I enjoy Herald Tribune crosswords. They are difficult, and I often wished there was a way to check an entry without accidentally seeing nearby answers. (Don’t judge me.) For example, maybe I wrote cape, but realized it could also be cane.

One day, I made a surprising discovery. If I stare at the design of the black squares and the location of a certain answer in relation to them and then immediately look at the answer grid, my eyes fall on the desired location, seeing only the answer I want to double check without glimpsing any others.

The Herald Tribune puzzles often have words and references that I don’t know but manage to fill in by getting the crossing words. (That’s one of the allures of crosswords.) When I finish a puzzle, I write the unknown words in a notebook.

Once a month or so, I’ll have a look-’em-up session, jotting down the definitions. And I’ll reinforce some of the newly learned words by adding them to imagined or actual conversations. Here are a few from recent puzzles: howdah, insouciant, flivvers, and aline.

A howdah is a seat, usually fitted with a canopy and railing, placed on the back of an elephant or a camel.

We were recently watching The Return of the King. During the scene with giant elephants, Legolas climbs up one toward the enormous howdah that the bad guys are riding in. I couldn’t help but comment, “Howdah they keep that huge howdah from falling off?” And after Legolas cut the supporting strap and the howdah slid away, I added, “Oh, I guess they don’t.”


Caught up in the excitement of the scene, no one even noticed my inane comments. My pride, basking in the glow of my punny use of howdah, was untarnished.

Insouciance means unconcerned nonchalance. The adjective is insouciant. It means free from concern, worry, or anxiety. One day I went about the house singing a modified version of a song from the Lion King, “Insouciant matata means no worries for the rest of your life.” No one paid me any mind.

Flivvers is a slang term for old, cheap cars. It was coined back in the early 1900s and was often used in reference to Model T Fords. There is a YouTube channel called Flivver that focuses on Model Ts. I’ve started referring to my 2003 Camry as Flivver. She’s never heard the word, so thinks it’s a term of endearment.

Aline (also written a-line or a line) is a type of skirt that is narrow at the waist and widens out in a straight line down to the hem. Its shape or outline forms a triangle or A shape.

Recently, my wife was showing me some family pictures from the 1950s, and I said (how could I not), “Wow, look at those a-line skirts.”

This time my vocabulary enhancement paid off. She gave me an odd look. To which I replied in a defensive tone, “What? I know what a-line skirts are.” As if I hadn’t learned the term two days prior.


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