Friday, November 28, 2008

Friday, November 28, 2008

Title: Cryptic Crossword
Author: Fraser Simpson
Theme: None

Wow, I've never gotten to blog a cryptic before, so this should be fun. Rather than assume everyone who comes here is a cryptic expert and provide critical commentary on the clues and surface readings, I'm going to target this blog for those who aren't that familiar and will provide a detailed breakdown of how these clues work. In the process, perhaps a few more lucky souls will get hooked on this clever style of puzzle.

First the basics: In a cryptic clue, there are always two paths to the answer. At least one is always a definition, the other is generally some type of word play, though it is occasionally another definition for a different sense of the word (see 23d). These two parts are then put together to form a sentence. The surface meaning of the sentence rarely relates to the answer. In fact, clues are often misleading by deliberately using words such that the surface meaning has a different interpretation than either the definition, the wordplay, or both. The surface meaning will ideally make sense and read as pseudo-normal English. By pseudo-normal, I mean not necessarily as written or spoken prose, but sensible. A good cryptic clue often sounds like a newspaper headline. Great clues are usually funny, too.

So, a few things to keep in mind.

  1. Unlike standard American crosswords, not every letter is part of two answers. Better than half of the letters cross, though, and this is fair since every clue has two parts; it's virtually inconceivable that there will be ambiguity in both the definition and wordplay.
  2. The two parts of the clue will not intermingle. Therefore, the definition will always be at the beginning or end, not in the middle somewhere. The trick is to parse the clue correctly by figuring out how much of the beginning or end is the definition, and interpreting the wordplay. In each of the clues, I will italicize the definition part, for clarity.
  3. Good clues should have no extraneous words. Everything should be either part of the definition or part of the word play. The one exception is the occasional "is", "for", "becomes", or some such that connects the wordplay to the definition. This is acceptable since it can be considered part of the wordplay.
  4. Unlike standard crosswords, common abbreviations are fair play without any additional indicator that it's an abbreviation. So "cold" can be "c" (as seen on a faucet), "oxygen" can be "o", etc. Numbers almost always refer to Roman numerals.
  5. Sometimes wordplay involves parts of words. "Initial", "head of", "first of", and other indicators of this sort can refer to the first letter of a word. Similarly, "last of", "end of", "final", etc. can refer to the last letter of a word. "Empty" can mean remove all but the first and last letters (see 14a); "the edges of" can mean the same. A "piece" of a word is almost always the first letter. Always be alert to taking things literally, so "half of the world" could be "thew" (i.e., literally half of "theworld").
  6. There are many other common types of wordplay, which we will discuss as we look at the puzzle itself.
  7. Any wordplay that is not a straight, sequential combination (like, AGENT = AG+ENT) will have an "indicator" word or phrase that tips you to what is going on. These will be discussed within each section, below. Wordplay generally consists of "indicators", telling what action to perform, and "fodder", the word or words on which to perform the action.

I think the best way to attack this is by wordplay type, so let's do that.

Double Definitions:

A double definition is just what it sounds like. Both halves of the clue offer a different definition of the word. This is a common device for short words, and clues of this type are typically short as well (two or three words). So if you see that combination -- short fill, short clue -- think double definition. In this puzzle, there was only one (though I suspected 1a for a minute).

  • 23d: Happy flower (4) (GLAD). Glad means happy, and it's short for gladiola, a type of flower. Note that the definitions can define two different pronunciations (they don't here, but they could). So, for example, "Saxophone crank" could doubly define WIND (the noun/instrument and the verb). I didn't say it was a good example... :)


The straight wordplay or "charade" clue builds the answer in sequence. This is a very common type, and does not require any special "indicators", since the default is to interpret words in the order written. There are several of these in this puzzle, as follows:

  • 1a: Fall fruit gathered (7) (PLUMMET). PLUM (fruit) + MET (gathered).

  • 21a: Religious conservative put up money for a mindreader (14) (FUNDAMENTALIST). FUND (put up money for) + A (a) + MENTALIST (mindreader).

