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.

Decrypting the Cryptic #14: The Cryptic Alphabet

Welcome to Decrypting the Cryptic #14! 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. 

I’m running out of actual rules to explain to you guys — in fact, the only big one I can think of that I haven’t done yet is the &lit. clue, which is a beautiful thing but difficult to achieve for a constructor and therefore not very common. So, we’ll save that one for next week. Instead, we’ll look at something constructors need to do a lot, which is to indicate a single letter of the alphabet in some way. That letter might need to be added to a word, be dropped from a word, play in a game of charades — but no matter what, it’s boring and not very cryptic simply to give the solver that letter. So here are some ways that we do that.

  • If a word has a common single-letter abbreviation, then the whole word might be used in the wordplay to clue that letter. For example, on your bathroom faucet, the hot and cold taps may be marked “H” and “C”; thus, “hot” and “cold” are often used to indicate those letters in cryptic wordplay. Other examples include:
    • “Win” and “loss” for W and L
    • “Runs,” “hits,” or “errors” for R, H, or E
    • “Left” and “right” for L and R
    • “True” or “false” for T or F
    • “Yes” or “no” for Y or N
    • “Male” or “female” for M or F
  • The NATO phonetic alphabet: “Charlie” for C, “tango” for T, etc.
  • Elemental symbols (not limited to single-letter symbols, of course): “oxygen” for O, “potassium” for K, etc.
  • Other common math and science abbreviations and symbols
    • “Speed of light” for C
    • “Time” for T
    • “Force,” “mass” and “acceleration” for F, M, and A
  • “Nothing” and its synonyms (“zero,” “nil,” etc.) for O, since O looks like a zero
    • “Love” is also frequently used in this way, since love is zero in tennis!
  • Letter grades: “good” for B, “average” for C, “poor” for D, etc.
  • Abbreviations for units of measurement
    • “Second” for S
    • “Meter” for M
    • “Gram” for G
  • “Fork” for Y (get it? Ys are shaped like forks!)
  • Roman numerals: “ten” for X, “five” for V, etc.

Now that I’ve thrown a big, but not comprehensive, laundry list at you, here are a couple of examples to practice:

Example #1: Full minimum stream (4)

The answer is FLOW, or “stream” (either in the verb or the noun sense). A “minimum” is a “low,” so the single letter being clued here is F — which is “full” on your gas tank.

Example #2: Opera article comes after terrible cost (5)

The “opera” being clued here is TOSCA. “Terrible cost” leads you to anagram the letters in the word COST to get TOSC. What “comes after” that is the last letter in the word, A, which is an “article,” as in an indefinite article in the grammatical sense. (Thus, “article” can also be used to clue the letter strings AN or THE, just not this time.)

Hope you enjoyed our exploration of the cryptic alphabet, 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 #12: Beginnings and Endings

Welcome to Decrypting the Cryptic #12! 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. 

A couple of weeks ago, we got into beheadings and curtailments, in which you remove the first or the last letter of a word to get the answer word, or at least to get a string of letters that is found in the answer. Just as you can remove the first or last letter of a word and use what’s left, you can also just…use that letter! Since answer words are never just one letter, this type of wordplay will always be used in combination with some other wordplay type (with an exception we’ll talk about later).

Let’s just dive in with an example:

Example #1: Respectful title: Head of Marketing Driver (5)

The answer is MADAM, which is a “respectful title.” In the wordplay portion of the clue, “Driver” gets you the letters ADAM, as in actor Adam Driver. But what’s “Head of Marketing” doing? The word “head” indicates that you are to take the “head,” or the first letter, of the word “Marketing” and use it to build the answer.

So the wordplay portion of this clue adds up to charades — cluing the first letter in MADAM with “Head of Marketing,” and the rest of the word with “Driver.”

Example #2: Take back micro-bird (3)

The answer is EMU, which is a “bird.” But EMUs are gigantic; they’re hardly micro-sized. What’s going on? As in the first example, the overall pattern of the clue is charades. We’re using the last letter, or the “back,” of the word TAKE. That’s an E. And the Greek letter MU is shorthand for “micro-” in metric measurements. Science! Add E plus MU to get EMU.

