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Word Salad

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

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I Hear You!

[First, 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 great detail.]

All introductions to cryptic crosswords mention “homophone” clues. These are clues in which the wordplay leads to a homonym of the answer. Here are a few examples taken from Nation puzzles of our first year. The homonym is indicated in square brackets after the clue.
LESSEN  Abridge lecture on tape (6) [lesson]
LETTS  Why don’t we broadcast Latvians? (5) [let’s]
LISZT  Composer’s catalog sung (5) [list]
MALI  Ivins discussed in The Nation (4) [Molly]
NEIGHS  Voiced contrary opinions in barnyard language? (6) [nays]
RHEUMY  Running from the nose and from the mouth, with plenty of space (6) [roomy]

Notice that in each case, the wordplay is flagged with an indicator that is intended to help the solver realize that the clue is a homophone: “on tape,” “broadcast,” “sung,” “discussed,” “voiced” and “from the mouth.”

But the “homophone” concept only scratches the surface, as many other clue types can also exist in a phonetic version. For example, here are some phonetic charades:
HAIKU  Recited aloud, an exalted, brilliant stroke—this clue, for instance (5) [high coup]
IQ TEST  Method of assessing brilliance pronounced, yes, “most attractive” (2,4) [aye cutest]
LIE IN WAIT  Lurk stealthily to announce, “Four pounds for a cub, perhaps” (3,2,4) [lion weight]
LORGNETTE  Tradition in Russia: no noisy glasses (9) [lore nyet]
MIASMA  Unpleasant atmosphere sounds like the reason I can’t breathe (6) [my asthma]
NEW DEAL  Roosevelt’s program on the radio uncovered something slippery (3,4) [nude eel]
PRIMA DONNA  Diva, before “Like a Virgin” was heard? (5,5) [pre-Madonna]

And here is a phonetic hidden word:
SHREWD  Cache rudimentary audio holding—that’s clever (6)

Although phonetics can be combined with other kinds of wordplay, we’re not big fans of partially phonetic clues; in general, we attempt to have the wordplay for each clue be either entirely phonetic or entirely literal. We’ve probably violated that precept a few times, but we see it as a guideline, not a rule.

Have you come across some great phonetic 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.

SPOILER: HINT FOR PUZZLE #3268
This week’s puzzle has a larger than usual complement of phonetic clues: 16A, 21A, 5D, 14D.

A Talk With Richard Maltby

[First, 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.]

Richard Maltby Jr., the theatrical director and lyricist, has been constructing the variety cryptic crossword in Harper’s for thirty-seven years, and before that he constructed puzzles for New York magazine. This makes him one of the doyens of the US cryptic world. We asked him some questions by e-mail.

How did you get started as a cryptic crossword constructor?

Steve Sondheim introduced the puzzles to the US when New York magazine was started, in the 1960s. His puzzles were laid out to teach solvers. I became addicted, and once even contributed a guest puzzle. At the beginning, Steve did a puzzle a week. After a year he switched to one every three weeks, with Mary Ann Madden’s Competitions filling the other two slots. Then when Company was going into production, Steve announced he was stopping. I couldn’t bear the idea that the puzzles wouldn’t appear, so I asked if I could take them over. He and Clay Felker, the founder of New York, agreed. So I did, and the puzzles continued to appear every three weeks. But there was a Catch-22. Since I had constructed them, when the puzzles came out, I knew the answers. Which rather killed the fun.

You’ve worked both solo and with a collaborator. How do the two experiences compare?

I’ve never really collaborated on puzzles. When I got too busy to do the puzzles, Ed Galli took them over. Our names were both listed but he did the puzzles. He would then send the final to me and I would polish the clues, or the instructions, if I thought it was needed.

Is there a connection between cryptic crosswords and music? We are of course thinking of you and Stephen Sondheim. Moreover, one of us is a classical music critic.

I think there is a connection between cryptic puzzle and lyrics. Lyric writing involves the technical manipulation of language. You have to say what you want in exactly the right syllables and often with the accents or emphasis predetermined. Lyricists therefore become acutely aware of the intricacies of words, their multiple meanings, their diversity of definitions, pronunciations, spelling. We lyricists come to love the shorthand phrases that exist in English that can express a thought in fewer syllables.

