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Double Talk | The Nation

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

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Double Talk

The double definition is the simplest and most straightforward type of cryptic clue. It contains no anagrams, no reversals, no charades—none of the elaborate mechanisms that characterize all the other clue types. For wordplay, it simply serves up a second definition, thus providing the required two paths to a solution by the shortest possible means. In fact, beginning solvers may note that a two-word clue is almost always a double definition, since two words do not provide enough raw materials for any of the other, more complicated clue types.

Yet within this simple framework, the double definition (or double-def to aficionados) covers a deceptively wide range of operations. It also raises a number of tricky questions—particularly the issue of how unrelated the two meanings must be for a clue to be seen as legitimate.

Our general principle is that a word should exist as separate entries in the dictionary in order to be the basis of a double-def. That is to say, we should be dealing not with two different senses of a single word, but with two different words that happen to be spelled identically—as for instance FELL (sinister) and FELL (stumbled), or MINE (pit) and MINE (belonging to me). Etymology is often a good indicator in these cases. And if two words are spelled identically but pronounced differently—such as SUPPLY (equip) and SUPPLY (in a limber manner)—well, so much the better.

But as is so often the case, we regard this more as a guideline than as an iron-clad rule. Sometimes a clue works so nicely on the surface that a little etymological kinship can be overlooked. For example:
   IRON  Press club (4)

Or the etymological link may be there but not readily apparent to the casual solver:
   FINE  Penalty? Yes! (4)

In still other cases, a difference in pronunciation can compensate for etymological overlap:
   OBJECT  Oppose goal (6)

The most common vehicle for double definition clues are short monosyllabic words that have come into the language in different ways. For instance:
   RAIL  Bird’s means of transportation (4)
   TANK  Military vehicle to fail completely (4)
   CHAD  Piece of paper hanging from The Nation (4)

But sometimes longer words can lend themselves to double-defs as well:
   UNIONIZED  Having no charge in a labor group (9)

and even:
   CONSTITUTIONAL  Walk within legal limits (14)

One particularly fertile source of double definition clues are proper names, which can be read differently depending on whether or not they are capitalized. For example:
   EVERT  Former tennis champion is upset (5)
   SHEEN  Luster of an actor (father or son) (5)

Double definition can also shade into puns, when one of the definitions is a whimsical coinage or secondary meaning:
   HOWLER  Wolf’s blunder (6)
   WOODSY  Tiger-like, or evoking the forest (6)

Then there are the full-on puns:
   PASSING THE BAR  Daunting challenge for an aspiring lawyer—or an alcoholic? (7,3,3)

And every once in a long while, it’s possible to come up with a double-definition clue that is an &lit. Here’s one:
   GAME  Duck, Duck, Goose, for instance! (4)

Do you have any favorite double-definition 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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