There are lots of ways constructors can indicate to you that you’re looking for the first or last letter of a word. Be on the lookout for:

  • Words that relate to the top, bottom, front, or back of something: “head,” “cap,” “end,” etc. (“Top,” “bottom,” “front,” and “back” are of course frequently used as is!)
  • Ordinals: “first” or “last” (And hey, any ordinal works: If you see “third” in a clue, the constructor may be asking you to grab the third letter of the word instead of the first or last.)
  • “Ultimate” (for the last letter)
  • “Beginning” and its synonyms: “start,” “inception,” “origin”
  • “Ending” and its synonyms: “close,” “finale,” “finish”

I promised you I’d talk about an exception to the rule about this type of wordplay always being used in combination with some other type of wordplay, since cryptic crossword answers, just like standard American crossword answers, must be at least three letters long. The exception is when the wordplay in a clue is telling you to take the first or last letters of each word in a phrase. In that case, you don’t need to combine with another type of wordplay because the same trope is being repeated multiple times.

How’s that work? Here’s an example.

Example #3: Forward, as Thandie Newton Hollywood endings (4)

The answer is SEND, which is a synonym for “forward” in its verb sense. (Remember, the definition part of a cryptic clue need not define the answer with the same meaning as the surface sense of the clue; in fact, it’s better and more fun when the two are different!) If you take the last letters, or the “endings,” of the words “as,” “Thandie,” “Newton,” and “Hollywood,” voila! You get SEND.

Now you’re ready to go forth and figure out some first- and last-letter clues. 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 #9: When to stop and try again

Rabbit hole this way... | Claudia L'Amoreaux
This is much cuter than getting stuck in a metaphorical rabbit hole when you’re solving.

Welcome to Decrypting the Cryptic #9! Unlike my usual posts, today I’m not going to be explaining a particular rule or convention of cluing, but rather helping you figure out when you might be going down the wrong rabbit hole.

Everything I’m telling you presupposes you are solving an American cryptic and that you’re solving a puzzle or clue by an experienced constructor who knows the rules. Brits are allowed certain levels of trickiness that we Yanks are not, and because “the rules” are not particularly well codified, novice and intermediate puzzlemakers may make mistakes that break them. (OH HAI IT ME SOMETIMES)

Rabbit hole #1: Mixing up the straight definition and the wordplay

I’ve seen comments on some #explanationfriday posts that indicate that not everyone realizes that the straight definition and the wordplay in a cryptic clue must always be two discrete components. They don’t mix, at least not in American cryptics. (UK cryptics DO allow mixing; I’m not sure what the rules are for India, Australia, and other more recently colonized countries, but I suspect they’re more likely to follow UK rules.)
So, if you find yourself thinking that the first and the last words of a clue are a charade or anagram components leading you to an answer that’s defined by the words in the middle, stop it! You’re in a rabbit hole and it’s time to get out.

Rabbit hole #2: Can’t decide between two answers

This is one thing common to cryptics in every country, I believe: With all the information given to you, there should never be more than one correct answer to the clue.

This isn’t always true in standard American crosswords — probably the most famous example of all time is the New York Times 1996 Election Day puzzle, in which 39-Across could be CLINTON or BOB DOLE, either of which fit the clue and, amazingly, leading to all seven crossings working with their respective clues. It remains one of the all-time constructing feats in standard crosswords, but it’s not a thing that happens in cryptics!

Cryptic constructors want to be tricky and make you have a hard time getting to the answer — but once you get there, you should be sure it’s the answer. It’s part of the constructor’s job to write the clue such that, given all of the information available to you — including enumeration and, if we’re talking about a puzzle and not an isolated clue, crossing letters — there should be only one way to make everything work. (When making full puzzles, I also try to avoid writing clues in which there are two possible answers that you have to use the crossings to pick from, because that eliminates that entry as a possible foothold in the puzzle for the solver.)

This is why, for example, when I write #crypticclueaday, I avoid placing indicator words in the center of a clue if both the definition and the wordplay lead to answers of the same length. For example, “Low voice sounds evil (4)” is an unfair clue because it could lead to BASS (in which case “sounds” would be the homophone indicator for BASE, or “evil”), but it could also lead to BASE because “sounds” is in the middle and could also be indicating a homophone of BASS.

So, if you are really torn between two answers and you’re solving a puzzle by an experienced constructor, take a step back and look at the clue carefully again. At least one of your guesses is wrong!

Tell me more!

Just two rabbit holes today, but that’s in part because I’m a far more experienced cryptic solver than I am a constructor, and I tend not to get stuck in ways that relate to the rules — so I don’t know what else you guys might need help with! Please leave a note in the comments if there’s a clue you’ve been having trouble figuring out, and I’ll try to be your Clue Doctor and diagnose the problem in a future post, especially if your question indicates an issue with understanding the rules that other solvers might be having.
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 #8: Homophones

I heard it was time for some explanations…

Welcome to Decrypting the Cryptic #8! 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. Sounds like it’s time for homophones! (See what I did there?)