It is also true that these cryptics can exist only in a language as rich as English. There is no “English” language. It is a series of layers: Anglo-Saxon, covered by Scandinavian, covered by French (the Normans), covered by Latin (the church), covered by Greek (the classicists), covered by words borrowed from Germany, Spain and the Arabic world (mathematics), and others borrowed from around the world as a result of British colonialism. That is why the language is so rich, complex, confusing, contradictory, baffling and delicious. No other language has the opportunities for puns and linguistic misdirection. In fact, that is probably why cryptic puzzles were invented: to make a game out of the mysteries and anomalies of our language.

What cryptic crosswords do you like to solve?

I do the London Times puzzles as they appear in the New York Post. This forces me to subscribe to that ridiculous right-wing rag. But that’s where the puzzles are.

Your puzzles are sometimes quite different from mainstream American cryptics, with respect for example to grid size, symmetry and cluing style. Is this something you’re aware of? What do you attribute it to?

There is a mainstream of American cryptics? Where?

I like that these puzzles have a puzzle within the puzzle. You solve the clues, but you then also have to solve the über-puzzle. Variety adds to the fun. I like to change the diagram shape, look, design—and change the way the clues appear. I also like that themed puzzles do not require a balanced diagram. They’d be less fun, in a theme sense, if the diagram had to be balanced. I do however, follow (mostly) the diagram rules established by the British constructor Ximenes: no unchecked letters in a three-letter word, only one unchecked letter in a four- or five-letter word, no more than two unchecked in a six- or seven-letter word, and so on with eight/nine, and ten/eleven letter words.

Tell us about your construction process.

I get the idea first. Fresh ideas seem to come as needed, although I have years of old puzzles with themes I often return to. The theme suggests a diagram: normal 12x12; larger/smaller/rectangular according to the longest words; an odd shape (heart or octagon). Then I see how the themed words can be arranged in the diagram, then I fill the diagram out with the remaining words. In choosing the entries, I look for unusual words, long words, fresh words—but finally there are always just words that fit what is needed.

What are some of your favorite Richard Maltby clues?

Here is one:
   The definitive manifestation of the human comedy is a crime (12)
and, in a down clue:
   Sign for and take $100 off vacation vehicle on beach (9)

We’ll post the answers in the comments in a few days. Thanks to Richard Maltby!

Do you solve Richard Maltby’s puzzles? The puzzles in the London Times? Please share here, along with any quibbles, questions, kudos or complaints about the current Nation 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.

Puzzling resolutions

[First, 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.]

The new year is already a few days old, but there’s still time to mark the turning of the calendar in the traditional fashion: by making New Year’s resolutions. Naturally, we intend to eat less and exercise more in 2013 (as with so many other tasks, we’ve decided to split those two between us), and one of us has already cleaned his desk. But we also have a spate of resolutions for the Nation cryptic.

• First and foremost, we’re going to try harder to vary the types of clues found in the puzzle. The traditional standbys—anagrams, charades, double definitions and so on—will always constitute the backbone of the puzzle, but beyond those there is plenty of room for variety and experimentation.

In one of our earliest puzzles, for instance, we built a clue around the old wordplay gimmick known as the Tom Swifty. That seemed like a productive avenue, but we never returned to it. More recently, we’ve begun using the letter bank (a type of wordplay popular in the National Puzzlers’ League) as the basis for cryptic clues; more on that in a future blog post.

• Learn from abroad. For all its fecundity and bursts of brilliance, the practice of cryptic crosswords in the United States remains fairly limited in scope. Puzzling traditions from other countries can be a vibrant source of new ideas, and we’re going to redouble our efforts to import those ideas into our puzzles.

• Listen to feedback from solvers. The whole point of this exercise is to spread joy and contentment. If that’s not happening, then we’re not doing our job. So we take solver feedback very seriously, starting with our ten or so test solvers. That doesn’t necessarily mean following every suggestion, but when solvers speak with something close to one voice, it’s easy and important for us to take heed; we aim to give them more of what they want, and less of what they don’t.

