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The War Against Cliché | The Nation

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

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The War Against Cliché

[First, three links:
• The current puzzle
• Our puzzle-solving guidelines
• A Nation puzzle solver’s blog where you can ask for and offer hints.]

In a brilliant routine from the 1970s, comedian Albert Brooks imagines himself as a writer from the golden age of radio, struggling to come up with a script for that evening’s broadcast. He starts on familiar ground—“Good evening, ladies and gentlemen”—but worries that that opening might be a cliché. “Nah, can’t be,” he assures himself. “After all, everybody else uses it.”

Such is the allure and the danger of clichés. You don’t want to retread ground that countless others have covered before you, yet the temptation to do so is often strong. And in the world of crosswords, specific grid entries and clueing strategies become clichés in the first place for good reasons—because they offer ways to deal with recurrent problems. Thus the reliance in standard crosswords on words and names (OLIO, ERLE Stanley Gardner, Brian ENO, etc.) whose patterns of vowels and consonants meet a particular configuration. (This is not a new issue, incidentally, as this 1927 cartoon makes clear.)

The world of cryptics has its own clichés as well, wordplay strategies that threaten to recur a little too often. Here are a few examples:

• “amid the grass” to clue the many words that begin with RE- and end with -ED
• “Kennedy” for the times when an entry ends in -TED, because even posthumously he’s still the most famous Ted
• “flower” to refer to a river (because it flows—this was clever the first few dozen times, but soon lost its appeal)
• “doctor,” “tailor,” and “engineer” as anagram indicators
• “losing one’s head” to clue, well, a word beheadment
• “club” for Y or “university” for U

Naturally, not even the most conscientious constructor could dodge these and their fellows all the time. And in truth, there are occasions when a putative cliché is just what a clue needs. For example, we have no regrets about this clue from Puzzle #3236:
FLAGELLATED 13 Jack Fitzgerald Kennedy is whipped (11)

But when all is said and done, clichés are the kiss of death to an otherwise out-of-this-world puzzle. So we go the extra mile and avoid them like the plague.

Got any candidates for the list of overused cryptic locutions? Please share your nominations below, along with comments, questions, kudos or complaints about the current puzzle or any previous puzzle.

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