Strength for Today and Bright Hope for Tomorrow

Volume 6 : 2 February 2006

Editor: M. S. Thirumalai, Ph.D.
Associate Editors: B. Mallikarjun, Ph.D.
         Sam Mohanlal, Ph.D.
         B. A. Sharada, Ph.D.
         A. R. Fatihi, Ph.D.
         Lakhan Gusain, Ph.D.




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Copyright © 2004
M. S. Thirumalai


K. Parameswaran


Language is commonly defined as an arbitrary code, used in societies for the purpose of communication. We tend to focus our attention mainly to explain how information is communicated through language. However, a close examination will reveal that information is only one of the factors in the communication process. Emotions, feelings, acknowledgement, status, etc., are some of the other factors that are communicated through language. It is also possible to view all these as special kinds of information. However, the point to be noted here is that the communication of information is not the only purpose of language.

K. P. Kesava Menon, the famous Malayalam journalist, social reformer and writer, has described an interesting episode in his travelogue the "Bilathi visesam". He speaks of London bus conductors who accept fares from passengers with a bow and the expression "q". On enquiry, Kesava Menon realized that this "q" is a shortened form of "thank you".

Here, the conductor is not thanking the passengers for the money paid as fare, rather the "q" is the conductor's way of acknowledging the passenger and signifying the fact that the fare has been received.


In Kerala villages, a common mode of greeting, till a few decades ago, was the expression /kuLikkan puvvaa lee/ 'going for a bath, eh'. The man or woman concerned might be carrying a towel, soap, oil, etc., which made it quite clear that he was going for a bath to the village pond. So, obviously, the purpose of the enquiry was not to ascertain where the person was headed for, rather it was only a common way of acknowledging the presence of another person and a technique for opening a conversation on a neutral note.

In the Malabar area of Kerala, a common mode of greeting is the question / endundu visesam?/ 'what news?', which is answered /nalla visesam/ 'good news'. Here again the question is only an icebreaker and an acknowledgement, while the answer confirms the status quo.

Again, there are any number of stories of intrepid journalists who are able to ferret out political scoops from inane questions, like what is the weather, etc.


It is not the information contained in the answer, but that which is withheld that assumes significance. Communication becomes value added by the imposition of such layers.

All these are examples of instances where the communication of information, in the conventional sense, is not the purpose of language. This can happen in two ways:

  1. the information conveyed is not that which is indicated by the semantics of the communication;
  2. the purpose of the communication was not just the communication of information.


Discourse refers to 'language in use.' It involves the analysis of the dynamics of language. In a restricted sense, discourse can also be seen as the 'language of language,' wherein the 'technology of communication' becomes the focus of the subject.

In this study, discourse is taken in the second sense. Thus, the discourse of crossword puzzles becomes very specialized because of the exclusive nature of language use.

Discourse is analyzed also from the point of view of the 'context'. Thus, a text is placed in a context and it assumes a discourse value. The text may be placed in an adversarial position with regard to the reader or the crossword solver. Thus, the discourse value of the text becomes the deliberate difficulty of 'breaking a clue'.

Crossword puzzles are a special kind of language use or discourse. Whereas the prime purpose of language is the 'communication of information', crossword puzzles use language to 'inhibit communication'.


Charles Pierce has developed a comprehensive theory of signs, with the help of which crosswords can be seen in a linguistic perspective.

Pierce has defined a sign as a factor in the communicative process, where every object is signified as a sign. Each sign is only like a link in a chain, because each sign has the propensity to become an object. Thus, smoke is a sign of fire, fire, a sign of human habitation, and human habitation a sign of civilization, and so on.

In other words, any sign in the context of an object and an interpretant, can initiate a chain. For example, a spot on the skin is a sign of a disease; but the disease itself is a sign of a bodily imbalance, which again may signify some other external factor and so on down the line.

Pierce has distinguished between three types of signs - icon, index and symbol. An icon is realized as the similarity between the sign and its object. However, this perception of similarity is itself the result of a social convention. For example, two ten rupee notes having markings in specified places are taken as having the same value. But if the similarity is taken further and these notes also have the same serial number, their legality is questioned. In the words of Pierce, "an icon is a sign which possesses a character which renders it significant..."

An index and its object are related to each other by contiguity, causality, etc. Such relations also are dependent upon convention, habits, etc. Pierce says that "an index is a sign which will lose its character if its object is removed, but would not if there were no interpretants"

For example, a knock on the front door of a house is an index signifying a visitor. Even if no one responds to the knocking, the indexical quality of the process of knocking will remain and will assume significance.

A symbol can be realized both as a synonym for a sign as well as special kind of sign. Here also conventions and habits of the society play a role.

Against the background of the Piercian model, crossword clues can be seen to be indexical in nature. The clue and its answer are bound by features like causality, contiguity, etc. Again, the clues would retain their character even if there were no attempts to solve it. Thus, crossword clues fulfill both sets of criterion Pierce lays down for realizing the indexical nature of a sign.


