I did look this up – and to be fair, ‘demise’ actually appeared in English first as a verb, with the noun coming later.   As a verb, ‘demise’ has a meaning in legal circles – to give or transfer an estate by a will or a lease – so the modern usage of ‘demise’ as ‘retire’ is quite different.
  • ‘Forward’ – I’m used to this in the sense of forwarding a letter or an e-mail, but only today, I heard it used on the radio in the sense of ‘progress’: “We need to forward this project urgently”!  I was half-asleep in bed at the time, and was so surprised at this usage, I sat up!
  • ‘Onboard’ – I hate this word, but I have to admit it’s quite useful!  In my line of work, I understand ‘onboarding’ to be the process of inducting and training a new employee, or setting up a new customer on the system.  “We’ll start to onboard Mark next week” – and there’s no ship in sight!
  • ‘Gift aid’ – we have this great scheme in the UK called ‘Gift Aid’ that, with the donor’s permission, allows charities to write off the basic tax they might otherwise have to pay on a donation. So when making a donation recently, I was recently asked if I wanted to ‘gift aid’ it!
  • Sky Plus – in our house, we quite regularly say something along the lines of ‘I’ve Sky Plussed it’, meaning I’ve recorded it off the TV!

There are lots of people who’ll tell you this ‘verbisation’ is terrible , disgusting, and bad English.  But for me, this is exactly what I love about language – it allows us to play.   It’s like being set free in Legoland – all the building bricks you’ll ever want, and the opportunity to create anything with them.

And what could be more fun than that?  Or, in the spirit of this article, funner?

On spotting trends for your favourite clichés – warning: you could distract yourself for hours!

21 Mar

The Guardian’s Style Guide blog ran a brilliant article today about a little-known search feature within Google that allows you to see how words and phrases grow or decline in popularity over time. It’s the perfect tool to accompany any round of ‘buzzword bingo’!

To access the tool, simply search for any word or phrase – and then when the results are returned, you see a range of options on the left-hand side (e.g. pages from the UK).  At the bottom of this list is ‘More Search Options’ – and from that list, choose ‘Timeline’.

Google then searches Google Books and online newspaper articles – and will generate a little timeline graph of all the instances of that word or phrase.  (Remember to use “inverted commas” to search for every word in that phrase.)

There are countless examples in The Guardian article, and readers are encouraged to submit their own examples in the comments field.  I particularly like ‘the elephant in the room’, which is a phrase I first heard in about 2002.  It seems like the phrase really gained popular usage in the 1980s – and you can see its massive growth in the 1990s and 2000s.

The search engine isn’t 100% accurate as it can confuse a phrase used in a modern book about a historical event with a contemporary usage.  For instance, I looked up ‘mission creep’ – a foul phrase I learned when briefly contracting in the public sector that describes government and charitable bodies expanding their remit.  According to the timeline, ‘Mission creep’ first appears in 1550AD – but in reality, it appears to have been coined in the 1990s.

In honour of my football-loving husband, here are a few overused sporting clichés.

“Squeaky bum time” – I’ve heard this unattractive phrase several times in the last few weeks as the Premiership is still yet undecided.  The phrase was coined by Sir Alex Ferguson in 2002 – and we can see the usage of the phrase grow and grow across the rest of the decade.  The chart suggests it starts to fall out of usage in 2010 – but if the commentary on Radio 5 is anything to go by, this isn’t true!   I wish they’d stop using it.

“At the end of the day” (as meant in the same sense as ‘when all is said and done’) – this is harder to track as it also has a literal meaning – but if you view the timeline, you see a massive growth throughout the 1980s until the present day.  This usage by Princess Diana in 1995 is a good demonstration of its upward trajectory.

“It’s a game of two halves” – interestingly, this is a relative late-comer into the language.  Google identifies the first significant usage in an Independent article in 1995.  The phrase does grow in popularity – but appears to fall in and out of favour throughout the 2000s, and seems to be comparatively unfashionable at the moment.