• Ignore feedback from solvers. This goes hand-in-hand with the previous resolution—in a complementary fashion. Much of the feedback (as in last week’s Letters page) is mutually contradictory (“Easier puzzles!” “Harder puzzles!”). It’s the welcome hubbub of an impassioned conversation, and it’s something we love to see happen. We take it to heart when it seems helpful to do so, but less so when we are being chastised for not being someone else, or for deviating from perceived dogma. Ultimately, we must pursue our own sense of how to make the best puzzle we can—which leads directly to our last resolution…

• Have fun. There’s nothing more important in this realm, either for us or for you.

Got any puzzlers’ resolutions for 2013? Please share them here, along with any quibbles, questions, kudos or complaints about the current puzzle or any previous puzzle. To comment (and see other readers’ comments), click on this post’s title and scroll to the bottom of the resulting screen.

Let's Put the 'Play' Back in Wordplay!

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

It is not uncommon among cryptic crossword fans to compare and contrast “British rules” with “American rules” for cryptic crosswords. But this terminology misses the mark. The truth is that cryptic crossword construction is not chess, and plays by no rulebook. It’s more like music—constraints are essential, but not every composer needs to adhere to the same ones!

A better way to think about this is that cryptic crosswords have evolved differently on the two sides of the Atlantic, and that in the process, different conventions have come into play. Perhaps even more telling is the fact that the world of British crosswords boasts a degree of internal variety that is almost wholly lacking in the United States.

A few weeks of attempting to solve the cryptics in one of the British dailies are enough to reveal profound differences among the various constructors (“setters,” as they say over there), and to highlight the different constraints each of them chooses to follow. The result is that solvers can develop preferences for one or another constructor, not unlike the situation we have here in standard (non-cryptic) crosswords.

In the United States, by contrast, cryptic conventions are so narrowly interpreted that clueing for black-square cryptics does not differ much from constructor to the next; for the most you would be hard-pressed to try to guess a puzzle’s constructor from its clues. The way the best constructors more often distinguish themselves is by their creativity in the design of variety cryptics, with geometric innovations (different types of diagrams), interesting themes and puzzle-specific wordplay variations. And yes, there are brilliant clues in US cryptics, but differences in style are narrow.

One consequence of this lack of variety is that some of our relatively modest departures from convention have been received by some solvers as serious violations. But judged against any standards except the restricted scope of American cryptics, our innovations have been relatively few and not especially revolutionary.

In fact, some ideas which we thought were bold and daring are actually old hat in the UK. Alan Connor’s crossword blog at The Guardian is a mind-opener for American cryptic fans. Here is an example (from his post on May 8). He had asked readers to submit cryptic clues for SCREAMO (“a subgenre of hardcore punk,” according to Wikipedia.) Connor’s comment about one submission:

“Does Cream offer an example? Yes and no” was pleasingly devious.

In a past post, we went to great lengths to explain—or perhaps defend—our clue for HERACLES, which has a similar structure ("He clears stable? No and yes (8)"). Across the pond, this structure not only does not require defending or explaining, it’s merely seen as “pleasingly devious.” Oh, to get to the day when this sort of flexibility is commonplace here in the US! It’s time to put the “play” back in “wordplay.”

Do you solve cryptics outside of The Nation? Do you have any thoughts on style and convention? 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.

The Etymological Taboo

[First, 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.]

You would probably not be surprised to learn that we spend a fair amount of time trolling the dictionary. We love the way the dictionary can remind us about secondary meanings of common words, and it’s helpful in figuring out a fair definition for an entry or an entry fragment. And the etymology of a word is always interesting to know about.

But even we have limits. In an earlier post, we mentioned that many US cryptic constructors, as well as some solvers, insist that definition and wordplay should be based on totally distinct etymologies—some would even go so far as to call this a rule. It’s a principle that applies in double definitions, when breaking up long entries into chunks (as in charades or container clues), and in finding a definition that is sufficiently distinct from the word it’s defining.

