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3 down: Frequently, to Byron

CROSSWORD puzzling must be a good vocabulary builder, though sometimes I wonder. There's no doubt it has increased mine, but in rather strange ways. Right now, my vocabulary boasts a bumper crop of words like these, which seem to be constantly reappearing: ESNE (early domestic), EWER (pitcher), STOA (Gr. porch), OLLA (jar), AGORA (Gr. marketplace), PISMIRE (ant).

I'm sure I must be learning some really useful words, too, though often I seem to find myself at a loss for the exact one needed at the moment, while at the same time my vocabulary is bulging with all these admittedly interesting but questionably usable words.

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We should practice using new words, we are told, as we acquire them, so, while these may not be my choice for enriching my vocabulary, I'm really endeavoring to make use of them. But it isn't easy trying to turn a conversation to those esnes of ancient days, bearing their ewers and ollas on their way to market at the village agora.

Nor could some of these words be counted on in an emergency situation. It's hard enough to get rid of household pests at any time, but if I were to register a complaint about a sudden influx of pismires in my pantry, I ought not to be too surprised if the exterminator takes an unduly long time in coming.

The continued popularity of crossword puzzles is evidenced by their steady appearance in most newspapers and many magazines, even specialized ones with puzzles directed to their particular readership.

Some experts, I understand, made a practice of working them in ink, even before the advent of the erasable pen. Indeed, I find ink necessary for those printed on slick paper, on which the impress of even the darkest pencil proves inadequate. And who knows? Perhaps it may have been the slick-paper puzzle that sparked the invention of that erasable pen.

There have been many changes in puzzles over the years. No more two-letter words, it seems, thus banishing forever the once-popular three-toed sloth (AI), not to mention that other favorite, the sun god, RA. Puzzles once were simpler; no compound words, lengthy quotations, or lines of poetry as we now have, which, along with the tricks and gimmicks employed, undeniably make today's puzzles more interesting and certainly more challenging.

Today, any veteran puzzler learns, sooner or later, that the capitalized HOMES clue represents the Great Lakes, and invariably it is the handy four-letter lake called for.

Sometimes numbers are used. Recently, a puzzle seemed quite mysterious, with some 10 or so definitions given as numbers only. In fact, the first across word clue was No. 30. My initial thought that this might refer to the journalist's -30-, meaning end, finis, led nowhere. Only when several other words taking form seemed to be leading to certain elements: TITANIUM, CARBON, ALUMINUM, did I realize the numbers must stand for specific elements. (No. 30 became ZINC.) Later, I found in my dictionary a long list of chemical elements, with the symbol for each and its atomic weight, which was the number used in the puzzle.

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Sometimes when a new word appears in one puzzle it will show up almost simultaneously in another, leading to the assumption that perhaps one giant word bank at work somewhere out there may be the fount of all their wisdom. If so, more power to the puzzlemakers! If you have ever attempted to construct one of these puzzles (as I have), you will agree that whatever help their creators can get is truly deserved.

I do have one small complaint. Occasionally they seem to get carried away with all their knowledge and are a little too esoteric for me. (Or else I am way out of my depth!)

But it doesn't seem quite fair when they make sticklers of even the defining words, so that we have to figure out the question to know what they have in mind before we can attempt to work the answer.

A case in point: the mystifying ``Roadside boscage'' had me envisioning everything from grazing cattle to a farmer's produce stand, so it was a bit disappointing when it worked out to be nothing more than the lowly SUMAC. And the equally disconcerting ``Deloul and hageen'' proved to be merely extra-fancy names for a plain old CAMEL. They could have said simply ``dromedary,'' or even ``Bactrian,'' which it seems to me is fancy enough (and one I just happen to know).

As a longtime puzzler, I've made an interesting discovery. Though I've been stumped often on words I didn't know, on the other hand, words I never knew I knew occasionally will pop into my head (though always accompanied by a loud question mark).

For example, a six-letter word for ``East Indian sailor'' was needed, of which I had only the last two letters: A R. Then the word LASCAR came out of the blue, a word I certainly was not conscious of knowing. Could this possibly be it? Only after all interlocking letters had been filled in, proving LASCAR correct, did I allow myself a modicum of satisfaction. But where had it come from?

Another instance of this was the clue, ``A type of session,'' which prompted the word PLENARY to come to mind. Although this word was vaguely familiar, I had no idea of its meaning. This also turned out to be the right answer.

Are we always busily storing words in our memory banks of which we seem completely unaware, then accommodatingly supplying such words when called for?

No matter. Whether we're learning consciously or unwittingly, to me crossword puzzles continue to be both fun and challenging. And I believe it's quite possible they may be the very source of some of these words I suddenly find I know that I never knew I knew! (Answer to headline: oft.)