February 26, 2021

Cryptheory

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How crossword and Scrabble cheats are exposed by their shameful Google searches

3 min read

There’s never been a better time to get into crosswords. Mentally stimulating, immersive and time-consuming, they are a perfect way to escape the monotony of lockdown.

It’s the ideal socially distanced hobby: a solitary pursuit (albeit with a flourishing online community – try the idothei.wordpress.com blog about i’s own puzzles), with the satisfaction coming from deciphering the cryptic offerings from the crossword setter, your daily tormenter.

Or, alternatively, you could just search online for the answers.

Google data reveals that more of us are doing this than ever before. Searches relating to crosswords have climbed to a record high, with “crossword clue” and “crossword solver” increasingly showing up as trends, a damning indictment of our warped moral compass.

Spikes of interest in specific clues highlight the brainteasers which have stumped us most, while also creating the pleasing image of a nation pacing around their living rooms, muttering nonsense to themselves in frustration.

Earlier this month, significant numbers were simultaneously googling “undercook the bean,” “one can adore this kind of nymph,” “a shoe should be fitted for lots of families” and “prodigal can dip out but will be slow to score”.

Google claims these denote “beneath”, “oread”, “households” and “largo” respectively, for some baffling reason – no wonder people give up.

Are setters aware that they are catering to such a villainous audience? Scanning the most googled clues from last week’s crosswords suggests they are, and that they concoct their puzzles largely to belittle their quarry.

It’s easy to picture one of them sat in their lair, wearing a gilet (“waist length garment”, five letters), as they regard (“observe steadily”, six letters) another hoodlum (“petty gangsters”, seven letters) googling clues after each abysmal (“atrocious”, seven letters) attempt.

So disgusted is the sitter at the sketchy (“superficial or slight”, seven letters) expertise of their inane (“mindless”, five letters) foe, they proclaim them an abomination (“disgusting person or thing”, eleven letters).

Search data indicates many Scrabble players are not above googling potential word choices (Photo: Getty)

Does Scrabble, the nation’s other favourite word-arranging pastime, emerge unscathed from such search engine skulduggery? Of course not.

In September, eBay reported that demand for the board game had increased by 127 per cent. It seems that plenty of sets were Christmas gifts – searches related to Scrabble climbing to their second-highest level in the week leading up to New Year, following a peak in the first lockdown.

Restrictions on household mixing mean that much of our word-based warfare now takes place online, and unscrutinised. Given our enthusiasm for cheating so pointlessly on crosswords, it’s no surprise that the competitive element of Scrabble brings out the worst in us.

Prominent among the searches are such telling examples as “what word can I make with these letters”, “Scrabble word finder,” “Scrabble solver” and the unashamed “Scrabble cheat”.

Then, of course, there are the people googling disputed words. Some of these might be honest attempts to settle an argument after a move – the most searched is “qi,” which certainly is a valid and very irritating Scrabble word, surely the cause of many hollow, relationship-shattering victories.

However, the volume of queries for the likes of “two-letter Scrabble words” or “Scrabble words with a Q” indicate that many of these are underhand attempts to gain the upper hand.

There is some justice: most of these searches end in disappointment. Neither “oz” and “quo” are valid Scrabble words, while desperate attempts to deploy secondary school French with “que” prove fruitless.

But if you’ve just lost a nail-biting online encounter because your opponent pulled out “ze”, “xi”, “ex” or “zit” at the denouement, it might just be worth asking to see their Google search history.

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