or, stuff that I dragged out of my head

Location: Moncton, New Brunswick, Canada

Friday, June 03, 2005


I never tire of saying how much I love the English language, do I? What I'm particularly enamoured of most of the time is its flexibility, and one of the summits of that flexibility is the cryptic crossword puzzle, which is to a standard daily-newspaper crossword as the North Rose Window at the Chartres cathedral is to a dirty thumbprint.

There are two species of cryptics, the English style and the North American. I'm a fan of the North American style because the rules are far, far stricter, meaning more work for the person writing the clues but a better, fairer game for the solver. A cryptic clue may be divided into two parts: a literal definition of the answer word and an oblique clue based on wordplay. Part of the challenge is figuring out where this dividing line goes, since one of the rules of the game is that the clue has to be a grammatically correct sentence without any unnecessary words.

The cryptic crossword is made possible by various properties of the English language. We have an enormous vocabulary with uncountable synonyms and near-synonyms, and we use the same word for two or three parts of speech without any surface change. This makes it possible to construct clues like this:

Smoother raincoat (7)

the answer to which is "slicker", which has two meanings, as a comparative adjective and as a noun. (The number at the end is a convention of cryptic clues, telling the solver how many letters are in the solution.)

English also represents sounds in many different ways (look at all the different ways "-ough" can be pronounced in "cough", "tough", "though", "through", and so on), which makes it possible to have clues based on the sounds of words:

Sounds like John is confused (6)

which leads to the answer "thrown": "sounds like" means we're looking for a homophone, "john" is a synonym for "throne", which is to say "toilet", and "confused" gives us "thrown", the literal answer. (Another rule for the puzzle-maker is that capitalization and punctuation may be freely used to 1) make a sensible sentence and 2) throw off the solver.)

A third type of clue--there are eight or ten altogether, each exploiting some specific property of English, and they may be combined--is called the rebus, which is created by assembling the clue's answer from parts, as in this clue:

Might vacation for a spell (7)

which can be parsed as "[a word meaning] might [+ a word meaning] vacation for [a word meaning] a spell". "Might" is a synonym for "can", "vacation" is a synonym for "trip", and putting these together gives us "cantrip", which is a magic spell. (The fact that "spell" in the clue looks as if it means "short period of time" is typical of the misdirection clue-writers try to engage in.)

The ideal clue, in my view, is one which would not excite any attention if it were to appear in a piece of text. My all-time favourite is from an old Harper's Magazine cryptic by E.R. Galli and Richard Maltby. It's utterly perfect--a fair clue which is simultaneously a terse and amusing sentence:

Age without a hair dye is hell (7)

Answer to follow in a day or two, unless someone posts it to the comments first.


Blogger Tony Pius said...

Gotcha! OK, answer below.

I started with "hair dye", and the only word that came specifically to mind for hair dye -- because things like "tint" are universal -- was "henna." So then I spent a while trying to come up with a twelve-letter synonym for "age" from which I could subtract "henna" to give me a synonym for "hell."

That didn't work, so I changed tacks. Assuming that "hell" was the synonym, what seven-letter words were there for hell? Hey -- Gehenna! Plus it has my hair dye in it, but where do I get the first... Oh. "Age" without "a".

This sort of thing is fun as a one-off, but it usually takes me about as long to do four or five cryptic clues as it does to finish an entire standard crossword, which I why I generally confine myself to the WSJ's weekly puzzle. Thanks for the diversion, though!

Friday, June 03, 2005 2:48:00 PM  
Blogger pyramus said...

My pleasure. "Gehenna" it is, and I wish I had a prize to give you.

I know cryptic clues can take a while to decipher, but I've long found they're worth the extra time. Anyone, after all, can look up a six-letter word for "Capital of Turkey", but it takes brainpower to figure out "strung-out soldiers" (6).

Especially rewarding are what's known as thematic puzzles, which have an extra fillip that the solver must discover--perhaps a handful of the answers will not fit into the puzzle until sequences of letters within them are entered as numbers (SOFTWOOD must be entered as SOF2OD, HONEYBEE as H1YBEE).

I particularly recommend the monthly cryptics in Harper's and The Atlantic Monthly--the latter is somewhat easier, with less tortuous clues, but neither is usually particularly demonic. Games Magazine and World of Games also publish three or four cryptics per issue (usually two or three standard puzzles and one thematic), and contain as a bonus a solver's guide for neophytes.

Friday, June 03, 2005 4:16:00 PM  

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