Cryptic crosswords make lots of use of homoNYMs — that is, a word that has two meanings with different etymologies (and possibly different pronunciations). We explored that in the double definitions post. But why stop at homonyms when you can play with homoPHONEs as well? Homophones are words that sound the same, even though they are spelled differently, like BASE and BASS (the latter in its “low voice” sense, not its “food fish” sense) or HEAR and HERE.

When a word is being clued using a homophone, there will always be an indicator of some kind that you’re to sound out what’s being clued rather than taking the clued word directly. (There will still be a direct cluing of the word in the direct definition; this is just in the wordplay portion of the clue.) These indicators can include, but are not limited to:

  • A reference to hearing: “I heard,” “in the ear,” “listened to”
  • Words about speaking: “orally,” “out loud,” “said,” “recited”
  • “Reportedly” and its synonyms
  • “On the radio,” “broadcast,” “over the airwaves,” etc.

Now that I’ve told you some common indicators, here’s a simple example:

Example #1: Ram heard objection (4)

The answer is BUTT. The straight definition is “Ram,” or BUTT in the sense of head-butting someone. It’s also a homophone for BUT, which is an “objection,” and the word “heard” indicates that you’re looking for a homophone. And remember how I told you that enumerations are themselves clues? That’s how you know that you’re to look for BUTT and not BUT. (Without an enumeration or a puzzle grid, you’d have to guess, because the indicator word is adjacent to both “Ram” and “objection.”)

Note that, unlike with anagrams, in which the constructor must give you actual words to be anagrammed, NOT synonyms of those words, in the case of homophones the constructor is free to clue a synonym of the homophone. (We can’t go too easy on you — they’re called cryptics, after all!)

The thing about simple homophone examples is that they’re kind of boring. The best cryptic constructors (of whom I do not consider myself one — yet!) are able to string together some pretty elaborate homophonetic (is that a word? I’m declaring it one if it isn’t) phrases that are hilarious when you figure them out. Here’s an example straight Out of Left Field:

Example #2: Revolutionary permitted to be recited — and recited audibly (4,5) (Clue credit: Joshua Kosman and Henri Picciotto, Out of Left Field #6; subscription required to view full puzzle)

This one’s extra tricky because there are a couple of words — “recited” and “audibly” that could be the indicator. In the end it’s “to be recited” that is the indicator, and “audibly” is part of the definition. The answer is READ ALOUD, or “recited audibly” in the straight definition. But READ ALOUD is also homophonetic with RED ALLOWED, in which “red” comes from “Revolutionary” in the clue and ALLOWED comes from “permitted.”

Homophones aren’t as common as the other clue types we’ve discussed thus far because, as I mentioned, the simple ones are kind of boring and the complicated ones are hard to get to as a constructor. I, for one, have not yet managed to produce a good multi-word homophonetic clue yet, but I’ll build a whole damn puzzle around it and then throw a party when I do.

That explains homophones for ya! 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.

Decrypting the Cryptic #7: Reversals

Sometimes in cryptics, it’s time to back that thing up.

Welcome to Decrypting the Cryptic #7! 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.

Back that thing up, because today we’re taking on reversals! In a reversal, a word or phrase is spelled backwards to create another word or phrase. Unlike with anagrams, the exact text to be reversed does not have to be given to you in the clue — a synonym will do, although sometimes you do get the exact letters to be reversed. And there will always be some kind of indicator word or phrase that lets you know that you’re to reverse the order of the letters. Let’s look at an example.

Example #1: Back-end vessels (4)

The answer is POTS (“vessels,”) which is STOP (“end”) spelled backward; the word “back” indicates that you’re spelling something backwards.

Note that the answer must be POTS, not STOP, because the word “back” appears adjacent to “end” (the synonym for STOP), and not adjacent to “vessels” (the synonym for POTS), which indicates that STOP is to be reversed. So note that the clue “End back vessels (4),” besides being more awkward from a surface sense, is also unfairly ambiguous, because the word “back” is adjacent to BOTH “end” and “vessels” — there is no way to tell which four-letter word is being asked for. 

