Frugal Innovation and the NY Times Daily Crossword Puzzle: A Middle-Schooler’s Perspective

Jul 12, 2011 by

Robert Oliphant

As described in the April 30th 2011 Economist, our new arts of “frugal innovation” require substantial reductions in the cost of products. Even more striking is their insistence that companies deliver first-class value at the same time.

General Electric, for instance, has reduced the price of its electrocardiogram machine from $2,000 to $400; Tata Chemicals has produced a $24 purifier that can provide a family with pure water for a year. More ambitiously, Vijay Govindarajan (Dartmouth) has urged worldwide access to civilized housing (filters, solar panels, etc) with a construction cost of no more than $300.

By way of a test case, let us apply Govindarajan’s “frugalist” perspective to one of America’s more expensive cognitive-health treasures: the New York Times daily crossword puzzle. As well established by VA hospital research with WWI vets, our best “reality orientation” protection against Alzheimer’s still is that of reading a daily newspaper all the way through each day, along with completing the New York Times syndicated daily crossword puzzle each day in ten minutes or less.

Unfortunately our crossword puzzler’s four-hour reading-time day after day, year after year, rules out the NY Times option for most Americans, especially those who attend school or work at day jobs. So by way of a frugalist alternative, let’s examine a more thrifty and practical vocabulary challenge: one that will work just as well for a middle schooler as for a 60-year old baby boomer starting to go blank on proper names.

DEAR MIDDLE SCHOOLER. . . . As you and your family know from the internet, Planet Earth has recently been conquered by spoken American English. In China it’s called Sina English, and in India it’s called Global Neutral Accent. In many other countries it’s called Spoken Worldwide American Dictionary English (SWADE for short). But whatever it’s called, spoken American English deserves plenty of attention by you and your friends.

Let’s start by getting acquainted with If you visit this website, you’ll discover its vocabulary coverage of spoken American English is immense (315,000 entries). Yet you can access each word free of charge quickly and comprehensively, including audio help with pronunciation. This efficiency means that as a personal-growth learner, you’re in charge all the way, especially if you use’s five key features as a basis for pre-study guessing.

1) Stressed Syllables. . . . Our current emphasis upon speech, especially in recession-driven salesmanship, requires us these days to master the mainstream pronunciation of words, not just the dialectal variations of our immediate neighborhood.

For example, our entry for ABASIA, a medical term, lists its first and standard pronunciation as /euh bay”zheuh/. Notice, incidentally, that this listing uses keyboard letters, not special squiggles, and that it includes a double quotation mark (“) immediately after the syllable /bay/ to indicate that in speech this syllable gets more stress (emphasis) than any of the other syllables in the word.

Your natural feeling for spoken English will usually equip you to guess the location of primary stress in any familiar multi-syllable word, e.g., EMphasis as opposed to proNUNciation. So a good way to exercise and improve your natural skill is to guess which syllable gets the primary stress (first, second, or “none of these) in the following medical terms: abirritate, abortive, abortus, active, acupressure, and adenology.

2) Number of meanings. . . . Another preliminary exercise is to guess which words in the above list have more dictionary-listed meanings, i.e. numbered definitions, than the others. You’ll soon discover that short words usually offer more definitions than longer ones. ACTIVE, for example, lists 22 numbered definitions in, as opposed to ADENOLOGY, which has only one.

You’ll also discover that definitions further down in a headword’s entry grow increasingly less familiar to all of us than those at the beginning. The first definition listed for ACTIVE, for example, is “engaged in action; characterized by energetic work, participation, etc.; busy: an active life.” In contrast, Definition 14 defines this headword with a marker that labels it as “med” (for medicine) followed by “acting quickly; producing immediate effects: active remedies.”

Our multiple-definition vocabulary is relatively small, with only three thousand headwords presenting five definitions or more. But this feature gives us the ability to create double-meaning sentences like, “His kidneys are more active than he is,” (using ACTIVE in the sense of both definition 14 and definition one). Indeed, you’ve probably already discovered your own skill in interpreting multiple-meaning sentences like “Two heads are better than one.”

3) Entry date. . . . More than any other language, spoken American English has borrowed from Latin and Greek, especially since 1600. So your natural guessing ability will often equip you to guess which of the following entered what’s now spoken American English after 1800: ABORTIVE or ACUPRESSURE. Identifying the source language is more risky, though usually we recognize Latinate words more easily than those borrowed or coined from Greek.

