Off topic: Puzzles - a passion for words
Thread poster: two2tango

two2tango  Identity Verified
Local time: 14:18
English to Spanish
+ ...
Aug 17, 2003

I would like to share this article from the NY Times magazines, today´s date


or my father's 70th birthday, I gave him a crossword puzzle. This summer, the 10th anniversary of his death at age 77, has me thinking about that puzzle again. It took a week of nonstop work to construct it. And it took a bit of nerve. Imagine Irving Berlin's daughter writing him a song. But my dad had taught me well, and I knew that he would be proud to see that I had fit a good 20 percent of the words into the theme, that I had had to resort to only two instances of crosswordese and that my diagram did not have more than 38 black squares. And how could he not be pleased by the definition of Nos. 1 and 2 Across: ''World's best dad.'' The answers were six and seven letters respectively: Eugene Maleska, of course, who was the New York Times crossword-puzzle editor from 1977 until he died on Aug. 3, 1993.

I was, in a sense, merely carrying on a family tradition. All his life, my father quite literally sent cryptic messages. He met my mother when they were freshmen at Montclair State Teachers College and wooed her with one of his first puzzles. The definition for No. 1 Across was ''Most beautiful girl on campus.'' When my brother and I were at camp, he sent us cryptograms. Christmas gifts came with long, clever tags -- riddles in rhyming couplets that often overshadowed the gifts. And for my wedding, he wrote a 100-line poem, a kind of blessing in doggerel, chronicling the new relationship with memorable lines like: ''Nathan asked, 'May I toast you with espresso?'/She blushed and said, 'Well, I guess so.'/He talked of British naval history,/Which to her had been a total mystery./She thought, This man is erudite;/I wonder if he's Mr. Right.''

He was an irrepressible gamester. My parents actually spent a good part of their honeymoon playing Scrabble. (Mercifully, my mother was a Latin scholar and an English teacher, so she thought this was fun, too.) Anagrams were almost an obsession. Helplessly, he would manipulate every sesquipedalian word he encountered until he had wrung all possible combinations out of it.

On any long car trip, he would invariably pipe up, ''Anyone for Scribble?'' (A word game much like Jotto.) It is a challenge for most people to mentally hold onto five- or six-letter words when they play this game -- and even then, only if the order of the letters in the guessed words matches that of the targeted word. My parents could play with seven- and eight-letter words, jumbled in random letter order. My father might take 10 minutes to make a guess. That's a long boring stretch for a 12-year-old in the back seat keeping score. But I realize now he was systematically flipping through whole mental dictionaries, categorized by word length, vowel placement and so forth, before venturing his response.

His wordplay went well beyond structured games. Silly rhymes and word gags seemed to pop out of him before even he knew what he was going to say. The way our family remembered the order of the two Cape Cod Canal bridges was, I imagine, unique: ''First you're Bourne, and then you Sagamore.'' He once suggested that my brother handle a bully by puffing up his chest and announcing, ''If you come near me, I'll expectorate in your countenance.''

And one of his real coups occurred while playing Jeopardy. He pulled a card and read with a completely straight face, ''Louisiana waterway named after the inventor of the sewing machine.'' My mother, a seamstress, went right for it: ''Howe's Bayou!'' ''Fine.'' My father could hardly contain himself. ''How's by you?''

It's hard to say how he got like this. He grew up in the 1920's, the only child of immigrant parents in a Jersey City row-house neighborhood. His mother was a pious Catholic housewife; his father, a prizefighter and train conductor. It's such an unlikely beginning for a crossword puzzle editor that I'm tempted to think he was just doomed from the start by something as trivial as the alliteration of his parents' names: Nellie Kelly from County Cork and Matthew Michael McCluskey Maleska.

More likely it's because his eight years of Latin study gave him great respect for the logic of language. And his parents, if not educated, were both bright and played frequent word games with him throughout his childhood. His father was a true eccentric, an unabashed word experimenter in his own right. Once when my brother broke his wrist, Grandpa went around for days repeating: ''Break an arm, break a leg, break a brack, brack a lack. . . . Brack a lack!'' For the rest of his life, he signed all family letters, ''Love, Brack-a-Lack.'' So there was obviously a screwy word gene in there somewhere.

My father began puzzling in his teens, on his long commute from Jersey City to Regis High School in Manhattan. Puzzles were a chance to fill in the vacuum nature abhors, he would always explain. By the time I was born, puzzling was simply part of his daily life. He would work a full day as a New York City school principal and eventually superintendent, and then come home to his worn swivel chair and spend the next few hours dropping pipe ashes over a slew of dictionaries spread out at his feet as he scribbled on a clipboard.

It was fun, but not all fun to him. At heart he was an educator. He always said that puzzles were a painless way for people to learn. When we were in elementary school, he dubbed a street near our home ''Vocabulary Road.'' Every time we took it, he had to teach my brother and me a new word. That is probably why I was the only sixth grader who knew the meaning of ''vituperative'' or that the root of the word ''phlegmatic'' was the ancient Greek humor, ''phlegm.''

As we were running errands recently, my sixth-grade son asked from the back seat, ''Why do they call it 'decapitate'?'' He was reading a manual for a computer game. What a chance! ''Caput means 'head' in Latin,'' I explained. He added immediately, living up to his Mr. Dictionary school nickname: ''And de means to take away. I get it.'' I couldn't stop there. ''Why do you think the name for a leader is 'captain'?'' As we talked, I realized something important had just happened. Dad was still at it. One Vocabulary Road had led to another, and there was no end in sight.

Merryl Maleska Wilbur is a writer and textbook editor who lives on the North Shore of Boston. William Safire is on vacation.

Copyright 2003 The New York Times Company | Home | Privacy Policy | Search | Corrections | Help | Back to Top

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mónica alfonso  Identity Verified
Local time: 14:18
Member (2004)
English to Spanish
+ ...
Gracias por compartirlo Aug 17, 2003

Chicos, lo disfrut'e horrores. Como ver'an no tengo acentos por estas latitudes, pero no quer'ia dejar de contarles que sigo estando en contacto, como siempre, est'e donde est'e. Uds son mi GRAN familia.
Hasta una lagrimita se me escap'o en ciertas l'ineas, no les miento.
Gracias de nuevo.

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Narasimhan Raghavan  Identity Verified
Local time: 22:48
English to Tamil
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Happy to see that the tradition continues Aug 18, 2003

Your posting is really heart-warming and it lifted my spirits. It made me think of my father, who was a reporter in "The Hindu", a newspaper in Madras, India and my mother, who had no academic degree to boast of but was self educated and taught me the rudiments of English and Hindi grammar. Once my mother asked my father, whether a certain report in the paper was written by him (in those days reporters were not allowed to affix their names to their reports). My father was amazed and asked her how she found it. She replied that she was able to understand the report in toto. In later years during the 19 lonely years my father spent after his wife's death, he used to talk to me about this incident, whenever he was emphasizing the need to write simple English. He said that this was the best compliment he had ever had and of this he got a lot from many prominent persons in his professional life.
I am glad to see that the joint effort is continuing in your professional life. I wish you all the best.

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