  • 1d: Supple quality initially put at risk (10) (PLIABILITY). First letter of (initially) "put" (P) at (superfluous connector) + RISK (liability) = P+LIABILITY.

  • 6d: Wonderful two arm bones (5) (RADII). RAD (wonderful) + II (two).

  • 18d: Runaway sheep gasp for breath (7) (RAMPANT). RAM (sheep) + PANT (gasp for breath).

Positional Indicators:

The simplest indicators are positional indicators. They either reinforce the default order (usually to enhance surface reading) or indicate change in order. Be aware, in positional wordplay, that whether the fill is across or down is significant. In down-clue wordplay, you might see "on", "above", or "under", whereas in an across clues you'll see words like "before", "ahead of", or "following".

  • 14a: Stage performer braided hair at rear of empty attic (7) (ACTRESS). TRESS (braided hair) after (at rear of) AC (empty "attic", e.g. remove all but the first and last letters).

  • 2d: Remaining tidy after university (7) (UNEATEN). NEATEN (tidy) after U (university) = U+NEATEN.

  • 15d: Sailor is on land, darn it (9) (TARNATION). TAR (sailor) above (is on) NATION (land). Note that this is a down clue, so the literal interpretation works. Note also that the "is on" is not critical to the wordplay (since the default is to interpret in order), but that it makes for a better surface reading.


Containers are similar to positional indicators, except they tell you to put one word inside the other (or, conversely, one word around the other). Containment indicators may be obvious, like "contains" or "is inside", or may be more subtle, like "grabs", "eats", or "about". The majority of clues tend to involve some containment wordplay.

  • 5a: In error, I restricted zoo animal (7) (GIRAFFE). In GAFFE (error), I + R = G(I+R)AFFE. R is "restricted" in the sense of R-rated movies.

  • 16a: Card inserted into clock shrinking more (7) (TIMIDER). ID (card) inserted into TIMER (clock) = TIM(ID)ER.

  • 19a: Anticipate raw materials included in fee (7) (FORESEE). ORES (raw materials) included in FEE. Note that fee, here, could have been further clued, but wasn't.

  • 7d: Engaged fellow comprehends new money matters (7) (FINANCE). FIANCE (engaged follow) gets (comprehends) N (new) = FI(N)ANCE. N is a common enough abbreviation for new, as in NY, NJ, NH, ...

  • 17d: Mugs holding second small whipped desserts (7) (MOUSSES). MOUES (mugs) containing (holding) S (second) S (small) = MOU(S+S)ES. Mugs, as in makes a grimacing face. Second = S in time (H:M:S). Small = S in clothing sizes.

  • 19d: Most doting on Desmond in fort (7) (FONDEST). ON + DES (Desmond) contained in (in) FT (fort) = F(ON+DES)T.

  • 20d: Be quietly angry about head of wet athlete at the pool (7) (SWIMMER). SIMMER (be quietly angry) containing (about) W (head of "Wet") = S(W)IMMER.


Anagram clues contain the answer in scrambled form. The scrambled letters should always be appear directly (e.g. rats => STAR); you won't have to interpret an answer and then scramble that (e.g. vermin => rats => STAR), as that would be insanely difficult. Anagram clues tend to be overused by beginner constructors, since they are generally easy to create. A good puzzle will limit the number of anagrams in favor of more clever wordplay. Anagram indicators tend to be given a lot of leeway, and may be any verb that can mean mixed, confused, wrong, different, playful, etc. But since the fodder is always straightforward, it's usually easy to uncover. Be alert to words and phrases (especially weird phrases that seem forced) that have the exact same number of letters as the answer.

  • 9a: Suggestions tossed aside (5) (IDEAS). Anagrammed (tossed) "aside".

  • Sharecropper linocut, by Elizabeth Catlett, 1970
  • 13a: Print "clout" in a different way (7) (LINOCUT). "clout in" anagrammed (a different way). The quotes around "clout" pretty much scream anagram fodder.

