Tuesday 7 June 2016

Why Are The Grid's Answer Slots Called Lights?

Crossword Lights

As most of you would know, the series of white squares in the crossword grid, into which answers are entered, are called "lights".

Do you also know why they are called "lights"?

No, it isn't because white squares are light in colour. (This is what I thought once upon a time)

A Display Of Lights (9) - Val GilbertVal Gilbert's book A Display Of Lights (9) uses the word in its title. The accompanying description on Amazon carries an explanation, which further complicates the subject:

Answer: Crossword (a 'light' is a word for 'clue' in crossword parlance, so: a display of lights/display of clues/crossword)

This definition tallies with the dictionaries – Chambers has "hint, clue or help towards understanding" as a meaning of light.


If light means clue, why are we using it to refer to the answer to a clue?

The key to this question lies in the grid's property of checking.

D. St P Barnard's book Anatomy Of The Crossword clears up the mystery [Chapter 2: Patterns and Lights]:

Surely, one may well exclaim, to obtain a solution and then to call it by a word which means a clue, savours mightily of Looking-Glass Land. The objection would be a valid one if a puzzle were to require the insertion of only one word, but an essential feature of the crossword is that each horizontal word shares two or more letters with certain vertical words and vice versa. The result of this arrangement is that each word in the pattern not only represents the answer to some verbal clue, but serves also as a literal clue to those other words that it crosses.

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Kishore said...

This delighting bit of information is enlightening to a blighter like me! An answer is just a stepping stone to other answers ... And sometimes makes us realise we have taken a wrong step earlier...

michael said...

Taken a wrong step, in a flight of fancy perhaps?

michael said...

I haven't heard the term "lights" for crossword squares before this article, but I am an American and it might be more common in the UK.

Zouk Delors said...

With respect, I find this explanation deeply unsatisfying. I picked up the word "lights" a few years ago, when I took it -- from context -- to mean "the solutions". Recently, however I found it apparently referring to the empty spaces in which the solutions go. Either way, I felt mystified as to why, exactly, that term was applied. Discovering your blog a few days ago, and noticing the title of this post, I called it up, eager to be "enlightened". D St P Bernard makes a bald assertion, not backed up by any historical evidence, and suffers, imho, the weakness that a light only becomes a kind of clue once filled -- when it is no longer known as a light (or is it?).

Also, how come Chambers, the ultimate reference source for many a crossword, doesn't (at least in my oldish edition)give a definition specific to crosswords?!

Answer to clue not found in Chambers! (5)

Faith Anstey said...

The lights are the spaces in which the answer goes. Chambers (11th edition 2008) does indeed mention crosswords specifically, but says it is the answer itself. However, in my reading (as a crossword setter of many years standing and also having worked for a rights of light consultant) they are called lights because they are windows. Windows which are blank until you fill them in with the answer. (Often the case, you may say, with Windows 10. )

Maize said...

Chambers 10th edition (2003) has 'light, in a crossword, the word (or sometimes an individual letter in the word) on the diagram that is the answer to a clue.'
I like this because a) it's Chambers and that means authoritative, and b) it provides a bridge between its usual meaning and the meaning as described in the article above.

Unknown said...

Thanks Faith. Your comment makes complete sense, considering the coinage of the day. "Light" was often used to mean window - we still use "quarterlight" and "skylight" after all, and it's likely that the framed, white squares in this curious puzzle would have seemed like small windows.