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The Language of Puzzles

The puzzle community is an international one. In the early days of my blog I have been criticized for posting in English, but I feel this is the way to go in order to build a steadier common ground when it comes to general ideas about puzzles. After all, I am noticing all the time that there are so many areas in which puzzle friends disagree (to be clear, not just in a positive, constructive sense, but to the point of hostility). And it so happens that language is not only means to an end, it may even be an end by itself.

Now, I like to think of myself as a capable English speaker. In truth, however, I have a lot of ups and downs, sometimes of a rather grotesque nature. Once, when I adjusted the score for a participant of one of my online puzzle contests, I received a message “Thanks heaps” the next day. My first – fortunately only mental – reaction was not “You’re welcome”, but “What are heaps, and why am I one of them?” Eventually I figured out what the phrase meant (and I have used it myself since), but it took some doing.

Anyway, this post is not about the literal “language”, but about terminology-related issues. Have you ever listened to chess players analyzing one of their games? They may be speaking your tongue, but you will not understand half of what they are saying unless you play chess yourself. The same applies to many communities, and in a way – even if we have not come very far yet – it applies to the world of puzzles as well.

Just consider the various designations for Sudoku solving techniques. We have X-Wings and Y-Wings, Swordfish and Jellyfish and who knows what else. I wonder if people who are not puzzle-affiliated can take us seriously when we use these expressions, at the same time pointing at pieces of paper which are filled with numbers. Don’t get me wrong, I am not saying that this is a problem – quite the opposite. We should strive to develop and improve this puzzle language, even at the risk of sounding silly to outsiders.

Many years ago, during a team round of a WPC, one of my teammates said something to the effect of “Look, we got a separator here”. I did not understand, and he explained it to me: This was a placement puzzle (more accurately, there were Radar clues in a composite puzzle), and the term was used to describe a clue which was equal to the sum of the two clues next to it, that is, a constellation which made it impossible to have a single object lie on both sides of the row or column in question. It goes without saying that it would be wise to have such teaching moments before the round, not in the middle of it, in the interest of the team’s results.

But the point is, the incident left an imprint on my memory, regarding both the word and the technique. In fact I believe learning generally works better if these two go hand in hand, i.e. when each technique is accompanied by a memorable designation. I have seen chess coaches go out of their way to use very specific terms when they impart their knowledge to less experienced players, and I think the same principle applies to puzzle solving. For example, I got used to talk about land bridges in Nurikabes or Tapas, about corridors in various region-based puzzle types (and, on jocular occasions, about “dwarf” and “giraffe” shapes), and I have even heard Ulrich speak about snakes in Skyscrapers.

Even if we ignore the positive effects terminology can have on the learning curve, there is one area where the choice of words is of considerable importance: Puzzle names. It is strongly desirable that we use the same name for the same puzzle type and different names for different puzzle types whenever possible. Given the large variety of puzzle styles all over the world, this will certainly not come easy. But it is worth trying.

Deviating from this goal in one direction is excusable. Usually, when two different names describe the same puzzle type, no harm is done. Today there are quite a few puzzle styles which are popular under different names, and while I encourage standardisation in this regard, there is no rush doing it. (By the way, I accidentally used the puzzle name “Double block” in the Classics Collection, a literal translation of the German designation, and I realized only much later that this is not a common name. And I learned very recently that this puzzle style is also known as “Smashed Sums” for a long time. Mea culpa.)

The opposite direction is much more delicate. When the same puzzle name is used for different sets of rules, it can cause more than confusion; it can actually damage the solver in a contest. Yes, I know that instruction booklets typically contain not just puzzle names, but the full rules, so it is potentially our own fault if we mix things up. Still, I think we all know how it is to skim through puzzle instructions and to take that for granted which we believe we know by heart. I therefore urge puzzle authors to avoid using puzzle names which already exist with different meanings in the puzzle world.

Since last year’s WSPC I have been thinking about the possibility of a uniform puzzle language, at least when it comes to elements that appear all the time (like “adjacent” and “touching” cells, “regions” and “shapes”, shading, dissection, closed loops, and so on. Ulrich is currently investing a lot of time and energy into puzzle instructions, and I hope that we have a suggestion for a fundament of puzzle terminology some time soon.

1 reply on “The Language of Puzzles”

You get so used to some terminology that you dont even realize how strange it might appear to a newcomer. I had the interesting experience to do a WPC Team round with somebody who never heard about how to describe pentomino shapes by letters.

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