When I was on Mastermind, one of the questions I was asked was ‘What is the phase of the moon between half and full?’ I answered (confidently and correctly) ‘gibbous’. After the recording, one of the production team commented that she’d never heard that. She thought the word meant a kind of top hat. At the time I didn’t have the faintest idea what she was on about, though my awareness of implausible headgear has improved since.
General knowledge is a wonderful and treacherous thing. ‘Gibbous’ is certainly a word I’d consider for a daily puzzle, but it’s one of those hovering at the edge of many vocabularies, so I would expect a few scratched heads on the solving blog. ‘Gibus’ (to use its correct spelling – and it’s M. Gibus to you, if you don’t mind) wouldn’t make the grade – though ‘opera hat’, which is essentially the same thing, would be fair game.
And yet that would be counter to the general knowledge of the Mastermind production team member. (I do wonder whether she had ever heard the word pronounced – ‘gibbous’ is hard g, short i; ‘gibus’ is soft g, long i.) It also means that complaining about answers being within or beyond one’s general knowledge isn’t really a strong criticism. Here was someone with the more obscure meaning at the front of her mind.
So if a puzzle includes the names of two half-backs in League One, a drummer from a band popular in the 90s, and almost any senior figure in UKIP, I’m going to look askance and say ‘Not my general knowledge, squire’. There again, I could include ‘Sergeyevich’ in a grid, expecting you to recognise Prokofiev’s patronymic. Did someone say ‘What’s a patronymic?’ – or perhaps even ‘Who’s Prokofiev?’ (And let’s leave aside the possibility that Pat Ronymic is a half-back in League One…)
But it’s all general knowledge , of course. We assume that the Venn diagrams of our knowledge overlap generously, and they generally do (otherwise I couldn’t use the analogy), but it’s not perfect.
It’s only really worth grumbling if the wordplay in the clue does not assist. This might be an anagram with a sequence of unchecked vowels, and the order can only be determined if you know the spelling of the answer (been there, done that…). Or perhaps the clue starts ‘gentle touch’ and you have _A_R_N_M_C – TAPRONYMIC, obviously…
It is probably now general knowledge that the Enigmatic Variations puzzle will be continuing beyond the end of July, though only in the paper, not online, and with no downloadable PDF. While this aligns it with the way the Inquisitor is presented, it actually highlights that puzzles are not handled optimally, nor in a way that maximises the number of solvers. (Overseas news, perhaps, but not overseas access.) Both Inquisitor and Enigmatic Variations generate PDFs as part of their proofing processes, and it seems odd that these cannot be made readily available to solvers.
Here, of course, there’s certainly a PDF of the new puzzle this week – a Church Times puzzle from 2019 – and there’s an interactive version too.
There’s a Times puzzle from me to kick off the month on June 1st, followed by a Listener puzzle on June 4th. No doubt that will send some of you scurrying to the Inquisitor for respite – hard luck, I’m there too that day (what am I going to solve?), with a Pedro coming up in The Times Quick slot on Monday 6th June. The Friday Independents continue amidst all this.