Classics and pop culture / News / News & Events

Classical Cruciverbalism and Ciceronian Cross Words

There was widespread excitement last weekend (widespread within some very restricted circles, admittedly) when it emerged that The Times newspaper was reviving its Latin crossword after 85 years. To be published weekly in the Saturday edition, it is entitled ‘O Tempora,’ an allusion to “O tempora! O mores!,” the famous exasperated exclamation of that foremost Latin stylist, Cicero, once punningly translated as ‘O Times! O Daily Mirror!’ The intention, stated in the accompanying leader (NB: paywall), is “to preserve and amplify everything that is most appealing about learning the language: its oddness, its rigour, the Romans’ spirit of whimsy and affection for wordplay.”

This has been described (largely affectionately) by many as an instance of the Times ‘Out-Timesing’ itself, and it is interesting that the motivation suggested in 1930 for the previous Times Latin crossword was the “exhilaration and the stimulus of feeling oneself a clever fellow.” This justification is not wholly rejected by those reviving the tradition: in advocating learning Latin, the leader article speaks of the enjoyment in “sending the mind cartwheeling” and concludes that the best argument for Latin is not its utility – “the challenge of it all is enough.”

O Tempora, O 12 Across!

The first of many?

There is an implication that this sort of mental athletics and logical dexterity is what is required to enthuse (and even justify) the teaching of Latin. Elsewhere in Saturday’s edition, the relaunch of a Latin crossword was connected to the resurgence of interest in Classics generally (citing Mary Beard and Robert Harris at the forefront) but also specifically to the return of Latin teaching in schools, with twice the number of state and private schools offering the language now as compared to in 2000. The leading article talked disparagingly of the “boring” Latin of the ‘Caecilius est in atrio’ type, which strikes some as “a pointless exercise in brain-breaking tedium.” Another recent revival of Latin word puzzles asks its readers “Did you know that Latin language can be fun?

That learning Latin should be enjoyable and challenging is something we can surely all agree on: The Times’ underlying implication – that the Classical languages are worthwhile pursuits in their own right as intellectual exercise – has strengths and weaknesses. We certainly shouldn’t judge everything by pragmatic utility, but in many ways, and for all sorts of socio-historical reasons, using the grammar, the logic, the intellectual rigour as a way to justify the study of Classics is far from the best method, and more than a little outdated. All that, however, is a debate to be had elsewhere: in terms of crosswords, Latin as “a lovely thing to do” fits perfectly. Why would someone want to do a crossword, let alone a cryptic one, unless “the challenge” were enough? It might not serve to justify an entire academic discipline, but it’s certainly sufficient to justify an intellectual interest, a Saturday-afternoon diversion, a puzzle.

If there is anything that has an affinity with a language which (according to The Times) “beautifully balances logic with human eccentricity,” it is the cryptic crossword. Though they seem “all Greek” to some, cryptic clues rely on the solver reading sentences and words in different ways, toying with grammar and logic and, in short, “sending the mind cartwheeling.” While it is not just The Times who have revived it recently, the connection with the Classical languages goes a long way back: while The Times Latin crossword of 1930 was a one-off (albeit followed by one in ancient Greek a few weeks later), the BBC magazine, The Listener, regularly published Latin, and occasionally Greek, puzzles until its closure in 1991. Famed for its unconventional formats and themed puzzles (including this on Virgil’s bimillenium), The Listener crossword was in fact subsequently rescued from extinction by The Times, where it continues to this day.


John Galbraith Graham, a.k.a. Araucaria (By Steve Caplin, via Wikimedia Commons)

Even ‘regular’ cryptic crosswords will occasionally use some Latin: a solver might be expected to know, e.g., their Roman numerals, or for that matter ‘e.g.’ and ‘i.e.’ The debt is noticeable among setters’ pseudonyms too: the greatest of recent times chose ‘Araucaria’ as his pen-name, as it is the Latin (OK, scientific¹) name for the monkey-puzzle tree. He was also, albeit briefly, a Cambridge Classicist, before the Second World War interrupted and he switched to Theology. Others use more overtly Classical allusions: David Moseley goes by ‘Gordius,’ after the inventor of the famed puzzling knot; Sarah Hayes likens setting crosswords to weaving a web and so goes by the name ‘Arachne’ (she was also once an amateur weaver). On the other hand, Private Eye’s ‘Cyclops’ has a name well suited to the publication he appears in. Michael Curl, a setter for the Financial Times, chose ‘Cincinnus’ as his pseudonym, the Latin for ‘curl;’ the setter ‘Crispa’ also chose a Latin name based on her hair – in fact, she liked it so much she made it her official surname after a divorce.

As always with cryptic crosswords though, don’t take everything at face value: The Guardian setter ‘Rufus’ – a name with good Roman pedigree – in fact disguises the initials of ‘Roger F. Squires’ (although his pseudonym in The Independent, ‘Icarus,’ does refer to a crash while in the RAF). A similar inspiration seems to lie behind Paul F. Henderson’s ‘Phi.’ The Independent is a veritable hotbed of misleading setters: ‘Hypnos’ seems to be a clear reference to the Greek god of sleep, but it is not so straightforward. Setter Philip Marlow makes all his pseudonyms reference his literary namesake, Philip Marlowe, Raymond Chandler’s sleuth in The Big Sleep. Most confusingly of all, according to the man behind it, ‘Virgilius’ refers not to the famed poet, but to a medieval Irish monk known for his word puzzles!

Let this be a reminder, then, to keep an open mind, and to question everything. As to whether this dissection of logic and of “human eccentricity” owes more to the study of Latin or of crosswords, I leave for the reader to decide.

1 – the ‘Latin’ name itself is formed from the indigenous name for an area of Chile (Arauco), so I admit this is perhaps tenuous as a Classical allusion.


2 thoughts on “Classical Cruciverbalism and Ciceronian Cross Words

  1. Former Classics teacher John McKie set crosswords for the Glasgow Herald under the name ‘Myops’, a reference, so he said, both to his short-sightedness and the Socratic gadfly.

  2. That’s a good one. I was a little surprised at how few setters had a ‘professional’ Classics link, but I should of course have mentioned (alongside Araucaria’s what-might-have-been Classics degree) two of the most famous crossword compilers, who are also (Cambridge) Classicists – Azed (Jonathan Crowther) and Ximenez (Derrick Macnutt). As well as being the most influential crossword ‘theorist,’ Macnutt also continued teaching Classics as a day-job!

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