We generally respect this US convention, as it is based on a reasonable observation: Clueing REASONABLE as REASON + ABLE, or as “Moderate having sound judgment,” is boring. The meanings are just too close for the clue to be interesting. But note that the criterion here is not the technical one of etymological overlap so much as the simpler (and more subjective one) of “Is it interesting?”

These two criteria can be at odds with one another. For example, it turns out that the words “pursue” and “prosecute” share a root, yet we don’t think it would be a crime to use the first in a definition of the other. Conversely, sometimes a word can be broken into pieces that seem to share a root with the word, but don’t. “Alewife,” for example, is a fish whose name has no etymological relation to either ale or wives. A charade clue based on ALE + WIFE would not be in violation of the “etymology taboo”—but it would be pretty dull.

Or take the clue “To show or not to show? (6)” for SCREEN. This clue appeared in The Sunday Telegraph (a British newspaper) in January 2012. Not only do these meanings of SCREEN share an etymology but the two definitions actually refer to exactly the same word in both senses! Yet we think the clue is interesting, and believe that most solvers would agree. Similarly, in a recent Christmas-themed crossword for the National Post in Canada, Emily Cox and Henry Rathvon clued FENCES as “Fights barriers (6)”—using two senses of the answer word that come from the same root.

The bottom line is that the etymological “rule” is bogus. Whether a clue is entertaining is not determined by whether it is etymologically correct. Even a solver who might enjoy looking up an unfamiliar word or meaning might be less interested in pursuing dictionary research purely for the sake of evaluating a clue.

How do you feel about the etymology taboo? Please let us know below, and feel free to share comments, questions, kudos or complaints about the current puzzle or any previous puzzle.

Going My Way?

[First, 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.]

Every clue in a cryptic crossword has two parts—definition and wordplay—but that doesn’t mean they’re created equal. On the contrary, there’s a subtle but clear hierarchy between the two components of a clue, and it rears its head periodically to affect and constrain the possibilities of a clue’s structure.

The basic idea underlying any cryptic clue is that the solver’s goal is to arrive at the answer—and the answer is represented in the clue by the definition. The wordplay should be thought of as a tool that’s useful in reaching that goal. Solvers anagram letters or concatenate shorter words or say homophones out loud in order to arrive at the answer word—not vice versa.

This makes sense if you think about it: Aside from the undeniable pleasure that comes from grasping the workings of each clue (which we discussed in a blog post a couple of weeks ago), why anagram the letters of an answer, say, once you already know what it is? The logic connecting wordplay and definition flows in a specific direction, and a clue should reflect that—or at least, not violate it.

Note that this is more a philosophical point than a reflection of the actual solving process. In the real world, solvers often derive the answer to a clue from the definition, which can be the easiest way in if you have some information from the grid (a point we touched on here). But the underlying principle remains, which is that solving is in essence a search for the answer word.

Many, if not most, clues are neutral on this point. A clue, for example, may simply juxtapose the definition and wordplay in either order:
  NUTCASE  Sean cut crumbling fruitcake (7)
  DOPER  Perform for each druggie (5)

Or it may assert an equivalence between the two—and equivalence is symmetrical by its nature:
  ACRONYM  In the morning hours, friend is AWOL, for instance (7)
  GINSENG  Tea is liquor’s twin (7)

But the tricky part comes when the two parts of a clue imply a sense of direction, or logical priority. We make a practice of rejecting or revising clues that point in the wrong direction—that suggest, for instance, that the answer would yield the wordplay, or that the wordplay would be derived from the answer.

The most common flags for such clues include the connectors “for” (implying “perform the processes of the wordplay for the answer” and “from” (as in “derive the answer from the wordplay”). Here are some clues that could not have been done in reverse order.
  TOURIST  Trout is stewed for visitor (7)
  CUPID  Athletic supporter with label for naked boy (5)
  ARTISTS  Musicians, perhaps from Dire Straits (7)
  INFLOW  Revenue from news, mostly meager (6)

As with most things, we regard this as more of a guideline than an ironclad law—something we generally observe unless there’s a really good reason to violate it (or we forget). But it does help to add consistency and structure to the clue-writing process.

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.

Clearing the bar

[First, 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.]

