May 26, 2024

The National Puzzle League is the world’s oldest association of crossword lovers. Active in the US more or less continuously since 1883, its output includes these wonderful anagrams, which obey the constraint that the anagrams match the original word(s):

greyhound / hey, dog walk! (1898)

A Decimal Point / I’m a Point in Place (1928)

HMS Pinafore / name for ship (1975)

snooze alarms / alas, no more z’s (1982)

The NPL is also the inventor and distributor of a unique puzzle shape, the “flat”, to which the rest of this column is devoted. The flat is a small piece of light verse with a few missing words, making it like an extended, rhyming cryptic crossword puzzle. As:

1. HETERONYM (4 6, 4 3 3)
Ranger Station at Frozen Lake:
Two signs pasted JOIN and BREAK
=HOT, Berkeley CA

All apartments have the same shape. The title explains the type of pun, and the number of letters in the answer. Words in CAPITAL LETTERS are the missing words, that is, the spaces in the text where each answer goes, in order. The last line is the author’s nom de plume and address.

In the example above, “heteronym” means that the answer is two phrases consisting of the same letters in the same order. One phrase has word lengths 4 and 6. The other has word lengths 4 and 3 and 3.

Answer: park office, park off ice

Flats derives from an American tradition (imported from the UK) of riddles in verse dating back to the 18th century. They are smart, whimsical and witty. Once you get the hang of them, they are a joy. Here are three more heteronyms. I’ve included tips because it can be difficult for the uninitiated. (An asterisk means the first letter of the word is a capital letter.)

2. HETERONYM (6 3 4, *5 *2 *6)
Watch him maneuver PRIMAL on his handmade telescope –
He will study FINAL, calm now, with lovely snow slope.
=NEWOW, Brookline MA

hint: it’s about a now-dormant volcano in the Northwestern United States.

3. HETERONYMOUS (3 4, 7, 2 5)
Aragorn will hit the ONE
Then, retreat through the TWO
Eat a bite of spinach THREE
(Any leafy thing will do).

tip: Aragorn is a character in the Lord of the Rings (pictured above). The second line requires an extra detail: in the place where he retreats, there may be apples in the trees.

4. HETERONYM (6, 2 4)
He was a beginner, a tyro, an ONE.
TWO or dark sin. He just didn’t start.
=NEWOW, Brookline MA

Flats can be one of dozens of types of puns. The REBUS, for example, is when an image presents a heteronymous reading of the answer. In other words, the image describes a phrase that contains the same letters in the same order as the solution. Here is an example.

5. REBUS (14)

I raise my glass on Mother’s Day
“To Mother – you have earned your battle wages.
I miss your desire to raise brats.
Who needs the whining, fighting or flak?”

My mother blows back a hazy nod
“Mixed children who will misbehave
Growth. One day you will find that CAIN
Have all the joys without the pain.”
=CRAX, Mountain View CA

Word nerds note: the second stanza is a pangram, meaning it contains every letter of the alphabet. Note to drinkers: the fuzzy clove is a cocktail.

Answer: grandparenthood (G; R and P are not in G)

6. REBUS (*3 *4 *5)

A film like ANSWER shows there is great enjoyment
By dancing naked when faced with unemployment.
=MO’ OF COURSE, Pebblework CY

7. REBUS (6 6)

He prides himself on being rude.
However, self-esteem is a tricky business.
He is quite slow and clumsy to be fair.
He is ALL, although he is the last to know.
=NEWOW, Brookline MA

hint: the animal on the left is a normal rodent, and the animal on the right requires an article.

8. REBUS (*6 2 8)

In ANSWER roil for bigger dough
If near Idaho? Do not know.
=NEWOW, Brookline MA

tip: look at the contents of stamp 1, then stamp 2, then stamps 3 & 4 together. The answer contains an American spelling ie an ‘o’ where in the UK we would write ‘old’.

9. REBUS (6,6)


tip: what’s clever here is that both the pun and a representation of the answer are in the image

10. REBUS (15 17)

The phone rings.
I answer it, then hang up.
How I hate HAIKU.

(MR TEX, by the way, is Mike Reiss, a former showrunner of the cartoon series The Simpsons.)

Now, another kind of pun. In a homonym, the answers are spelled differently but sound the same.

11. HOMONYM (3, 4, 4)


hint: here are three words, all spelled differently, but all pronounced identically when spoken in an American accent. (This is probably my favorite.) When spoken in British English, two have a dipthong and are pronounced identically and the third without a dipthong is very close to the other two.

12. HOMONYM (10, 3 9)
My techie husband went rogue.
He froze my machine.
He wants me to pay.
He got away clean.
I don’t have access to files.
He took what was mine.
I love that he
Deploy TEN, then THREE NINE.
=FEMUR, New York, NY

tip: this is very topical, especially if you are a user of the British Library,

The final flat is a mixture of homonym and rebus. The image describes a homonym of the answer.


When crops begin to STAND,
Green carpets the country.
=NEWOW, Brookline MA

I’ll be back at 5pm UK with the answers. PLEASE NO SPOILERS. Instead, write me some flats or tell me your favorite anagrams.

The National Puzzlers’ League has around 900 members, mostly in the US, and they include many of the biggest names in the puzzling world, including Will Shortzwho heads the puzzle department of the New York Timesmany top crosswords, and Mike Reiss, as mentioned above.

If you want to join the NPL, membership is only $30 and it gets you 12 monthly issues of his house journal The ENIGMA.

Thanks to Henri Picciotto (aka HOT), who introduced me to the NPL and helped research this column.

I’ve been doing a puzzle here on alternate Mondays since 2015. I’m always on the lookout for great puzzles. If you want to suggest one, email me.

In other news, I’d like to announce my upcoming book, nice thinking a compilation of the puzzles that everyone gets wrong. It’s out in the UK on September 5th and in the US on October 15th. Pre-orders can really help a book’s trajectory, so if you want to get your copy, you can here or here. In this case, don’t think twice! Thank you!

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