When it comes to writing crossword clues, we have to be very careful when describing a word, especially when there’s another word with a similar meaning. Fortunately the other word is usually of a different length and wouldn’t fit the clue space.
However, we try to be as accurate as possible, and there are some pitfalls out there when it comes to precise descriptions. The difference between two words of similar meaning is sometimes very subtle.
We sometimes clue canoe as ‘kayak’ and vice versa but we know they’re not exactly the same. The traditional kayak is decked, ie there is a cockpit to sit in and decks over the ends which are sealed shut to provide flotation. This means it’s highly seaworthy and will not sink, whereas the traditional canoe is hollow inside and has little flotation – if capsized it may sink and is difficult to empty and re-enter if you capsize in deep water. Also the kayaker uses a double-bladed paddle whereas the canoe paddle has only one blade.
The answer to the clue ‘disease-spreading agent’ is virus, which comes from the Latin noun virus, meaning ‘poison’ – not to be confused with bacterium (from Greek bakterion ‘small rod’). Both cause disease but viruses are non-living and need a living host to multiply while bacteria are living organisms and can grow on non-living surfaces. Antibiotics can be used to treat bacterial disease but not viral disease.
You’d think it would be easy to tell the difference between a fruit and a vegetable, but we would get into trouble if we ever clued tomato as ‘salad vegetable’, because it’s a fruit. More fruit that we think of as vegetables: cucumbers, squash, zucchini, capsicum, peapods and pumpkin. A nut is also a fruit.
Technically, a fruit is the sweet ripened ovary of a seed-bearing plant. A vegetable is a herbaceous plant cultivated for an edible part such as seed, root, stem, leaf, bulb, tuber or floret. Fruit are sweet because they contain more fructose than vegetables.
These are just three examples of some of the problems we face keeping clues accurate.