Can you solve it? Gems from the vault of the National Puzzlers’ League

<span>Viggo Mortensen as Aragorn in The Lord Of The Rings: The Two Towers; The Lord Of The Rings (2002)<br></span><span>Photograph: New Line Cinema/Allstar</span>
Viggo Mortensen as Aragorn in The Lord Of The Rings: The Two Towers; The Lord Of The Rings (2002)
Photograph: New Line Cinema/Allstar

The National Puzzlers’ League is the world’s oldest association of word puzzle aficionados. Active in the US more or less continuously since 1883, its output includes these wonderful anagrams, which obey the constraint that the anagrams must be apposite to the original word(s):

greyhound / hey, dog run! (1898)

a decimal point / I’m a dot in place (1928)

HMS Pinafore / name for ship (1975)

snooze alarms / alas, no more Zs (1982)

The NPL is also the inventor and disseminator of a unique puzzle form, the “flat”, to which the rest of this column is devoted. The flat is a small piece of light verse with some missing words, which makes it like an elaborate, rhyming cryptic crossword clue. Such as:

1. HETERONYM (4 6, 4 3 3)
Ranger station by frozen lake:
Two signs posted JOIN and BREAK
=HOT, Berkeley CA

All flats have the same form. The title explains the type of wordplay, and the number of letters in the answer. Words in UPPER CASE are the missing words, i.e. the spaces in the text where each answer goes, in order. The final line is the author’s nom de plume and address.

In the above example, “heteronym” means the answer is two phrases consisting of the same letters in the same order. One phrase has word lengths 4 and 6. The other has word lengths 4 and 3 and 3.

Answer: park office, park off ice

Flats originate from a US tradition (imported from the UK) of riddles in verse that dates back to the 18th century. They are clever, whimsical and witty. Once you get the hang of them, they are a delight. Here are three more heteronyms. I have included hints, as they can be tricky to the uninitiated. (An asterisk means the first letter of the word is a capital.)

2. HETERONYM (6 3 4, *5 *2 *6)
See how he PRIMAL deftly on his hand-made telescope –
He’ll study FINAL, peaceful now, with lovely snowy slope.
=NEWROW, Brookline MA

hint: it is about a now dormant volcano in the US Northwest.

3. HETERONYM (3 4, 7, 2 5)
Aragorn will hit the ONE
Then, retreating through the TWO
Have a snack of spinach THREE
(Any leafy thing will do).

hint: Aragorn is a character in the Lord of the Rings (pictured at the top). The second line requires an extra detail: in the place he is retreating through there may be apples in the trees.

4. HETERONYM (6, 2 4)
He was a beginner, a tyro, a ONE.
TWO or dark sin. He just hadn’t begun.
=NEWROW, Brookline MA

Flats may be one of dozens of types of wordplay. The REBUS, for example, is when an image presents a heteronymic reading of the answer. In other words, the image describes a phrase which contains the same letters in the same order as the solution. Here’s an example.

5. REBUS (14)

I raise my glass on Mother’s Day
“To Mom – you’ve earned your combat pay.
Your zest for raising brats I lack.
Who needs the whining, fights, or flak?”

My mom quaffs back a fuzzy navel
“Mixed-up kids who misbehave’ll
Grow. One day, you’ll find that CAIN
Has all the joys without the pain.”
=CRAX, Mountain View CA

Note for word nerds: the second stanza is a pangram, i.e. it contains every letter of the alphabet. Note for drinkers: the fuzzy navel is a cocktail.

Answer: grandparenting (G; R and P aren’t in G)

6. REBUS (*3 *4 *5)

A film like ANSWER shows there’s great enjoyment
In dancing nude when faced with unemployment.
=MO’ NATURUAL, Pebblework CY

7. REBUS (6 6)

He prides himself on being debonair.
Self-image is a tricky business, though.
He’s kind of slow and clunky to be fair.
He’s ALL, although he is the last to know.
=NEWROW, Brookline MA

hint: the animal on the left is a common rodent, and the animal on the right requires an article.

8. REBUS (*6 2 8)

In ANSWER roil for greater dough
Than nearby Idaho? Don’t know.
=NEWROW, Brookline MA

hint: look at the content of stamp 1, then stamp 2, then stamps 3 & 4 together. The answer contains an americanised spelling, i.e an ‘o’ where in the UK we would write ‘ou’.

9. REBUS (6,6)


hint: what’s clever here is that both the wordplay and a representation of the answer are in the image

10. REBUS (15 17)

The telephone rings.
I answer it, then hang up.
How I hate HAIKU.

(MR TEX, by the way, is Mike Reiss, a former showrunner of cartoon series The Simpsons.)

Now, another type of wordplay. In a homonym, the answers are spelled differently but sound the same.

11. HOMONYM (3, 4, 4)


hint: there are three words here, all spelled differently, but all pronounced identically when spoken in an American accent. (This is probably my favourite.) When spoken in British English two have a dipthong and are pronounced identically and the third without dipthong is very close to the other two.

12. HOMONYM (10, 3 9)
My tech guy went rogue.
He froze my machine.
He wants me to pay.
He got away clean.
I can’t access files.
He took what was mine.
I’m gobsmacked that he
Deployed TEN, then THREE NINE.
=FEMUR, New York NY

hint: this is very topical, especially if you are a user of the British Library,

The final flat is a mixture of homonym and rebus. The image describes a homonym of the answer.


When crops start to STAND,
Green carpets the land.
=NEWROW, Brookline MA

I’ll be back at 5pm UK with the answers. PLEASE NO SPOILERS. Instead, write me some flats or tell me your favourite anagrams.

The National Puzzlers’ League has around 900 members, mostly in the US, and they include many of the biggest names in the puzzling world, including Will Shortz, who heads up the puzzles department of the New York Times, many top crossword setters, and Mike Reiss, as mentioned above.

If you would like to join the NPL, membership is only $30 and it gets you 12 monthly issues of its house journal The ENIGMA.

Thanks to Henri Picciotto (aka HOT), who introduced me to the NPL and helped research this column.

I’ve been setting a puzzle here on alternate Mondays since 2015. I’m always on the look-out for great puzzles. If you would like to suggest one, email me.

In other news, I’d like to announce my forthcoming book, Think Twice, a compilation of the puzzles that everyone gets wrong. It’s out in the UK on September 5 and in the US on October 15. Pre-orders can really help a book’s trajectory, so if you would like to get your copy you can do so here or here. In this case, don’t think twice! Thankyou!