May 9th, 2016

Crossword clues that are fit for young and old by Rose Wild

Ian Baird from Framlingham, Suffolk, is worried that some seismic shift may be occurring in our cryptic crossword traditions. “Some years ago,” he writes, “I pointed out to you the difficulties young people would have solving The Times crosswords, owing to the fact that the setters were stuck in a time warp of about 70 years ago.” As evidence, Mr Baird referred to the setters’ convention of using slang from the 1940s, or earlier — like “SA” or “it” to mean sex appeal.

Now he’s got a different problem. “Old folks like me are used to the style, and so when I saw a clue about sexual appeal last week, I tried ‘SA’ and ‘it’. In fact the answer required us to know that to say someone is ‘fit’ means he or she has sex appeal, which as far as I am aware is a coinage from about three years ago.” What was more, he wrote, “In the same crossword, the word ‘moon’ was used to mean expose one’s bottom. If the crossword setters are going to use 21st-century slang, how are old buffers like me expected to finish them?”

Oh dear, what a worry. I asked Richard Rogan, The Times crossword editor, if the crosswords were having a midlife crisis. “It” and “SA”, he concedes, may well have outstayed their welcome. “The excuse offered is that they are so useful to the setter and in any case are part of ‘crossword convention’. Indeed the meaning of ‘moon’ (another useful one for us) goes back further than imagined, and ‘fit’ has meant more than just ‘highly trained’ for longer than one might think.”

To find out just how long, I went to Jonathon Green, whose majestic three-volume Green’s Dictionary of Slang must surely have the answer among its 100,000 or so entries. Under “fit” for good-looking, Green gives recent citations including Victor Headley’s 1992 novel, Yardie — “Dat girl yah fit, you know” — along with an example from San Francisco University High School from 2005. Further back, though, is a citation from 1884, in a novel by Henry Hawley Smart, From Post to Finish, A Racing Romance.

Smart was a military sort who, having served in the Crimean War and during the Indian Mutiny, lost all his money on the horses and made a second career writing “popular” fiction, largely drawing on his knowledge of racing, hunting and the Army. The particular citation for “fit” — “Blame me, I do know whether they’re turned out all right when I see ’em, and mean my girl to look as fit as any of ’em” — sounds to me as if it could equally apply to a horse as a woman, but if Green says it’s a human filly I’ll believe him.

Either way, I think “fit” passes muster as both ancient and modern slang for crossword purposes. “The dictionaries are our guide,” Richard Rogan says. “When they decide that a term is either archaic, or to be dispensed with, then we would probably reflect that. Similarly once a newer meaning has made it into the latest edition, then it is probably a signal that we can adopt it. Having said that, both ‘bling’ and ‘selfie’ have made it into our crossword in recent times before their debut in the ‘paper’ dictionaries.”