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.