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Word Salad

Kosman and Picciotto on their Nation puzzle, cryptic crosswords, wordplay and puzzles in general.

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Last week’s blog post cited the precept of Ximenes (the nom de guerre of the English constructor Derrick Macnutt) that a cryptic clue should consist of three things: (1) a definition, (2) wordplay and (3) nothing else. That’s an admirably crisp and straightforward guideline, expressed with wondrous wit; but in practice, the third part of the formula is hard to observe too faithfully—at least not without sacrificing more surface sense than we’d prefer.

So, like most American constructors, we use the Ximenean principle more as a guideline than as a commandment. It’s true that a clue that juxtaposes definition and wordplay without any intervening material has a certain elegance and purity to it—especially when the border between the two parts comes in the middle of a single phrase, as in this clue:

SPRAYER Mister Softee’s primary appeal (7)

Or, more fancifully, this one:

CURBSIDE “Where to Recycle a Dog”: a song not likely to hit the charts (8)

(All the clues quoted here come from past Nation puzzles.)

Far more often, though, it’s necessary to include some kind of connective tissue to make the parts of a clue work smoothly together. These fall into a few basic categories.

• Juxtaposition: The two parts of a clue can simply be joined by “and,” “or” or, less often, “with.” Some constructors go even further, using connectors like “by” or “alongside,” though we do not.

• Equivalence: Since the two parts of a cryptic clue both point to the same answer, it’s common for a clue to assert their equivalence with a connector like “is”, “can be” or perhaps “equals.”

• Process: Many clues are instructions that tell the solver how to arrive at a given solution, and here the constructor is on more delicate ground. Our philosophy is that the wordplay should lead to the definition, and never vice versa; so any connectors that imply directionality need to be pointing in the appropriate direction.

This arises most often with the connector “for,” in the sense of “to arrive at” or “to get.” Here are a few examples:

CIGAR Invest one grand in automobile for Havana, perhaps (5)

H G WELLS Mercury sources for writer (1,1,5)

NIECES Rewrite Scene I for younger relatives (6)

In each case, the solver is instructed to do the relevant operation (insertion, charade and anagram, respectively), to get the intended answer. “For” pointing in the other direction—i.e., [definition] for [wordplay]—would make no sense.

Today we wrote about clues that break into two disjoint parts (wordplay and definition). We’ll leave for a future post a discussion of clues where the two parts are coterminous (so-called &lit clues), as well as clues that have some leakage between the two parts.

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