Decrypting the Cryptic #3: Containers

“I contain multitudes,” said Walt Whitman, who was talking about himself but could also have been describing certain cryptic clues. In this third Decrypting the Cryptic post, we’re talking about containers, a commonly used cluing tactic.

In a container clue, the wordplay portion of the clue indicates one or more letters or words that are to be “contained,” or inserted into, another word. So, unlike charades, in which the clued shorter words appear one after the other, in a container clue, one or more of the words will appear inside another. Before we even get into what this looks like in a clue, let’s just look at a couple of examples:

  • The word STARLING can be broken up into the word TAR inside the word SLING: S(TAR)LING
  • The word SPATE is the letter P contained by the word SATE: S(P)ATE

Container clues will always have some kind of word that indicates that you’re to put one word inside of the other. (Without such an indicator, you’d have a charades clue instead, since the default assumption is that the component words are being clued in the order they appear.) These indicator words can include, but are not limited to:

  • Words related to eating or consumption: “eat,” “swallow,” “gobble up,” “consume”
  • Synonyms for “take”: “grab,” “get,” “ingest”
  • Certain prepositions: “in,” “inside,” “with,” “around,” “outside”
    • When you see a preposition, pay attention! “XY in AB” would indicate “AXYB,” whereas “XY around AB” would indicate “XABY”
  • Words about surrounding: “encasing,” “encircling,” “girding”

Now that you have an idea of what might make you think “container!” when you look at a clue, let’s try some examples.

Example 1: High fashion is out in preserve (7) (Clue credit: Me, May 21)

The answer is COUTURE, or “High fashion,” which is also the word OUT (given directly in the clue) contained by the word CURE (“preserve,” as in the cured-meat sense). The word “in” serves as the indicator that you’re to contain one word inside the other — and, as you can see, the order is important. The fact that I said “out in preserve” rather than “preserve in out” was not just because the latter doesn’t make any surface sense. It’s to indicate that OUT goes into CURE, not the other way around.

Example 2: Oscar winner Blanchett gets a sign to adjust (9) (Clue credit: Also me, May 19; guess I was really into containers that week!)

The answer is CALIBRATE (“to adjust”). Break that up, and you get the word LIBRA (“a sign” — of the zodiac) going into CATE (“Oscar winner Blanchett”). The word “gets” serves as the indicator that a container is involved — and again, the order of the words shows that it’s CATE that gets LIBRA inside, rather than trying to put CATE into LIBRA.

Example 3: Hill worker gets little time to make something more palatable (7)

The answer is SWEETEN (“make something more palatable”). In this case it’s more than one word being contained: SEN, an abbreviation for Senator, or a “Hill worker”, is the word on the outside, and it is “getting,” or containing, the word WEE (“little”) and the letter T, a common abbreviation for “time.”

That’s how containers work. Feel free to ask questions or discuss 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.

Decrypting the Cryptic #2: Anagrams

Welcome to the second edition of Decrypting the Cryptic! 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.

In Decrypting the Cryptic #1, we explored one of the simplest and most common types of cryptic clues, charades. This time, we get into another ubiquitous clue type — anagrams.

In an anagram clue, all or some of the answer is anagrammed and put directly into the clue. A word or phrase in the clue will indicate, in an oblique way, that the answer is to be anagrammed. Hey, this is cryptic-dom, so you’re never going to be told directly, “anagram these words”! Let’s look at an example:

Example 1: Say, “well, actually,” perhaps destroying main plans (9)

The answer is MANSPLAIN, which is an anagram of “main plans.” (The straight definition is “Say ‘well, actually,’ perhaps”.) The word “destroying” indicates that the phrase “main plans” is to be “destroyed,” or rearranged to form an entirely new word.

You can often spot anagrams because there’s a phrase in the clue that seems slightly awkward or off-kilter. If that phrase contains exactly as many letters as the enumeration in parentheses, bingo! You’ve probably found the anagram. Even if it doesn’t, but the “off” phrase is shorter than the enumeration, keep thinking along those lines — the constructor may have anagrammed only part of the answer, and is cluing the remainder of the answer in some other way.

Example 2: Kim Jong Un’s bestie made a hash of nomads’ dinner (6,6) (Clue credit: Me, April 28)

Hmmm. “Nomads’ dinner.” That’s odd, isn’t it? And it happens to have exactly 12 letters; the enumeration indicates that the total number of letters in the answer is also 12 letters total. Coincidence? I think not! And if you anagram, or “make a hash of,” the phrase NOMADS’ DINNER, you get DENNIS RODMAN, who is “Kim Jong Un’s bestie”.

You can also often spot anagrams by learning to recognize common indicator words, like these:

  • Synonyms for “confused” or “confusion,” like “chaotic,” “addled,” or “disoriented”
  • Words that indicate motion or arrangement, like “moving around,” “arranged,” “ordered,” or “wandering”
    • This can include words like “vigorously,” which implies motion even though it is not itself a verb
  • Indications that something (the original arrangement of the letters in the clue) is bad or strange: “ugly,” “weird,” “stupid,” “oddly,” etc.
    • Beware! “Oddly” can also mean that you’re to take the odd-numbered letters in a word and use those as all or part of the answer! They are called “cryptics,” after all.
  • Synonyms for “crazy,” like “bananas,” “berserk,” or “nuts”
  • Verbs that indicate something is breaking (because you’re breaking the letters apart and putting them back together): “exploded,” “destroyed,” and “smashed up,” to name a few
  • Words that indicate a disturbance, like “messy” or “muddled”

Long entries in a puzzle — say, those of 9 or more letters — often are wholly or partially anagrammed. That’s because longer entries are harder to clue with one of the other clue types without having the clue become a paragraph. So when you see a long entry, look for words in the clue that are good anagram targets.

Pretty sure you’ve figured out which words in a clue should be anagrammed, but you’re stumped on what the anagram is? I like to solve cryptics on paper, so that I can write the word or phrase that I want to anagram and strike out any crossing letters I know to see what’s left. Or you can use a tool like the Internet Anagram Server (note: it tends to be more successful at shorter phrase lengths) to help you out. If this feels like cheating, you don’t have to, of course, but I won’t judge at all. Hell, if I wrote the cryptic, I almost certainly used that site to make the anagram in the first place.

That’s your anagram explanation. Feel free to ask questions or discuss 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.

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

Tough As Nails Themeless #7

In these trying times, perhaps soothe your anxiety with a hard puzzle? Maybe?

I’m hypercompetitive, as you all know. I placed fourth at ACPT last year, and even though I know that the absence of a couple of key players had something to do with that, it’s REALLY hard not to dream of the podium now that I’ve come so close. It almost hurts physically to think of missing ACPT for the first time in 19 years, but on the other hand my husband has asthma and does not do well with respiratory illnesses. I am keeping a close eye on the COVID-19 situation and will make a late-in-the-game decision on whether to come or not.

Cross your fingers, guys. This sucks. But enjoy the puzzle!

Tough as Nails Themeless #7 – Across Lite