4) Word sources. . . . As you’ll discover, guessing word sources or etymologies (originally Greek for “true meanings”) is filled with surprises. Overall, though, we tend to remember them, often with affection. You’ll also discover that etymologies can still help us to keep track of the basic meaning of multi-definitional words like HEAD (84 numbered definitions in

5) Pronunciation. . . . Even intensely patriotic Americans will admit that our pronunciation-plus-spelling system is more difficult to learn than that of our linguistic competitors, especially Italian and Spanish. But your own speaking-reading experience will often help you to guess in advance how to pronounce syllable by syllable an unfamiliar word and decide how closely its official spelling matches its phonetic transcription.

This matching capability is a special feature of and the keyboard-friendly system used by’s source, the electronic version of the Random House Unabridged Dictionary.

The good news here is that you don’t have to make major changes in your own natural way of speaking. As you’ll discover, it’s your personal style of ENUNCIATION, not just your pronunciation, that will make your public speaking both intelligible and forceful.

By way of illustration, let’s start with a phonetic transcription of Lincoln’s opening phrase, “fourscore and seven years ago,” i.e., /fawr”skawr euhnd sev”euhn yearz euh goh”/. As a personal touch we can start with lengthening each syllable of our first word (fawrrrrr” skawwwr), after which we can even add an extra syllable at the end, i.e. /skawwwr EUH — just like a football official or boxing announcer.

The next phrase we can make more intelligible by giving its first syllable more volume, e.g., /SEV”ehn/ and running the rest together for contrast, e.g. /yearz-euh-goh/. The important consideration here is that you can create your own personal “speech orchestrations” on your own and then learn them by heart — just like Winston Churchill and Ronald Reagan did.

DICTIONARY-BASED STUDY AND TESTING. Your next step is that of studying a selected group of word-targets in preparation for written-answer questions like the following: “Please indicate the 6-letter headword in whose phonetic description is /euh bay”zheuh/ and whose first definition (identified as “med”) is ‘inability to walk due to a limitation or absence of muscular coordination’”

There’s no reason why you can’t produce your own bundle of headword-pronunciation-numbered definition questions. But the actual test should be supervised and have a time limit, e.g., 30 seconds per question. If you’ve prepared a long list (e.g., over 50 targets), you can indicate each answer as a multiple choice between five possible second-vowel letters: A, E, I, O or U, none of these [the correct answer is ABASIA].

You’ll probably find it more practical to use a spelling bee oral exam format, e.g., “Please spell the target word “ABASIA” (spoken out loud by the test giver). Its first and only definition is ‘inability to walk due to a limitation or absence of muscular coordination’” It’s worth noting here that oral exams via telephone-conferencing and recording are being used in medical schools as more reliable than conventional cheating-friendly online testing.

MEASURING VOCABULARY SIZE. . . . Reading, listening, conversing, writing — human beings are vocabulary builders by nature, along with being curious about how large their personal vocabularies are. For non-specialists, our most practical measurement tool is the American college-size dictionary, e.g. Random House College, Merriam Webster’s Collegiate, Webster’s New World College, and American Heritage College (each of these weigh in at approximately 1500 pages) and 60,000 headword-pronunciation-definition combinations.

You’ll discover that these four dictionaries vary somewhat in how they handle phrases and proper names. But they all agree in offering roughly the same 60,000 headword-pronunciation-definition combinations. Hence, although we’ll focus on Random House College, any one of the four will serve as an authoritative basis for measuring the size of your own spoken American English vocabulary.

Our first step calls for constructing a 30-item random sample of our source’s 60,000 headword-pronunciation-definition combinations, e.g., the tenth headword-pronunciation-definition combination on every 40th page of RHC, starting with page 40 and ending with page 1,000 — Most statisticians, incidentally, will accept a 30-item sample like this, even for a large target population.

These 30 randomly chosen combinations can then be used to produce a 30-item test for written or spoken use, taking care to include definitions chosen by chance whose numerical position may be higher than number one (this is a crucially important requirement).