It is in this context that the language of crossword puzzles assumes special significance. Here, language is not used for communicating an idea, but rather to hinder its immediate realization. In other words, the communication of crosswords is transparent; but the language is opaque. To realize the transparency of the communication, the opacity of the language has to be resolved first.

That is, the crossword puzzles use language primarily to withhold information. But, at the same time, the language also provides enough clues to find out what exactly is the withheld information.

Hence, the language used in such puzzles has a heavy lexical load and density. A minimum of information is presented; a large amount of information is withheld; the maximum of information is hinted at or suggested.

In short, the language of crossword puzzles present a paradoxical situation. A dense - and to some extent opaque - language, communicating a transparent idea!


Crosswords form part of a large variety of word and letter games. A common feature of this variety is that they involve manipulations of sounds, meanings and word arrangements.

In the past two centuries, innumerable varieties of word games have been developed. The most widespread of these varieties are the anagrams and the word squares. Anagrams are word games that turn on the reordering of spellings. Each word is re-spelt to form another meaningful word. Thus 'live' can be anagrammed as 'evil' and 'earth' as 'heart'. Larger groups of words like phrases and clauses can also be anagrammed. The word square derives its name from the fact that the clues of the game, when answered form a square, where the lines can be read in both directions.

The crossword is basically an elaborated form of the word square. Here, a diagram of black and white squares is given along with clues. The squares are filled with the answers to the clues, in an interlinking manner. The clues employ various features of the language like puns, anagrams, alliteration, portmanteau words etc. They are seldom direct and even a direct clue begets obscure answers - never the obvious ones.


The first cross word puzzle made its appearance in England in the 19th century. But it grew in all seriousness into a pastime in the United States. On 21.12.1913, the first crossword, as we now know it, made its appearance in the USA. It appeared in the Sunday supplement of the New York World. With 72 squares, the clues of the crossword formed 32 interlocking words in a diamond shaped block.

For quite a long period, the crossword was confined to the weekend editions. Later, in the 1930s, daily papers began to carry crosswords in their daily columns. The Times, The New York Times, etc are some of the papers that have developed the setting and solving of crosswords as a serious pastime.

In Malayalam, the crossword is yet to develop as a serious adult pastime. There is no paper, which carries a Malayalam crossword on a daily basis. Comparatively simpler crosswords, with direct clues, appear in children's magazines like the Balabhoomi, Balarama and the Kuttikalute Deepika. Crosswords dealing with specialized areas like literature, etc., appear in the special supplements of papers like the Mathrubhumi and Manorama. Kaithiri, a weekend supplement of the Manorama, devoted to language and literature, (now defunct) used to carry a weekly column on crosswords and other word games. Yojana, a monthly published by the Planning Commission in Malayalam, occasionally carries crosswords with clues culled from economics, development and current affairs.


As explained earlier, the language is used in crossword clues to hinder immediate realization of the correct answer. On analyzing the cryptic clue crosswords appearing in the New Indian Express daily (English, Trivandrum) for one week, it was found that compilers used 5 main kinds of techniques. They are direct questions, bi-partite clues, lexical clues, reordering clues, and allusion clues.

In the direct question clues, answering the question can fill the crossword. The questions will be framed in such a way as to mask the obvious answer and to test the reasoning prowess as well as power of vocabulary of the person attempting the crossword.


The clue 'major hurdles to aspiring car drivers' has the answer 'road tests'. It is a clear example of a masked answer. The question can take the form of a description such as a definition ('joint inflammation' - 'arthiritis'), a filling up process ('------- answer' - 'rhetorical'), or it can be self-referential too ('what this is all about' - 'words'). In the last example, 'this' is a self-reference to the crossword puzzle itself.

Another main type consists of bi-partite clues. Here, the clue is in two parts and the answer has to agree with both the parts. The clue of the second part can play the role of either restricting or expanding the clue of the first part. The answer may be of two parts, with the first part being the answer to the first clue and the second part being the answer to the second clue. The parts can be single words, clauses or phrases or a combination of both.


'You must not drive like this in restricted areas, whatever may happen': the answer is 'at any rate'. Here, the clue consists of a phrase and a sentence. The first sentence suggests that the answer is something connected with the entry to restricted areas. The second phrase makes it sharper, with the additional information that the speed of entry is also a factor.

'Fail to win over rest - and worry': answer is 'lose sleep'. Here the clue consists of a clause and a phrase. The second phrase gives a new dimension to the clue. The first clause provides the answer to the first part of the answer and the second clue provides the completion as an idiom.

'At one time, gobble up two table spoons': 'ounce'. Here also there is a clause and a phrase. The phrase is self-referential and the answer to the second clause has embedded in it the reference in the first phrase.

