"Horror of horrors, it's so archaic!" they storm (7). "Wasted labour - time-consuming, silly passion" others harrumph (8). And still, endlessly, the question has Manhattanites calling up the Roman gods, they are so perplexed (7). The question is, why have all the New York papers and magazines abandoned the good old American crossword puzzle - the one that could be filled out in pen within 20 minutes - in favour of the mystifying British form of puzzle. The British one has never merited the time it takes to complete (with the possible exception of when Celia Johnson's husband in Brief Encounter used it to woo her back from the mouthful embraces of Trevor Howard)?

The answer is no clearer than the clues, but New Yorkers suspect at least three forces may be at work.

One is a no-holds-barred campaign by the British Tourist Board, spearheaded by Rupert Murdoch and pushed along by various British and/or Anglophile American editors intent on restoring Britain's air of mystery, now that the royal family has been flushed out of its dignified cover.

Another is thought to be a plan, emanating from the highest levels of American government, to enforce minimal educational standards and family values from the top down - a kind of trickle-down sophistication initiative. And the third is feared to be a devious plot of the creaky old KGB to demoralise the American public, now that it can no longer succeed in scaring them.

The stampede got going last year when Murdoch's rather recently acquired New York Post broke from the herd and began publishing the Times of London puzzle. And why not? It was his paper, his puzzle. Who cared that the fuddled readership of the gossipy tabloid were as flummoxed by the answers as by the clues, knowing nothing of historic cricket results, obscure Scottish ministers, and inside jokes about bleating shires. The Post continued to run an easy American puzzle, but the officer worker sitting in the subway, filling in the answer to beret (3), no longer felt the modest sense of accomplishment she had long enjoyed, which for years had allowed her to arrive at her office rippling with confidence. How could she hold her head up, much less pick up the phone, when the tourists sitting next to her had been gaily inking "the world's toughest crossword".

Home-grown magazine editors have also leapt to serve the trend, preying on readers' insecurities and courting the buzz of the undecipherable. New York magazine adopted the Guardian crossword during the period it was in Murdoch's thrall, and even the New York Times occasionally sneaks in a cryptic on its famous Sunday puzzle page.

And this week, for the first time in its 72-year history, the previously game-free New Yorker magazine has inaugurated a crossword puzzle. Is it cryptic? It is, and it's a shame (3,4). It is, however, inevitable - and there is the small consolation that, so far, New York has been spared the farthest reach of true Anglo-Saxon incomprehensibility: the page three girl.

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