Decrypting the Cryptic #15: &lit.

Welcome to Decrypting the Cryptic #15! 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. 

This will be the last Decrypting the Cryptic post for a while. Not because I’m tired of writing them, but because I’ve now explained to you almost all of the rules and conventions that I know.

I’ve been waiting and waiting to tell you guys about &lit. clues. Why? Because they’re the most elusive of creatures, the hardest for a constructor to come up with. I have a feeling that one does not sit down and write an &lit. clue; rather, an &lit. clue comes to visit you, like a bird stopping by your bird feeder IF you’ve chased all the squirrels away AND you’ve filled the feeder with the very finest suet AND the weather is perfect AND the bird damn well pleases. I was hoping that by the time I was ready to write a post about them, I’d have come up with one.

…I haven’t. So you’ll all have to be content with examples by other people.

What, then, is this mythical beast? “&lit.” is short for “and literally.” What that means in the context of cryptics is that unlike all other clues, which can be broken into a straight definition portion and a wordplay portion, &lit. clues can be read in their entirety as both at the same time. Often, but not always, an exclamation point at the end of the clue is placed to indicate its &lit.-ness.

Here’s what that looks like:

Example #1: Schmear spread a bit at a time! (5,6) (Clue credit: Joshua Kosman and Henri Picciotto, Out of Left Field #5, by subscription only.)

The answer is CREAM CHEESE, which you could say literally is a “schmear spread a bit at a time.” So, the entire clue serves as a way of literally describing the answer. But the clue can also be read as wordplay: SCHMEAR is a letter bank for the phrase CREAM CHEESE; that is, all the letters for CREAM CHEESE are found in the word SCHMEAR. That means that if you “spread” the letters in SCHMEAR “a bit at a time,” you get the phrase CREAM CHEESE.

Note that in this clue, the exclamation point is indeed an indicator for an &lit. clue; “Schmear spread a bit at a time” is just not a phrase one would be expected to shout with emphasis in normal parlance. However, exclamation points are not always indicators for &lit.; if the surface sense of a normal two-part cryptic clue would work with an exclamation point, the constructor may add one.

Let’s try one more &lit. example:

Example #2: I’m a leader of Muslims! (4) (Clue credit: Guardian puzzle #23892 by Rufus; heard through Crossword Unclued)

This brilliantly simple clue leads to the answer IMAM. An IMAM could tell you, literally, “I’m a leader of Muslims” by way of definition. And if you take the first two words in the clue — I’M A — and add the first letter of the word “Muslims” (“leader of Muslims,” get it?), you get IMAM.

Hope you enjoyed these uncommon &lit. sightings, and if you’re a budding cryptic constructor, I wish you an &lit. of your own in the not-too-distant future. Hell, I wish one on myself! 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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