A third type of clues can be called lexical, because the resolution of the clues depends upon the meanings of certain lexical items in the clues. Often these lexical items are specialized ones, in the sense that they belong to subjects like archaeology or astronomy.


'Drinking vessels used experimentally' is such a clue. Here the answer is 'beakers'. The clue is a specialized lexical item used in science laboratories. The clue 'V for Romans' has to be answered as 'five - question of history. Another clue 'peculiarity that is unmatchable' is a description. This description can be resolved only on the lexical meaning of the terms peculiarity and unmatchable. These lexical meanings have to be included in a single lexical item and thus we get the correct answer 'oddness'. Odd is peculiar and it does not have a match!

Another clue of this type is as follows; 'balls that give us the goods'. Here the reference is to cricket where balls are delivered. Thus, balls have an extended meaning of 'deliveries'. The bringing of goods from one place to another is also 'delivery'. Thus, the specialized cricket terminology and the general sense of the clue can be co - located in the lexical item 'deliveries', which is the correct answer.

Yet another clue that falls in the same type is as follows; 'stories spun by spinners'. Here, the reference is to people who spin cotton, silk etc and also to the specialized use of the term 'yarns'. The cotton that is spun is called 'yarn'; stories repeatedly told by old people and storytellers (spinners) are also called 'yarns'. Thus, here also two lexical meanings are co located in a single lexical item.

Another type of clues has their solutions centering on the reordering of clues. The reordering may involve only one word, it may involve more than two adjacent words, or it may involve two or more separated words.

For example, in the clue 'destruction caused by one scattered bean' has as its answer the word 'bane', a reordering of the single word 'bean'.

Another clue 'deceived Edward; followed he - cat outward' is an example of a bi partite clue as well as one in which adjacent words have to be reordered. the answer is 'cheated'. The first part hints that the answer has something to do with deception or cheating and that it is in the past tense. In the second part, the suffix ---ed and the lexical item 'he - cat' can be reordered to reach a synonym of deceived, i.e., cheated.

The clue 'ability shown by Ken seems out of place' also involves reordering of adjacent words. The answer is ' meekness', a reordered version of 'Ken seems'.

In resolving the clue 'reps I'm putting off with a silly smile' involves reordering of adjacent words. The lexical meaning of the phrase 'silly smile' also comes into the picture in the resolution. The answer is 'simper'; it is a reordering of 'reps I'm' as well as a synonym of 'silly smile'.

The clue 'aim to return before getting half a mile in America' involves reordering separate words. The first part 'half a mile' provides one part of the clue - half of the word mile is 'mi'. The reference to America and the possibility that the answer might be some place name there helps in arriving at a solution. The term 'aim' that appears in America, conjoined with half a mile begets the place name 'Miami', which is the correct answer.

The clue 'colored part of that handy edition' involves reordering of adjacent words. The lexical meaning of the term 'colored part' and the reordering of the affixes ---dy and ed----, results in the correct solution 'dyed'.

The fifth kind of clues is allusions. Here the resolution can be done with the help of the allusions to other people, events, places, etc., which are implicit or explicit in the clues. For example one clue is 'milliners, they must be mad', is a bi-partite as well as an allusion clue. Since the solution depends on the word meaning of the rare word 'milliner', it can also be termed a lexical clue. "Milliner' refers to a person who makes hats. The second part of the clue is a reference to an incident in Lewis Carroll's famous novel "Alice in Wonderland," involving a character called the 'mad hatter'. Thus the solution is 'hatters'.

Another clue of this kind is as follows: 'they came in horses to ensure defeat'. Here the allusion is clearly to Greek history and the Trojan war, where enemies where defeated by Greek soldiers who hid themselves in false horses. Hence, the correct answer is 'Trojans'.


From the above analysis it becomes clear that crosswords use language in a special kind of way. Language is usually used to communicate or as techniques for socialization, but crossword puzzles use language to inhibit immediate realization of communicated ideas and information.

For this, crossword compliers make use of five kinds of techniques. These are direct clues, bi-partite clues, lexical clues, reordering clues and allusion clues.

From the point of view of linguistics, crossword language can be seen as a system of indexical signs. They are linked to the object by processes of causality or contiguity and they do not depend on a solver or reader of the crossword to justify their existence.


Orwell's 1984 : Language of Totalitarianism | Syntax and Semantics of Verbs of Communication in English and Tamil | Practicing Literary Translation -- Fifth Round | The Effect of Text Cohesion on Reading Comprehension | The Discourse of Crossword Puzzles | English and Bengali Interrogative Sentences : A Comparative Study | Language Viewed Clinically | A Socio-Pragmatic Comparative Study of Ostensible Invitations in English and Farsi | HOME PAGE | CONTACT EDITOR

K. Parameswaran
Department of Linguistics
University of Kerala
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