“Bouncebackability” – many years ago, the TV show Soccer AM championed the word ‘bouncebackability’, a coinage by Iain Dowie, the then-Crystal Palace football manager in 2004.   People all round the country adopted the phrase and it became an in-joke to hear the word snuck into other communications, including the BBC Weather forecast!  I remember that one newspaper even started each feature with one of the letters of ‘Bouncebackability’, with the first feature starting with a ‘B’ and the last with a ‘Y’ and all the others in the right order in-between!

The phrase has remained pretty popular for the rest of the decade – with its top years being 2005 and 2010.  It would be interesting to analyse whether it had any seasonal usage – perhaps being used more commonly towards the end of a football season!

On ‘The Hare with Amber Eyes’

9 Mar

I’m currently about a third through Edmund de Waal’s ‘The Hare with Amber Eyes’, which tells the story of the various family members who have at one time owned a collection of over 240 netsuke that have since passed into Edmund’s hands.

As I’m fascinated with all things Japanese (see my earlier post about ‘kudos’), I’m more interested in the netsuke than the family saga – and I wish upon wish that I could see pictures of all 246 netsuke.  About nine netsuke have been photographed for the book – and the best I could find on the web was this seven picture collection that appeared in The Guardian.

The reason I’ve chosen to write about de Waal’s book is he keeps dropping in words that I don’t understand, dagnabbit.

The word ‘netsuke’ itself – I know (sort of) what a netsuke is and common sense dictates the word is Japanese in origin.  The OED gives its origin as “to attach a root”, which makes sense as netsuke were a type of toggle, used to fasten.   Interestingly, the first recorded use of the word in English is 1876, in a Victoria and Albert catalogue.  So around 20 years after Japan opened its border to trade with the West, ‘netsuke’ had already become collectors’ items, worthy of being exhibited in the finest museums.

Another word of which de Waal is extremely fond is ‘flaneurial’.  This seems to be a unique coinage as I can’t find it in any other dictionary – and to be honest, the only thing Google throws up is another blogger also commenting on de Waal’s excessive usage.  The word ‘flaneur’ does appear in English, with its meaning  derived directly from the French,  flâneur, a ‘loafer’ or a ‘stroller’. This noun is in turn derived from the verb flâner – “to stroll”.  De Waal uses ‘flaneurial’ to describe one of his ancestors, the first to own the netsuke, who was very much a man about town, and was sufficiently wealthy to pursue a lifestyle as an art collector and critic.

A second head-scratcher I came across in the book was ‘lambent’.  I had no idea what this meant – but the dictionary suggests it’s an adjective that effectively conveys the sense of a flickering light.  It’s a pretty obscure word, and if you google it, you’ll find the first few pages are either dictionary listings or are things like design firms or war-gaming sites, where people often enjoy antiquated language.

So one third of the book down, and two new words.  I’m sure there will be many more to go before the end!

How to access the full Oxford English dictionary online from home, for free and entirely legitimately!

15 Nov
Cover of "The Oxford English Dictionary (...

Cover via Amazon

The Oxford English Dictionary (OED) is the granddaddy of all dictionaries.  It’s not only the most comprehensive dictionary in the world, but it provides much more than simple definitions. What the OED does is show word histories – when did a word first enter the language, what did it mean when first used, how has the word’s meaning changed over time and so forth.

If you wanted to own a copy of the Oxford English Dictionary, you’d not only need a lot of money, but you’d need plenty of room.  The last full printed version (1989) ran to 20 volumes and 21,730 pages!

But it is possible to access the OED online – although paying for individual access is expensive.

However, there is a way to access the OED for free, from your own computer and it is entirely above board.  All you need is a card for your local library (this is UK only).

If you search on Google, or talk to your librarian, you’ll find that your local library has paid for access to the OED and many other resources – and all you need is the relevant web page on the library’s website and the number of your library card.

Once you click on the resource that you want, you’ll be asked to enter the number of your library card – and hey presto!

I’ve tried this with my local library service (Northamptonshire), which I found by googling ‘Northampton’ and ‘OED access’, and I can confirm that it works perfectly.


Among the other resources are:

and many more.  Give it a go!