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Word Salad

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

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Coming and Going

A solver recently inquired about the legitimacy of this clue from Puzzle 3283:
   Bread, upon reflection, is bread (4)
The basis for the wordplay in the clue is the fact that the answer is a palindrome. Read it forwards and it means “bread”; read it backwards and it also means “bread.”

In one sense, then, the palindrome clue can be taken as a special case of a reversal clue. It gives a definition of the answer word, and a definition of the word that results when you reverse the answer. It just so happens that they’re the same word.

But that description, although fundamentally accurate, glosses over the inherent weakness of a palindrome clue—namely, that it doesn’t provide two independent paths to an answer. The premise of a cryptic clue, after all, is that either part can lead a solver toward an answer, with the other part confirming. In theory, you should be able to come up with an answer from the wordplay and let the definition tell you whether that answer is correct—or vice versa.

A palindrome clue doesn’t do that, because only one of those paths is operational. You can use the definition to come up with an answer, and the wordplay will rule out some possibilities—it’s not PITA, for instance, or ROLL. But you can’t do the opposite, solving from the wordplay and using the definition to confirm.

So it’s true that a palindrome clue is less legitimate than most clues, which probably accounts for our solver’s discomfort. But to our way of thinking, this is at worst a venial sin. Palindromic words are so rare that this sort of clue doesn’t come up very often; remember that long palindromic phrases like “Able was I ere I saw Elba” or “Lisa Bonet ate no basil” are rather contrived, and unlikely to show up in a cryptic crossword grid. (See our post on “dictionary nature.”) And when a solver does encounter a palindrome clue, the very rareness of palindromic words helps to narrow the search fairly quickly.

Moreover, palindromes offer a bonus for solvers. Even before solving the clue, if you have the first letter of the answer from a crossing word, you can confidently also enter the last letter; if you have the penultimate letter, you can also enter the second letter, and so on. This helps compensate for the weakness of the clue.

We have used similar clues on a few occasions in previous puzzles:
   ANNA Leo’s heroine looks the same in the mirror (4)
   CIVIC Honda running forward and in reverse (5)
   OTTO Going up and down, it’s the same guy (4)
And we’ll use them again in the future—but probably not very often.

What are your thoughts on palindrome clues? Please share your thoughts here, along with any quibbles, questions, kudos or complaints about the current puzzle or any previous puzzle. To comment (and see other readers’ comments), please click on this post’s title and scroll to the bottom of the resulting screen.

And here are three links:
• The current puzzle
• Our puzzle-solving guidelines
• A Nation puzzle solver’s blog where you can ask for and offer hints, and where every one of our clues is explained in detail.

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