Bradford's Crossword Solver's Dictionary - review

Bradford's Crossword Solver's Dictionary (6th Edition), 2005

Published by HarperCollins

List Price: 11.99 (Amazon UK, 3 Sep 2005: 7.69)

Anne Bradford, the author of this book, has extensive experience of solving cryptic crosswords, as the introductory material tells us. What it rather modestly doesn't mention is that this experience made Anne a good enough solver to reach the final of the Times Crossword Championship on at least two occasions - the first time your reviewer made it to the final, he did so as runner-up to Anne in a London regional final. This book contains a large proportion of the information that lurks in the corners of a good crossword solver's mind, plus lots more information that even the most obsessed of us couldn't possibly hope to remember - I'm still thinking about why 'Good Evening' indicates 'Den', for instance.

Most of the entries are simple but very effective lists of words. As an example close to my heart, here's the list for Peter: Aumbry, Bell, Dwindle, Grimes, Pan, Principle, Quince, Quint, Rabbit, Safe, Saint, Sellers, Simon, Simple, Wane, Weaken. There are also cross-references like 'Philip - see PHIL', and 'may indicate' entries, like 'Extreme - may indicate a first or last letter'.

The binding of the book has been improved since previous editions. It's now sewn, not glued, so you can bend the spine enough to open it flat without worrying about the pages falling out. Another new innovation for this edition is the splitting of some entries into two parts - a short list of synonyms and similar related words, and a long list (organised by word-length) of specific examples, such as capital cities, types of tree, or poets.

Bradford v. Chambers

Here are some tests of Anne's book against one of its rivals, Chambers Crossword Dictionary, which is larger and more expensive (List: 25, Amazon UK: 17.50). Anne's book is based on her experience of solving crosswords. The Chambers book is based on computer databases. Although it was produced with advice from some very well-known crossword experts, the comparisons below suggest that Anne's method works _much_ better. For someone who works with computers and knows what can be done with databases, this is rather distressing! Much of the extra bulk in C seems to come from entries that just match what you'd find in a thesaurus - this seems pointless when many solvers will already have one. Anne gives you some of the thesaurus material, and often a lot of other more useful information.

("word1 => word2" means you can find word2 in the entry for word1, "word1 <=> word2" means you can look up either word and find the other, B=Bradford, C=Chambers)

Common setter's tricks

I checked the two books for some of these:

See => Ely, Lawrence => DH,TE, Flower <=> River, Jack <=> Sailor, Tar <=> Sailor, Copper => Cu or Policeman, School => pod or => LSE, Gunners => RA, Sappers => RE (The Royal Artillery and Engineers), Head => Ness

B has all of them. C has sailor => tar, but none of the rest.

Various connections spotted while looking at B - C has none of these:

Museum: B has BM, V and A, C doesn't - though it does have Moscow's Tretyakov which B doesn't. But I can't remember seeing the Tretyakov in a puzzle. V and A must come up every few months in the Times puzzle.

I tested Bradford against the Independent and Times Saturday puzzles for 3 Sept 2005. In each case, there were a couple of dozen words or phrases in the clues that you could look up and find exactly the word being indicated, or at least a very strong hint.

There are a very few tiny flaws. The capitalisation of the word-lists is just a bit too standardised, so the entry for Say has 'Eg', not 'e.g.', and the one for Fence has Haha rather than Ha-ha. And sometimes there should be pointers to other entries - the entry for Gong should direct you to the list of more 'gongs' at Medal, not just mention it as a synonym. And the entry for Golfer should have Woods as well as Snead and Hogan. But you could find omissions like this in any book of this kind.

Reference Lists

Rivers

There are various short names for rivers that you need to know for UK cryptic puzzles. Many of them are missing from C but supplied by B.

2 letters
B: Ob, Po, Xi
C: Ob, Po

3 letters
B: Aar, Aln, Axe, Ayr, Bug, Cam, Dee, Don, Ems, Esk, Exe, Fal, Fly, Han, Inn, Lee, Lot, Lys, Nar, Ord, Red, San, Tay, Tet, Ure, Usk, Wye (26)
C: Don, Ems, Red, San, Tay, Vah, Wye (7) Missing out the Cam, Dee and Exe is _really_ poor

4 letters
B: 89, Including the Alph and Styx as well as real-world rivers
C: 26 - no Arno, Nene, Mole, Neva, or Test - all in B

Elements

C has no list. B has 119 chemical element names, with abbreviations, plus others like Earth, Air, Fire and Water.

Prisons

C just has some synonyms for prison, B has these and a list that includes all the London ones I can remember (historic and current), and others like Bastille, Sing-Sing and Spandau.

Canals

C has about half a dozen synonyms for the word, Anne has examples like Caledonian, Kiel and Welland, and some less obvious ones like Alimentary and Urethra.

Composers

In B but not C: Blow, Lalo, Monk, Nono, Raff, Wolf, Reger, Sousa, Suppe, Tosti, Zappa(!), Arnold, Barber, Bridge, Hummel, Joplin, Tallis, Albinoni. There are a few in C but not B, but they're much less embarassing ones and a much shorter list - only one 4-letter one for example. To be fair, C gives you titles and first names like "Walton (Sir William)" while B doesn't. I like the fact that Monk and Mingus make it into Anne's list, even though Ellington doesn't.

Conclusion

You'll have realised by now that I think this is a very good book. So who should buy it? Anyone who's starting to solve UK cryptic puzzles and is struggling with the sheer range of tricks used by setters. And anyone who does more difficult puzzles and sometimes needs to know what 6-letter trees there are (though Anne's other book, "Crossword Lists", will probably give you an even longer list.


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