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CONTEXTUALLY YOURS (article first published : 2002-05-3)

Pray silence for a minute, in memory of an old friend of mine who has died at the age of 75. The strange thing is that I didn’t know his name until I read his obituary in the Weekly Telegraph; it was Bert Danher, and he was a crossword compiler for many years, starting at the Guardian in 1974. He is described as the Telegraph’s “greatest inventor of anagrams”, and the example given is “World Cup team” for “talcum powder”! Not bad.

But he had another attribute as a compiler: “he particularly enjoyed linking two clues so that the solutions created a homophone”, and this is why I lament the passing of an old friend. There is an example of this device at the head of this column: the first clue across would be “Hay” and the second “Kind of hat”, giving “straw” and “beret”. Said together, quickly enough, they make “strawberry.” His puzzles appeared in the old Rand Daily Mail, in Johannesburg’s Business Day, and of course in the Daily Telegraph. The two examples quoted in his obituary are prime examples: “Fairy-like” and “ghost” made “elfin” and “spectre”; “botanical gardens” and “beast” made “Kew” and “brute”. Say the solutions quickly enough and you’ll get the idea. (If you don’t, the solutions are at the end of this column.)

I have been enjoying these gentle little jokes in puzzles for a quarter of a century and wondering who was responsible, because crossword compilers are nearly always anonymous. But now, Bert, I’m finally on to you: plumber’s son, collier, insurance inspector, music teacher, and finally a crossword compiler so eminent that you were asked to produce a special puzzle for no less a fan than Elizabeth the Queen Mother, for her hundredth birthday. Thank you for the fun over all the years. I, and thousands like me, will miss you sadly.

A word that caught my interest recently was “rather”. “Rather” now means “fairly” or “more or less” – a dim qualifier for making adjectives and adverbs weaker, much used by new and insecure writers, as in “Lionel seemed to be rather angry.” It’s actually the comparative form of an adjective that has disappeared from the language – “rath” or “rathe”, which meant “quick” or “early”. That’s what Milton had in mind when he wrote “Bring the rathe primrose that forsaken dies” – the primrose being a flower that appears early in spring. “Rather” lived on to mean “sooner”, eventually replacing it in expressions like “I’d sooner be dead than a Communist”, so that Churchill would write “I would RATHER see London in ruins and ashes than…tamely and abjectly enslaved.”

Another oddity is “temper”, which has a variety of conflicting meanings: it can mean “self-control” or “uncontrolled rage”; it can mean “soften” and “harden”. It seems to me that the underlying idea is related to the treatment of metal, which is tempered by heating it to red heat and cooling it swiftly. That would give to a sword-blade, for example, “a good temper”, making it tough and reliable. The same qualities could be attributed to a good-tempered person, or, by J S Bach, to a “well-tempered” clavichord or clavier. Someone with “a bad temper”, on the other hand, would be emotionally unreliable. It was a short step from there to say of someone that he had “a temper”, meaning a bad temper, and so a potential compliment became an insult.

As for our crossword solutions above, “elfin” + “spectre” sound sufficiently like “Health inspector”, and “Kew” + “brute” = “Cube root”. All right, pretty corny, but that’s part of the fun.

Contextually yours, Ulysses Online.




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