Tuesday, September 13, 2011

Stolen, borrowed or recycled: a setter's problem

A recent little scandal has raised some interesting issues for me regarding recycled clues.

A scandal in the world of crosswords? Yes really: a clear case of plagiarism. The affair is described in a little more detail than here (though in a rather garish display) by Dean Mayer, aka Anax.

In summary, one of the cryptic setters for The Hindu, a venerable and highly respected Indian newspaper, has been caught “borrowing”. Incidentally, the offence was detected not because the lifted clues were recognised but because of the awfulness of the other clues. The incompetently composed clues contrasted so radically with some of the others that the decent ones could only have come from different sources.

This sort of thing is rare, I assume and hope, but many cryptic clues nevertheless have a certain familiarity about them, so some people might well detect a slight whiff of plagiarism. This goes for my own clues and for others', so much so that I have at times wondered whether I have been guilty of inadvertant plagiarism myself.

I generally comfort myself in those occasions with the “great minds” theory.

The usual reason for the familiarity, I think, is the fact that some words almost dictate their clues. For example, it is hard not to see “cheese made backwards” or something to that effect for Edam. Indeed this one is not only obvious, it's hackneyed.

Obviously a conscientious setter can see and then avoid the hackneyed but to do so would not always be desirable. With my puzzles, for example, the target level of difficulty is not at the highest level (ie the puzzles should be solvable without recourse to a dictionary), so I am often happy that a simple old clue will give strugglers a handy toehold – a starter for ten as it were. After all, that it has been used many times before is not because of plagiarism, just obviousness, and it won't be obvious to those unschooled or unpractised in the solving arts.

Similarly, every time I discover a particularly nifty anagram for a common word, I naturally assume that some cryptic setter has discovered it before me. In that case, since I have tackled a fair number of crosswords as a solver in my time, there's a good chance I have seen it before too, but if I disallowed myself the anagram because of those possibilities I would be doing myself no favours and denying my solvers the pleasure of a nice clue too.

It has nevertheless happened that I have had to check recent papers when a nice whole clue, not just the wordplay, has leapt to mind effortlessly and unbidden. I rarely remember my own clues from week to week these days, but that wouldn't stop me retaining others just below the conscious level.

All these scruples are of little avail, however, when it comes to “plagiarising” my own clues. Obviously one can't really plagiarise oneself but “recycling” might carry similar connotations for some. In any case recycling has the danger that recognition might spoil the fun for a solver.

I was relieved then, though hardly surprised, to discover that the legendary Roger Squires recycles some of his clues. Mr Squires is best known for being the world's most prolific crossword setter, with more than 70,000 puzzles (cryptics and straights) and some two million clues under his belt. Obviously at that rate be must have clued the same words many times, so avoiding self-repetition in the clues would be almost impossible. It turns out that Roger Squires indeed keeps good records of all his clues, with time and place of publication recorded too, and thus is able to avoid repetition too close in either dimension.

I find it especially hard avoiding a recycle when the old clue is a particularly nice one. Any different clue is pretty much bound to be inferior and of course I don't want to drop standards.

My solution (and confession)? If the good old clue is more than 10 years old, I recycle, changing it a little if possible. If it's less than 10 years old I either struggle to develop something different – perhaps based on the same pun, anagram or whatever, but with a thorough change of structure – or simply change the answer word (and possibly – probably – a whole swag of surrounding words). That too is of course a struggle. Either way it makes my miserable life even more so.

This terrible situation is exacerbated by the 13-square grids I am obliged to work with at present which makes several three- and four-letter words pretty much obligatory in every puzzle. (I could avoid them entirely with more standard 15-square grids.) There are far fewer short words in the language than long. (In the Oxford Crossword Dictionary, for example, there are 3735 four-letter words and 20,874 seven-letter words.) Thus repeated words are even more common for me than for most cryptic setters. Do my agonies never cease?

Oh dear, never mind.

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