  • 4d: Mistakenly start in carriage (7) (TRANSIT). Anagrammed (mistakenly) "start in". This was a tough anagram to uncover because it feels like a container clue (def: Mistakenly = X (start) in Y (carriage). That's what makes cryptics cool.

  • 12d: Finds out Isaac Stern is playing (10) (ASCERTAINS). "Isaac Stern" anagrammed (is playing).

Acronyms/Initial Letters:

Acronym clues hide the answer as the (usually, but not always) first letters of a sequence of words. There will always be an indicator hinting that this is taking place, such as "initially" or "heads of" or some such. A similar treatment, not appearing in this puzzle, is alternating letters (e.g. even or odd letters of the fodder phrase).

  • 8d: Finishes the bacon and eggs finally (4) (ENDS). thE bacoN anD eggS, taking only the last letters (finally).


Homophones are words that sound the same as the definition. These are generally not included directly (that would be too easy), but are clued. Homophone indicators evoke the fact that you must listen to the answer, e.g. "we hear", "to the ear", "to the audience", "audibly", etc., and are usually pretty obvious.

  • 26a: Heard opposition coming down (7) (DESCENT).
    Sounds like (heard) DISSENT (opposition).

  • 22d: Farm machinery pioneer does, we hear (5) (DEERE). DEER (does) homophone (we hear).

Hidden Words:

Hidden words clues contain the answer, in sequence, in a fodder phrase. Sometimes the word is hidden backwards, but the indicator will reflect that. Hidden word indicators are very similar to container indicators, so you often have to consider both possibilities. Fodder phrases for hidden words should be just long enough to contain the answer (i.e., no extra fodder words that don't contain any of the answer).

  • 5d: Spanish city, in spring, ran a daycare (7) (GRANADA). Hidden inside (in) "sprinG RAN A DAycare".

Combinations/The Rest:

Of course, not all clues fall completely into any one category. Often, there are multiple devices at play.

  • 10a: Left announcement about group of musicians on Ecstasy (9) (ABANDONED). AD (announcement) contains (about) BAND (group of musicians) ON E (Ecstasy) = A(BAND+ON+E)D.

  • 11a: Warship's alert bishop, 50, breaking oaths (6,8) (BATTLE STATIONS). B (bishop, in chess) + L (50) inserted into (breaking) ATTESTATIONS (oaths) = B+ATT(L)ESTATIONS.

  • 24a: Gibbon, e.g., heading off cheers with colorful shawl (6,3) (LESSER APE). Remove the first letter of (heading off) OLES (cheers) with (superfluous positional indicator) SERAPE (colorful shawl) = LES+SERAPE.

  • 25a: I am near big feet (5) (IAMBI). I AM + almost all of (near) BIg = I+AM+BI.

  • 27a: Awfully sure after 10 teachers' goals (7) (TENURES). Anagram (awfully) "sure" after TEN (10) = TEN+URES. This is considered a "partial anagram", which many purists frown upon as inelegant. It doesn't bother me as much as the meaning-challenged surface reading.

  • 3d: Lost medic wandering around rising mountain chain (9) (MISPLACED). "medic" anagrammed (wandering) containing (around) backwards (rising, since this is a down clue) "ALPS" (mountain chain) = MICED around SPLA = MI(SPLA)CED.

My favorite clues, in order of preference, considering wordplay and surface reading:

12d: Finds out Isaac Stern is playing
18d: Runaway sheep gasp for breath
15d: Sailor is on land, darn it
21a: Religious conservative put up money for a mindreader
2d: Remaining tidy after university

That's it.

Thanks for listening.

- Pete M.


Anonymous said...

Thanks so much for the write up. I try these and don't get very far. Your explanations help a lot.

Beth Willenborg

Doug P. said...

Wonderful writeup, Pete! This is a great introduction for anyone interested in the ins and outs of cryptic crosswords.

Besides your favorites, I also liked "Fall fruit gathered". So deceptive when you first read it, and so obvious once you figure it out. Great clue.

pauer said...

Excellent work, PM! Fraser really is a wonderful cryptic writer, isn't he?


Pete M said...

Thanks for the kind words, all. Nice to know people are reading. :)