Decrypting the Cryptic #6: Double Definitions

Welcome to Decrypting the Cryptic #6! In this series, we’ll be taking apart common cluing conventions used in American cryptic crosswords to build your confidence in solving a puzzle variety that can be, as its name implies, especially challenging. Today, we’re taking on double definitions.

Last time around, we took a break from explaining any one individual cluing convention to break down the fact that all cryptic clues have a straight definition component and a wordplay component. The reason I did that is that I didn’t want to explain double definition clues before laying down a solid explanation of the two parts of a cryptic clue. With a double def, things are a little different. Instead of the clue consisting of a straight definition plus wordplay, you get two straight definitions. As with other clue types, the dividing line between the two definitions is for you to figure out. 

Does it not sound terribly cryptic to have two definitions of the same word? Constructors avoid double-def clues where the two definitions are simply synonyms of each other; in fact, the two senses of the word being clued should not even be etymologically related to each other. Check out this elegant example from Nate Cardin:

Example #1: Scooter was blue (5) (Clue credit: Nate Cardin, April 22)

The answer is MOPED. Pronounce it with two syllables — “mo-ped” — and a moped is a “scooter.” Pronounce it with just one — rhymes with “coped” or “doped” — and “moped” is the past tense of “mope.” In that sense, “moped” means “was blue,” in which “blue” means “down in the dumps” and not the literal color that the surface sense of the clue seems to imply.

Here’s another example I made up on the fly:

Example #2: Fish instrument (4)

The answer is BASS, which, pronounced with a short A, is a “fish,” and pronounced with a long A, is a musical “instrument.” As I mentioned in last week’s post, unlike standard crosswords, cryptics are more freewheeling about whether definitions and answers must be interchangeable with each other. You’d surely chafe at seeing the clue “Instrument” for BASS in a standard American crossword, because there are plenty of instruments that are not basses. But cryptics mess with your head a bit more. Deal with it!

As with charades, there’s no need for an indicator word to show that you’re dealing with a double definition. But these clues are often on the short side, so if you see a clue that’s two or three words long, think about whether it might be a double definition.

That’s it for double definitions! Feel free to ask questions in the comments, and don’t forget to check out #crypticclueaday on Twitter. I post a new clue each day using that hashtag (other constructors have been adding their own as well), and every week on #explanationfriday I give the solutions and a brief explanation of how to derive them. These clues are a great way to hone your cryptic solving skills and build your confidence up to solving a full puzzle.

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