nthposition online magazine


by Joe Palmer

[ opinion - march 04 ]

"To be able to fill leisure intelligently is the last product of civilization." -Bertrand Russell
"Without some silliness, what is life for?" - Ian Frazier

Will Schortz, the quiz-master and composer of the New York Times crossword puzzles gave out this puzzle on National Public Radio:

Find the three-letter name of a tree. Change one letter, making the name of an animal. Change one more letter, making the name of a vegetable. Then change one more letter, making the name of "a meat."

Answer, solution, response, conclusion, resolution, or whatever the name of the outcome of this silliness is: OAK< YAK< YAM< HAM.

To which I must add:

Change one letter of one of these words to find the name of a variant spelling of an interjection of disgust first recorded in 1966 that rhymes with the ef-word: "YUK."

For what profiteth a man if he know the name of a tree spelled with three letters? Or that a 2x2x2 Rubik's cube has 3,674,160 different configurations? Those are problems that can be solved, questions that can be answered: puzzles. They are not enigmas.

The study of some of our diversions has been called, rather pretentiously, enigmatology. The study of enigmas is the study of puzzles, and the Greek label, enigma, more euphemistic than puzzle, like sanitary engineer instead of janitor, sounds much better, more respectable. However, the study of puzzles is not the study of enigmas. Inexplicable is not the same as puzzling.

An enigma is something quite impossible to prove, explain or understand, like the fact that one can make a map with only four colors on which no two contiguous areas are the same color. Or why good people suffer and die. Or the square root of -1. Or how we can think of, that is, we can imagine, perfect geometric figures that do not exist in physical nature, like points, lines, circles, and spheres.

But puzzles and riddles exist only because they have solutions and answers. The solution to every puzzle was known before it was posed.

Perhaps because of their self-contained, tautological, self-referential nature, puzzles give instant gratification, like cigarettes. They have no application to anything outside themselves. They seem to be addictive, and they are everywhere you look, and their ashes make fertilizer like those of their users.

How many threes are in a dozen? Not four.

What do you put in a toaster? Not toast.

What do cows drink? Not milk.

Where were the survivors of the Challenger disaster buried?

Perhaps the pleasure we get from puzzles comes from the irony we feel as and when we resolve the contradiction or incongruity. Perhaps the germ of irony lies in the mental activity, the cerebration, of finding the right two plus two to put together. It feels good to us even if it is painful, as in the catharsis, the purification or purgation of emotions that a good story or play or movie provides. Irony, special knowledge, our sharing in the resolution of conflict and incongruity, is the stuff of drama, of theatre, and of the miracle of revelation and celebration and pity. Theatre, after all, grew out of religious ritual.

However, if the chase is short and swift, the answer too apparent, too obviously contrived, it is banal and soon becomes nauseating, like a bad pun. Why does a chicken cross the road? Why do firemen wear red suspenders?

Mr Shortz is a creator of crossword puzzles. He also created his undergraduate degree in "enigmatology" at Bloomington University, a branch of the Indianapolis School of Trades, which is itself an extension of the University of Costa Rica, known for its unparalleled degree programs in arborology (tree surgery), caminology (chimney sweeping), and seratology (locksmithing).

Enigmatology is the study of enigmas, the investigation or analysis of mysteries. Enigmatography is the art and science of composing puzzles. Surely we can have one without the other, and puzzles are mysteries only to the feeble minded.