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In Plain Sight | The Nation

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Word Salad

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

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In Plain Sight

For solvers, the hidden-word clue is simultaneously the easiest and (potentially) the hardest type of clue in the cryptic arsenal. Like the title document in Edgar Allan Poe’s classic story “The Purloined Letter,” the answer is right before the solver’s eyes all along, which can make it either easy to spot or infuriatingly easy to overlook—or both.

That duality is what gives the solving of a hidden-word clue its unique emotional charge. Cracking other clues, after all, is generally a two-stage process—the solver has to figure out what type of clue he or she is dealing with, and then go ahead and act on that knowledge. That process can stall at any point. It’s very common, for instance, to be aware that a clue involves an anagram but still not able to come up with a correct solution right away.

Solving a hidden-word clue, by contrast, is all about detecting the clue type, through such indicators as “found in,” “runs through” or “concealed by.” Once you’ve done that, finding the answer is straightforward to the point of triviality. So when a hidden-word clue resists for any length of time, there’s a head-slapping moment that all cryptic aficionados are familiar with. The answer was right there all along!

From a constructor’s standpoint, a hidden-word clue—especially for a short answer of no more than 5 or 6 letters—can be seductively easy to come up with. So we generally try to use them in a handful of circumstances: when the answer word can be hidden in an interesting way, or when the clue gives a smooth surface, or as a last resort when other clueing strategies fail. Here are some examples of hidden-word clues from past puzzles:
   ACTS OUT  In fact, Southerner misbehaves (4,3)
   AGITATO  With a jittery manner, it’s essential to flag it at once (7)
   ALPHA  Beginning part of crucial phase (5)
   NAURU  Country on Argentina-Uruguay border (5)
   PINTO BEAN  Legume is ingredient of soup, in to be a nutrient (5,4)

Hidden-word clues can be done in reverse as well, as in these examples:
   MADNESS  Lunatics send a message back, concealing mental instability (7)
   PENCIL  Left-leaning Catholic nephew embraces writer (6)
   VIRTUOSOS  In retrospective, Picasso’s outrivaled masters of technique (9)

As you can see, most (though not all) hidden-word clues tend to be suitable for short answer words. But we did pull off one supersized hidden word, expressly aimed at Nation readers:
   ERIC ALTERMAN  INation columnist captivated by chimerical term: “Antineoliberalism” (4,8)

Do you have any favorite hidden-word clues? Please share 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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