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Word Salad

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

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Spooner and Company

In an observant post last week, the blogger Braze noted one of the difficulties with using Spoonerisms as the basis for cryptic clueing. A Spoonerism—in which the corresponding sounds of two words are swapped, for example to render “The Lord is a loving shepherd” as “The Lord is a shoving leopard”—is a well-established genre of wordplay, and possibilities for using them abound.

The problem, as Braze pointed out, is that there’s no way to flag a Spoonerism without explicitly invoking Spooner—which instantly gives the game away. He’s absolutely right. We’ve been searching for years for some alternative indicator for a Spoonerism, but with no success. In fact, every clue we’ve ever published that was based on a Spoonerism mentioned Spooner himself.

(Spoonerisms are so named after the Rev. William Spooner, a famously absent-minded Oxford professor who—like Yogi Berra after him—had many more malapropisms attributed to him than are likely to be genuine. A favorite Spooner anecdote, unrelated to Spoonerisms, has him preaching a long Sunday sermon, taking his seat, and then remounting the pulpit to add, “Every time I mentioned Aristotle, I meant St. Paul.”)

Here are a couple of examples from the files:
   EASY CHAIR Spooner’s tacky first-born gets a comfy seat (4,5)
   RUB NOSES  Spooner’s point: flowers kiss on the tundra (3,5)
   NEW DEAL  Roosevelt’s program, as expected: genuflect to Rev. Spooner (3,4)

But Spoonerisms are only one example of a whole range of wordplay that goes beyond the standard typology of anagrams, reversals, charades and so on. It’s not uncommon for us to come across a bit of wordplay that fits more easily into the world of Will Shortz’s weekly NPR challenge, which comes with explicit instructions (“Take an eight-letter name, then delete one letter and reverse the remainder…”) than the more elliptical style of cryptic crosswords.

Just recently, for instance, we had a puzzle that included the word FIRMWARE. The clue was based on the observation that if you swap the last letters of FIRM and WARE you get FIRE and WARM—a sort of non-phonetic last-letter Spoonerism variant. There’s no obvious way to flag that, so we wound up simply describing the process, albeit somewhat cryptically:
   FIRMWARE  Permanent programs can heat up if terminals are interchanged (8)

Another example was this clue, based on a very specific letter substitution:
   VISCOUNT  Aristocrat’s price markdown, initially reduced by 99% (8)

Again, there is no specific name for this kind of wordplay, and so the constructor can do no more than suggest how it works. The result, as the Rev. Spooner might say, is a cladistic Sioux.

What do you think about Spoonerisms and other unusual wordplay? 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.

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• 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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