Cryptic crossword clues and Christmas crackers

A while ago, Victoria and I came across one of the many pages of silly jokes on the internet. The jokes are similar to the ones you get in Christmas crackers, and I found that I often knew the punchline, or could work it out. Soon we were seeing how many jokes we could guess. I had a clear advantage of being brought up with many of these jokes (and I used to read joke books religiously, cover-to-cover), but after a while, we both seemed to get the knack of predicting punchlines.

Why did the cookie go to hospital? Because it felt crummy.

A little later I was doing a cryptic crosswords and laughed out loud when I realised the answer to one clue. Although generally seen as quite an intellectual practise, some cryptic crosswords are very similar to jokes. For example, one clue was: Discovered why electrical equipment was dangerous (9). The answer is unearthed, since 'unearthed' is another word for 'discovered' and if electrical equipment was unearthed, it would be dangerous.

The trawlerman's after deducting expenses (3, 6). Net profit

The way to solve this sort of cryptic crossword clue (and there are many sorts), is to identify the two parts - in this case 'Discovered' and 'why electrical equipment was dangerous' and attempt to find a link between them. The same is true when guessing the punchline of a joke. For example, if the joke is What do you do with a sick boat? then would try to find a word or concept that that links boats with sickness: in this case doc(k). Thus the answer is: Take it to the dock.

What kind of horses go out after dusk? Nightmares

While you may think that I've missed the whole point of jokes, I think this goes right to heart of why we find jokes funny. There are many theories about why we laugh at jokes (read The Naked Jape for a good examination of several theories), but they generally concern finding unexpected links between two situations. One reason why it is difficult to unearth the punchline of jokes is that the connection between the two concepts are unexpected. Similarly, cryptic crossword clues give you two clues for each word, which should make them easier to solve than normal crossword clues. However, the two clues are deliberately chosen to describe the answer in very different and therefore distracting ways; we don't normally connect unearthing a new fact with unearthing a plug.

Two types of bacon and game (10). Backgammon

Often, when trying to solve a cryptic crossword clue, I resort to a looking up words from the clue in a thesaurus to see if any of its synonyms is related to other parts of the clue. I've wondered if I could automate this approach to find possible answers automatically (purely for intellectual purposes - I realise it would take the fun out of crosswords). I seem to remember that a computer program was created that was able to write Christmas cracker style jokes with some success by using words with multiple meanings in two senses at once. Here is a paper (PDF), which describes an attempt to automatically identify humour in text. This finding of connections between disparate ideas (such as cryptic crosswords and jokes), seems to be the basis of a lot of human creativity. For example, most, if not all mathematics is about connecting different ideas (this graph with that equation, this number with X). This may explain why so many comedians are intelligent.

Clearly this is a very geeky, and stereotypically humourless-scientist way to view Christmas cracker jokes. Sorry.

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