Since our test’s random sample correlates with its 60,000-item source, the percentage of correct answers can be used to determine the test taker’s personal vocabulary size. A score of 20 out of 30 (67%), for instance, would indicate a vocabulary of 40,000 combinations, just as a score of 25 after additional study would indicate 50,000 combinations — an impressive improvement!

For middle schoolers especially, an emphasis on improvement is far more productive than worrying about the size of one’s first vocabulary score. By way of a start, Appendices A and B present a sample test and its answer key that can be used for additional tests for measuring improvement — authoritatively and encouragingly.

THE NY TIMES DAILY CROSSWORD AND DICTIONARY-BASED TESTING. . . . As presented here the goal of dictionary-based testing is not that of replacing the NY Times daily crossword. Far from it. Instead what we seek is to open up vocabulary measurement and growth for younger Americans. As indicated by their personal reading, the energy is certainly there.

Headwords for middle schoolers, crosswords for grad students and their professors — doesn’t this make sense as a nationwide distribution of cognitive labor for American education?

To put it more bluntly, thanks to our new electronic dictionaries, Americans can no longer take refuge in what Richard Phelps and others have called Lake Wobegon statistics, via which all Americans are officially designated “above average,” as Garrison Keillor put it.

To put it more specifically: Our mass media listening experience tells us today than many Egyptian rioters and Japanese refugees, along with countless tele-salespeople from Mumbai and the Philippines, speak American English more clearly today than most of our own college students!! (everyone I’ve talked with so far agrees with this).

Yet our political and intellectual leaders (journalists, especially) continue to stuff cotton in their ears as a national communication problem takes shape under their noses and ears — often in their own neighborhoods.

TO CONCLUDE. . . . As indicated here, dictionary-based vocabulary building is measurably productive and “frugalistic” in the best sense of that generous-spirited concept. In the long run it’s also a concept which asserts the primacy of what’s going on in our heads, not in our investment portfolios or in our overpriced houses featuring 10,000 square feet per occupant.

What’s here, of course, simply targets middle schoolers, not “dies sunt mali” preachers at us from left and right. But as most of us will surely agree, middle schoolers (especially the ones I know) are no fools. They can smell out hypocrisy: next door, in the classroom, and even in high places. And most of them are wise enough to put their own personal growth first, as opposed to passively accepting what’s on the free lunch each day.

Most important, especially for middle schoolers: The basic energy behind what’s here can be summed up as “measurable factual accuracy, not shapeless ideas.” My experience with middle schoolers, past and present, convinces me that their ruthless honesty will urge them to take what’s here seriously — productively and measurably so.

APPENDIX A. . . . A 30-QUESTION RANDOM SAMPLE VOCABULARY TEST (based on the Random House College Dictionary). . . . Each item asks the test taker to spell a specific dictionary headword on the basis of four clues. The first clue identifies the item’s dictionary-page number and first-column position (e.g., 1/1). The second presents in parentheses the numerical position of the definition and the total number of definitions, (e.g., 1/1). The third presents the headword’s phonetic transcription. The fourth and last clue presents the definition itself.
1..10/5 (1/1) /euhsee”dee euh/ n. sloth; spiritual torpor or indifference; apathy. . . . 2..20/6 (1/3) /ee”jis/ n. sponsorship; auspices. . ..3.. 30/6 (2/3) /al”keuhhawl’, -hol’/ n. an intoxicating liquor containing this liquid. 4…40/5 (2/3) /euhmend”meuhnt/ n. an alteration or addition, as to a bill. 5..50/6 (1/3) /an”lz/ a record of events, esp. a yearly record, usu. in chronological order.
6..60/6 (1/1) /euhpawrt”, euhpohrt”/ adv. on or toward the port side of a ship. 7..70/5 (1/1) /euhres”ting/ adj. attracting or capable of attracting attention or interest; striking. 8..80/6 (1/1) /aytoh nal”i tee/ n. music composed without reference to traditional tonality and employing the chromatic pitches on a free and equal basis. 9..90/6 (1/1) /bah”bah, -beuh/, n. a small yeast cake often containing raisins, usu. served soaked in a rum syrup. 10..100/6 (1/2) /bahr”beree, -beuhree/, n., a shrub of the genus Berberis, esp. B. vulgaris, having yellow flowers in elongated clusters.

