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Puzzle Solution #17: Pardon My French

 Henry James's novellaI hope you solved my most recent puzzle and I hope you weren’t as disappointed as I was by its use of a variant spelling of one of its answers.

“Huh?” you are probably thinking, “You created the puzzle. How is it you are disappointed by an answer you yourself chose to use?” I’ll explain (and try to justify my choice), but first let me encourage those of you who have not yet experienced the satisfaction of blowing quickly through the enigmatically-named Ars Poetica to do so at your earliest opportunity.

Spoiler space

This video provides a lot of spoiler space. Probably some sort of record amount, but if you are here to see the solution and read a fascinating account of my utter bewilderment regarding one particular answer, a quick [PageDown] keypress will get you to where you want to go. If you haven’t yet done it, c’mon, play along at Ars Poetica.

The solution

(Image courtesy XwordInfo.com.)
Puzzle solution.

A crossword crime?

What possessed me to use CHAPERON as an answer? Or should I say, “who did?” Will Shortz is who. A word list I use in constructing my puzzles is derived in part from words used in past New York Times puzzles. Variant spellings of words are used occasionally, but (ideally) only as a last resort and, usually, they are indicated as such by the use of “: Var” after the clue. As I constructed my puzzle, the word CHAPERON came up as an option that fit well with other words I wanted to employ. I did not look closely enough at it to realize it wasn’t CHAPERONE. If I had, I would not have used it.

But I completed my puzzle to my own satisfaction and happily sent it to a small number of solvers. Immediately, several pointed out my error in spelling (one or two may have recognized that it wasn’t an error per se, only a less-than-ideal alternate spelling of the word; its French form).

Click this imageI was completely gobsmacked, thinking it was a misspelling plain and simple, and that I had no choice but redo a significant portion of my puzzle. I probably should have just done so, but I had to check: how had the word made it onto my list? What I found was surprising. It had been used four times in Will Shortz-edited NYT puzzles (which is to say, since 1993) and nine times prior to his editorship. The preferred spelling (according to Merriam-Webster and, surely, everyone else) has never appeared in a Will Shortz-edited NYT puzzle. And as far as I can ascertain, just once before his time–in 1963.

So what is happening? Is CHAPERON overtaking CHAPERONE as the preferred spelling of this word? Google says no. In fact, it says the opposite (click on the image for an illuminating four-image slideshow). In Google’s survey of books published since 1800, CHAPERONE is only recently winning out. What is happening here? Maybe it all comes down to one of Henry James’s more obscure novellas, The Chaperon, published in 1891.[1]

I am insanely curious about this. Why the consistent use of the less-preferred spelling of this word–never once qualified as a variant? For years I used imagine every so often I had caught Mr Shortz in an error. A little research always proved I was the one in error. I’m sure he makes rare mistakes, but this is not one of them. There is something about the rules conventions governing this sort of thing I just do not understand.

Crossword misdemeanors

Okay, briefly (an exhortation to myself soon to be ignored), some thoughts about other aspects of this puzzle:

Tone deaf. It was pointed out that cluing DTS (Delirium tremens) jokingly is not a good idea. This is no joking matter. I paid for it. Karma.

Awkward. A very accomplished constructor advised me to change WAVE IN/WONKS to CAVE IN/CONKS. I believed I had recently used CONKS in a puzzle (turns out I may have been wrong about that–I used ZONKS in #16), so if I had reworked the grid, I might have used HAVE IN/HONKS. I did find WAVE IN awkward to clue.[2]

Barbarian! A friend who earned an almost worthless Latin degree in college chafed at my use of the Roman numeral LMI. I asked for an explanation and he wrote (in part):

What I meant by “they don’t work that way” is that the subtraction notation only works with powers of ten being subtracted (I, X, and C, but not V or L). In addition (no pun intended), you may not subtract a number from one that is more than 10 times greater. Thus, you can write IX for 9, and XL for 40 or XC for 90, but not IL for 49, or XM for 990.

He suggested I could replace “quaintly” in the clue with “to Cato’s innumerate cousin,” which is genius.

I hate the use of Roman numerals in any case. I believe this is the first time I have resorted to them (and, apparently, I failed). This sort of technically incorrect use is accepted all the time in puzzles (and elsewhere), so I am okay here. (Or, like Donald Trump, I choose to call black white anytime it serves my purposes.)[3]

Copycat? R-AND-R has been used many times as an answer; at least once as a “theme revealer” as in my puzzle. Other aspects of that puzzle are not similar to mine (it was created by Steve Kahn and published in the New York Times on June 4, 2007).[4]

Obscuria.[5] ROPE AND RIDE is a pretty weak theme entry. The phrase does exist, but it is fairly obscure to most of us. I had doubts about RACK AND RUIN (thinking WRACK might be preferred), but it seems to be fine. I didn’t love my clue for it.

Pinwheel gridCopycat? Speaking of copying, I stole the idea for my grid from one highlighted in the recent crossword-world plagiarism scandal.

Arse poetic? The nonce title was suggested by a friend. It is from Horace’s work Ars Poetica and is deliberately misleading.

Recent Crosswords:
04/24/2020 #k1: Meadow’s First!
04/20/2020 #24: Roadside Attractions?
02/20/2020 #23: World’s Smallest!
06/20/2018 #22: Northern Dialect
01/30/2018 #21: Special Editions
10/10/2017 #20: Saints We’d Like to See

   Complete Crosswords


  1. One hypothesis is that CHAPERON’s eight-letter length makes it more likely to be useful to a constructor than the nine-letter CHAPERONE. But why then the several occurrences of CHAPERONS? [^]
  2. I could have clued WAVE IN as a baseball term, as in a third base coach “waving in” a runner. Likewise I could have clued DTS from football (defensive tackles). But I think sports terms are overused in crosswords and prefer to avoid them when possible in puzzles not themed around sports. [^]
  3. I could be wrong about the use of “technically incorrect” Roman numerals. My LMI has been used twice, but not since the 1950s. [^]
  4. I do not have access to any databases of non-NYT puzzles. I would be surprised to find this R-AND-R theme hasn’t appeared elsewhere as well. [^]
  5. This faux-latinish plural of “obscure” is sure to chafe someone. Heh heh. [^]

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