That being said, you may find the indicator word in the middle of a clue when you’re solving a full puzzle; it’s less than perfectly elegant, but not unfair as long as you have crossings that enable you to choose between the two alternatives. The indicator word can also be in the middle if the word to be reversed is given directly in the clue, as in “Flow back to inhale (4)” for WOLF. WOLF here means “to inhale” in the “wolf your food” sense, and the placement of “back” is not ambiguous because you can reverse the word FLOW to get a synonym for “to inhale,” but so far as I know there is no way to reverse any synonym for “inhale” to get a four-letter synonym for “flow.”

There aren’t THAT many words and phrases that reverse neatly into another word or phrase just as they are, so reversals are frequently paired with some other clue type. Here’s an example.

Example #2: Ran back into sore, chaotic situation (7)

The answer is ANARCHY. Again, the indicator word for the reversal is “back.” Turn the word RAN around to get the letter string NAR, which is inserted into the word ACHY (“sore”) to create ANARCHY, a “chaotic situation.” (Remember those containers we talked about?)

Of course, “back” isn’t the only way to indicate a reversal. Here are some other words that should tip you off that you’re to spell something backward:

  • Sometimes we’ll just be nice and say “backward” or “reverse [in any of its tenses]”!
  • Expressions for turning around, like “turned about,” “about-face,” or “U-turn”
  • Clues about going right to left instead of left to right: “turns left,” “go west”
  • “Wrong way” or other phrases that indicate that you’ve been given the answer in the wrong direction
  • Appropriate gymnastics terms like “somersault” and “backflip”
  • Words that indicate backward motion, like “retreat”

Note that when you’re solving a puzzle, you’re going to have some Down entries. In Down clues, you’ll also get some indicator words that I won’t say NEVER appear in Across clues, but are more likely to appear there than in Across clues:

  • Indications that an answer is to be printed going up instead of coming down: “up,” “going north”
  • Synonyms for standing something on end, like “erect”
  • Expressions for turning something upside down, like “inverted” and “flip over”
  • Words that indicate ascent, like “climb” and “rise” — because the answer is supposed to be going down, but instead the wordplay indicates a word that’s climbing up

That’s it for reversals! 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.

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.

Decrypting the Cryptic #5: The Basics

“Begin in the middle and work outwards,” said Hope. “Don’t be stuffy.”

–Robin McKinley, Beauty

Beginning in the middle is a bit what I’ve done with Decrypting the Cryptic, since we plunged right into analyzing various conventions used in the wordplay portion of a cryptic clue. However, I presumed a bit of knowledge on your part, which is that a cryptic clue has a straight definition portion and a wordplay portion. This is the basic underpinning of all cryptic clues.

Every cryptic clue can be broken into these two parts. The straight definition clues the word or phrase according to its literal meaning; the wordplay clues the word or phrase in some sort of tricky manner, such as those we’ve talked about in previous posts (and will talk about in more posts to come!). 

You’ll notice I said “parts” and not “halves,” because there is no requirement that the definition and the wordplay be of equal or even similar length. They also don’t have to come in that order, and to make things trickier still, the constructor won’t tell you where the definition ends and the wordplay begins, or vice versa.

I’ll stick to clue types we’ve already discussed (charades, anagrams, containers, and hidden words) to make this explanation easier.

Example #1: A fellow representative (5) (Clue credit: Me, 6/8)

Let’s now break the clue into its two parts: A fellow / representative. Can you guess which half is the definition and which half is the wordplay? Wait for it…wait for it…the wordplay comes first. This is a charades clue in which the letter A is given to you, and “fellow,” which in its surface sense sounds like it means “in the same position as,” actually is being used as a synonym for GENT. So, “fellow” in its noun sense, meaning “gentleman.” Put A and GENT together and you get AGENT, which is a “representative” — so “representative” is the straight definition.

Example #2: Online partner’s advocate (7) (Clue credit: Hypatia, 6/7)

Again, let’s break the clue into its parts: Online partner’s / advocate. Once again, the wordplay comes first: An E-SPOUSE would be an “online partner,” and ESPOUSE means to “advocate.”

These are short clues, but it’s important to note that even if the clue is longer, in American cryptics you will NEVER find one component of the clue in the middle of the other. (I’m told this is not always true of British puzzles. Those tricky Brits!) That is, there are always two discrete components; they won’t mingle or alternate with each other. So if you’re thinking of mixing up some letters from the first word in the clue with some letters in the last word in the clue, for example, get out of that rabbit hole! You probably need to look at the clue in a different way.

Enumerations

Now let’s talk about those little numbers in parentheses next to the clue. They are themselves clues!

