Mixed Messages

Cross words

BMJ 1994; 309 doi: https://doi.org/10.1136/bmj.309.6970.1737 (Published 24 December 1994) Cite this as: BMJ 1994;309:1737
  1. D R Appleton
  1. Department of Medical Statistics, Medical School, University of Newcastle upon Tyne, Newcastle upon Tyne NE2 4HH, head.

    Seal up the mouth of outrage for a while, Till we can clear these ambiguities—Shakespeare, Romeo and Juliet

    As a fairly compulsive crossword solver, I derive a great deal of enjoyment from the wonderful double meanings and grammatical contortions in the English language. A clue in a crossword which I saw the other day hinged on the metal cap protecting a sewer being not a manhole cover but a thimble. Another merely said “Beach wear. (7,7)” and the answer, instead of being BATHING COSTUME, was COASTAL EROSION. For some reason it pleases me that you can have a catch in your voice while giving voice to a catch, and a good catch in the nets might mean quite different things to anglers and cricketers. Prepositions can be used in so many different ways that you can, for instance, treat patients with piles or with pills. All these features of the language add to the richness not only of informal conversation but of literature—think of Dylan Thomas's “sloe-black, slow, black, crow-black … sea.”

    Ximenes (not the one from the Spanish Inquisition, but the one who composed crosswords) said that a good clue only had to say what it meant —it did not need to mean what it said. But when people wish to impart information they have to avoid ambiguities, even if one interpretation is more likely than another. A radio announcer who talks of silent film music might be given the benefit of the …

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