Decrypting the Cryptic #1: Charades

Thus far, Tough as Nails has been all about me posting themeless standard crosswords for you to solve. But you know what else is Tough as Nails? Cryptics!

Cryptic crosswords can seem intimidating at first. After all, the name says they’re hard! But if you’re up for letting your mind wander in different ways from standard crosswords, I think they can be among the most fun puzzles, and a way to recapture those aha moments for those of us who’ve gotten exceedingly fast at solving standard American crosswords.

For those who don’t know already, I tweet a #crypticclueaday on Twitter, with explanations of each clue on #explanationfriday. Follow me (and check out the hashtags; other Crossword Tweeps have also been adding cryptic clues of their own to join in the fun) and you’ll get practice every day solving this type of clue. My clues for Twitter tend to be on the simpler side (mostly not mixing too many cluing tricks in a single clue), so they can help you get a foothold before you try more complex puzzles, like Joshua Kosman and Henri Picciotto’s wonderful Out of Left Field cryptics.

Today, I’m starting a series of posts (frequency totally TBD) explaining each type of cryptic clue in more depth than I can do on Twitter. We’ll start simple and work our way up to the more oblique clue types.

First up is charades, one of the simplest and most common cluing conventions. In a real-life game of Charades, you clue each word in a phrase in order, one after the other. So it is with cryptics, except now the constructor (or “setter,” in British parlance) is likely cluing parts of a single word.

Example 1: “Climb a trail followed by a dog (6)” (clue credit: Emily Cox and Henry Rathvon, “Obedience School,” Wall Street Journal 5/16/20)

The answer is ASCENT, which is a synonym for “climb.” It was clued by breaking up the word ASCENT into two words, A and SCENT. The A is given right in the clue (the “a” in “Climb a trail”), and SCENT is a “trail followed by a dog.”

Example 2: “Notice small vessel (4)” (clue credit: Kosman and Picciotto, Out of Left Field #0/The Nation puzzle #3529, 4/13/20)

The answer is SPOT, which is a synonym for “notice.” It was clued by breaking into the letter S, which is a common abbreviation for “small,” plus POT, which is a “vessel.”

The straight definition part of the clue doesn’t always have to be at the beginning in charades. Here’s another example:

Example 3: “Confusing situation with Mike’s conferencing app (4)” (Clue credit: Me, April 27)

The answer is ZOOM (which is a “conferencing app”). I broke ZOOM into ZOO, a “confusing situation,” and M, which is “Mike” in the NATO phonetic alphabet. (The apostrophe and S are extraneous and can be ignored.)

Charades can even be used to clue a two-or-more-word phrase, if the breaks between the words being clued in the wordplay portion are different than in the straight-up definition. In this case, the enumeration of the clue reflects the straight definition, not the wordplay. Here’s an admittedly inelegant example (hey, I made this one up on the fly):

Example 4: Tattle on dorm supervisor and racing tipster (3,3)

The answer is RAT OUT, or “tattle on” in the straight sense. But if you split the letters up differently, you get RA (a “dorm supervisor,” as in resident advisor) and TOUT (a “racing tipster”).

Unlike many other clue types, charades doesn’t need an indicator word to point you to what’s going on. But occasionally you’ll see words like “beside,” “with,” “next to,” or “and” used to show the placement of words next to each other. (Careful, though: “With” can also be used to mean a container! I’ll explain what that means in a future post.)

That’s charades for ya! Feel free to ask questions or discuss in the comments.

Tough As Nails Themeless #11

This one’s a bit petite — 14×15, because when I made it I didn’t know as many tricks to get 14s into a 15x grid. (Yeah, yeah, I know I could also have made a 17x. I’m learning!)

I leaned into the trivia on this one, although not so much to the highbrow stuff I usually like to torture you all with. Enjoy!

Tough As Nails Themeless #11 – Across Lite

Tough as Nails Themeless #10

Gah, I apparently haven’t even figured out how to schedule blog posts properly. Apologies if this puzzle eventually shows up twice if the originally scheduled post that seems to have disappeared into the ether materializes.

Anyway, here’s a 16×15 that I’m sure you’ll figure out was born of my love for 41-Across. And if you solve it and have no idea what’s going on with the clue…tweet me! We can have #explanationfriday for themelesses too 🙂

Tough as Nails Themeless #10 – Across Lite

Tough as Nails Themeless #9

I think it’ll be pretty easy for you all to tell what my primary seed entry was. I can’t believe I got to it before Brendan did!

Your ABC (American-born Chinese) of the day at 28D. One day I would like to seed a Rows Garden with it, when I get around to learning how to make Rows Gardens.

Also, I tease my mom a wee bit in 37A. Done with love, Ma. (But you really should let me throw a few things away…)

Tough as Nails Themeless #9 – Across Lite

Tough as Nails Themeless #8

When I made this grid, it was a simpler time. Like, not even a month ago. Now we’re basically living in a disaster movie. Hope this puzzle brings you a little welcome distraction during a tough time!

That being said, thanks must be given to Finn, Kevin, Brian, Ryan, and the constructors who made Couchword such a smashing success on Saturday. To say it’s been the bright spot of the last two weeks would be an understatement. Love you guys!

Tough as Nails Themeless #8 – Across Lite