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August 1, 2016

Why can't the Americans learn to pun?

(Prepare for the most first worldly of all problems.)

The New York Times Puns and Anagrams puzzles are a national embarrassment. Pardon my bluntness, but I’m a truth teller.

The clues in the British version provide a definition and a clever, hidden way of constructing the word. The NYT version sometimes does but sometimes just has the cleverness.

For example, in yesterday’s NYT Puns and Anagrams puzzle [SPOILERS AHEAD], the clue for 48 Down is “Fill time on stage again.” The answer is “revamp” because to fill time on stage is to vamp, and to do it again is to add “re” to it. But there’s no definition of “revamp” in the clue. In the British style, it might have been “Do over once again to fill time on stage.”

Another example: 57A “Fire starter” is “bon.” For the Brits it could have been something like “Good French fire starter.”

Adding the definition usually makes the clues harder, and thus more satisfying to solve. Sure, the definition is in them, which should make them easier, but that information becomes noise because with a good clue, you can’t tell which is the definition and which is the hint. When you can tell — e.g., when words in the clue seem oddly chosen, they may be there as an anagram — the clue gets easier, but that’s just fun getting even a little more meta.

And while I have your attention, let’s work to slow global climate change. Or, as the Brits might put it, “Climate activist may ogle sun god.” Answer: ogle + ra = Al Gore. See, wasn’t that fun? No. Ok, good point.

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