11..110/5 (1/2) /bi kawz”, -koz”, -kuz”/ conj. for the reason that; due to the fact that. 12..120/6 (1/1) /bid”ing/ n. command; summons 13..130/7 (1/2) /blas”teuhderrm’/ n. the primitive layer of cells that results from the segmentation of the ovum.\ 14..140/20 1/1 /bond”woom’euhn/, n. a female slave. 15..150/5 1/1 /brah vis”euhmoh’/ interj. (used to express the highest praise to a performer.)
16..160/9[2] 1/5 /beuhfay”/ n. a sideboard or cabinet for holding china, table linen, etc. 17..170/14 (1/2) /kab’euhl yair”oh, -euhlair”oh/, n. a Spanish gentleman. 18..180/14 (1/1) /keuhnawr”euhs, -nohr”-/ adj. melodious; musical. 19..190/8 (1/2) /kas”ti gayt’/, v.t., to criticize or reprimand severely. 20..200/12 (1/3) n. /seuhr tif”i kit/; a document providing evidence of status or qualifications.

21..210/9 (1/1) /chows, chowsh/, n. (in the Ottoman Empire) a court official who served as an ambassador, emissary, or member of a ceremonial escort. 22..220//8 (1/1) /sin’euhmeuhtek”/ n. a motion-picture theater showing experimental or historically important films. 23..230/5 (1/5) /klohn/, n. cell, cell product, or organism genetically identical to the unit or individual from which it was asexually derived. 24..240/6 (1/1) /kol”eeg/ n. an associate; fellow worker or fellow member of a profession. 25..250/5 (1/3) /keuhm pen”dee euhm/, n. a brief treatment or account of a subject, esp. an extensive subject.
26..260/5 (1/10) n., adj. /keuhn glom”euhr it, n. anything composed of heterogeneous materials or elements. 27..270/9 (1/2) /kon”treuhverr’see/, n. a public dispute concerning a matter of opinion. 28..280/5 (2/2) /koz mol”euhjee/ n. the branch of astronomy that deals with the general structure and evolution of the universe. 29..290/6 (1/2) /kray”fish’/, n. also called crawdad, crawdaddy. any of various mainly freshwater decapod crustaceans, esp. of the genera Astacus and Cambarus, resembling small lobsters. 30..300/5 4/6 /kub/ n. a young person serving as an apprentice.

APPENDIX B… ANSWER KEY TO APPENDIX A. . . Note: One-word answers can be converted to multiple-choice by choosing one of five letter-options: (a) A, (b) E, (c) I, (d) O, (e) U or none of these. . . . . . . . .1..10/5 acedia (b). . . . 2..20/6 aegis (b) . . . . 3 30/6 alcohol (d). . . . 4…40/5 amendment (b) . . . .5..50/6 annals (a). . . . 6..60/6 aport (d) 7..70/5 arresting (b). . . .8..80/6 atonality (d). . . .9..90/6 baba (a). . . . 10..100/6 barberry (b) . . . . 11..110/5 because (a). . . . 12..120/6 bidding (c). . . . 13..130/7 blastoderm (d). . . . 14..140/20 bondwoman (d). . 15..150/5 bravissimo (c). . . . 16..160/9 buffet[2] (b). . . . 17..170/14 caballero (a). . . . 18..180/14 canorous (d1). . 19..190/8 castigate (c). . . . 20..200/12 certificate (c). . . . . 21..210/9 chiaus (a). . . 22..220//8 cinematheque/ (b). . . . 23..230/5 clone (b). . . . 24..240/6 colleague (b). . . . 25..250/5 compendium (b) . . . . 26..260/5 conglomerate (d). . . . . 27..270/9 controversy (4). . . . 28..280/5 cosmology (4). . . . 29..290/6 crayfish (c). . . . 30..300/5 cub (e). . . .

SPECIAL NOTE . . . My great grandson Roman Groll, an 11-year old sixth-grader, deserves an appreciative note in connection with this article. To be more specific, I’ve recently enjoyed discussing books like Treasure Island (read for fun) with Roman, and my discovery a couple of weeks ago that he was picking up words like CHANGELING and EMPHATHY was what lit a fire under my writing chops. Dirt cheap dictionary-based testing and plenty of personal-choice reading — what’s wrong with this kind of a partnership as a cost-cutting agenda for our middle schools, to say nothing of our intellectually and fiscally bankrupt colleges further up the line?

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