In a standard American crossword, unless you’re solving a puzzle intended to be very easy, such as Crosswords With Friends, you won’t be told when the answer is a phrase that has two or more words in it. For example, in Jeff Chen’s NYT puzzle of 3/14/2018, 16-Across, which has eight blank spaces, is clued as “Take dead aim at”; the solver is not told that those eight letters are to be divided into a four and two two-letter words. The answer is the three-word phrase, ZERO IN ON.

In cryptics, perhaps because we constructors try to mess with your head in so many other ways, you WILL be told when it’s time to look for a multi-word phrase. This is done by placing the letter lengths of each word in the phrase in parentheses after the clue, with commas in between. It makes the most sense to look at this in an actual puzzle:

Example #3: Treacherous deceit leading to a drink (4,3) (Clue credit: Joshua Kosman and Henri Picciotto, The Nation #3250; click the “A puzzle from Book 1” link at the link)

If you look at the puzzle grid, you’ll see that this clue (23-Across) points to an answer with seven spaces to fill in. The enumeration of (4,3) means that those seven spaces are to be divided into a four-letter and a three-letter word. The answer is ICED TEA (“drink”); this clue is a combination of an anagram (“Treacherous deceit” means that one is to anagram the letters in DECEIT into ICEDTE) and charades (since “leading to a” simply means “put the letters you already have in front of the letter A”).

Specificity

Backing up to our explanations of straight definitions: This clue illustrates that, in cryptics, straight definitions need not be as specific as they are in standard American crosswords. In a standard crossword, “Drink” would never be acceptable as a clue for ICED TEA; the two are not interchangeable. (All iced teas are drinks, but not all drinks are iced teas!) At a bare minimum, you would need to say “Certain drink,” and even then it wouldn’t be the most elegant clue. In a cryptic, though, there’s other information helping you get to the answer, and so it’s allowed to have a clue that literally defines the answer without specifically defining the answer.

Hope that helps you understand the basics of cryptic clue anatomy! 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.

Decrypting the Cryptic #4: Hidden words

Welcome to the fourth 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 #3, we explored containers, in which one word is put into another. Now, we’re talking hidden words, in which the answer is provided right for you in the clue, with the letters in order and everything! Usually I do a little explanation first and then give examples, but here it makes sense to dive right in with an example.

Example #1: Silver-mouthed container of a liquid found in Manhattan? (8) (Clue credit: Me, 5/24)

The answer is VERMOUTH, which is “a liquid found in Manhattan?” The question mark indicates that you should not take the definition entirely literally: VERMOUTH is a liquid found in a Manhattan, as in “Stella’s favorite winter cocktail.”

Now look at the clue again: VERMOUTH was right there for you to see all along, in “Silver-mouthed,” and the word “container” was there to point you to the fact that the hyphenated word “silver-mouthed” contains the answer.

Example #2: Squib is in possession of a streaming service (5) (Clue credit: Me, 5/16)

The answer is QUIBI, which is “a streaming service” and also appears in the words “Squib is.” In this case, the words “in possession of” indicate that the answer is held by the phrase.

Like container clues, which we discussed in post #3, hidden-word clues always have some kind of indicator, although it can be quite subtle. In many if not most cases, words that can be used as indicators for hidden words can ALSO be used as indicators for containers, although you’ll never see such a word used both ways in the same clue. So you’ll have to let your mind wander in both of those directions if you see an indicator like:

  • Possession: “has,” “owns,” “holds,” or even simply an apostrophe with S
  • “Restrains” or a synonym
  • Words indicating an enclosure: “surrounds,” “encircles,” “is around,” etc.

How can you tell whether an indicator word is telling you to look for a container or a hidden word? The word itself won’t tell you. But look at the words immediately preceding or following the indicator word. Does a word that matches the enumeration of the answer appear “crossing the border(s)” of those words? If so, does that word sound like it could be defined by the other part of the clue? You’ve probably unearthed the hidden word. If you’re not getting anything that makes sense that way, then try thinking in a container direction instead.

Here’s one more example to help you practice.

Example #3: Beginning of Eugene’s isle (7) (Clue credit: Me, 6/4)

The answer is GENESIS, which means “beginning” and is also contained in the phrase “Eugene’s isle.” I was being tricky in a couple of ways here: First, “beginning” was the definition word, but it’s also used in the wordplay portion of many clues to indicate that you’re to take the first letter of a word and use it as part of the answer. Second, the only clue that you have that you’re dealing with a hidden word is the word “of” — the letters GENESIS are “of” the phrase that follows.

Hope that helps you understand hidden-word clues! 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 #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.