Cryptic crosswords come in two flavors: black-square diagrams (also known as block diagrams), which are what we use in The Nation almost exclusively, and bar diagrams. In the latter format, words are bounded by heavy bars between the squares rather than black squares, which makes for a much denser packing of words. So far, we have only created two bar diagrams for The Nation: Puzzle 3218 and Puzzle 3263. We don’t intend to do this very often, but a little variety in the grid format is a good thing—and in our previous incarnations we specialized almost exclusively in constructing and editing bar-diagram puzzles.

The most noticeable difference between bar and black-square puzzles is the amount of “checking.” In a black-square diagram, about half the letters in each word also belong to a word running in the perpendicular direction. In the United States, most constructors (including us) consider 50 percent to be an absolute minimum for checked letters. In a bar diagram, by contrast, the general rule is that about one-third of the letters in each word should be unchecked. While this does not approach the 100 percent checking required in US-style puzzles, it does make for more constrained puzzles.

More checking is helpful for the solver, because it means more help in solving tough clues. In fact, bar diagrams often include some further complications besides the clues themselves. Some entries may be unclued, for instance, or a transformation may need to be applied to some words before entering them into the diagram. Moreover, in British bar-diagram cryptics, there is no assumption that entries need to be common words.

Another feature of many British bar-diagram cryptics is that even the clues may be tampered with, for example by having extraneous letters inserted. (Typically, those letters spell out a relevant message.) We were among the setters who introduced this practice in The Enigma (the publication of the National Puzzlers’ League), making it the home of some of the toughest cryptics in the United States. Many are available in a book we edited, which can be downloaded for free from the NPL website. You can also find bar-diagram puzzles monthly in The Wall Street Journal (by Emily Cox and Henry Rathvon) and Harper’s (by Richard Maltby).

Obscure words, transformations between clue answer and diagram entry, mangled clues…you can see why increased checking is needed! But all this increased complexity is worth it: In addition to the usual satisfaction of solving a cryptic, bar-diagram cryptics often have a final smile-inducing thematic punch line.

Do you solve bar-diagram cryptics? Please share your experiences 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 Finishing Steps

[First, 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.]

One might suppose that a puzzle is complete when every box contains a letter, and very often that is so. Yet two solvers—one in personal conversation and another in a letter to The Nation—recently mentioned a fondness for the final stage in solving a cryptic crossword. This comes when the grid is completely filled, and you go back over it in an attempt to fully understand how each clue works.

At first glance, and certainly to non-solvers, this sort of post-solving phase might seem nonsensical. How is it possible, after all, to fill in a puzzle grid without having cracked all of the clues? But the solution to the paradox is inherent in the nature of cryptic clueing.

A cryptic clue, remember, has two mutually reinforcing parts, the definition and the wordplay—and the grid, with its crossing letters, adds a third source of information (and confirmation). So it’s not at all uncommon for a solver to derive an answer from the combination of a clue’s definition and the letters in the grid, without understanding exactly how the wordplay supports the answer. Occasionally there is also the reverse situation, in which an obscure answer is supported by transparent wordplay, but that is easily resolved with a quick trip to the dictionary or the Internet.

Usually, that perplexity lasts only a moment. But sometimes, especially in the case of deceptive or complex multi-part clues, it can last a lot longer. In the National Puzzlers’ League, this phenomenon has acquired the slangy acronym IGIBIDGI (sometimes pronounced “idgy-bidgy”), which stands for “I got it but I don’t get it”—in other words, “I know this must be the solution, but I can’t figure out why.”

Interestingly, solvers seem to have divergent reactions to the mysteries that can linger after the first steps of the solving process are complete. Some regard it as an esthetic shortcoming on the constructors’ part, believing that solving a puzzle and understanding that solution should be a single unified process. (In fact, we heard from one solver who felt that including an explanation of the wordplay alongside the answer was an admission on our part that our puzzle was substandard; we respectfully disagree.)For other solvers, putting the final touches on a completed puzzle is a special pleasure, like the dessert after a good meal.

There’s no right or wrong on this one, of course—it’s a matter of taste. What are your feelings about the post-solving wrap-up? Please share them here, along with 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.

Lassie, Get Help!

[First, 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.]

In a recent post, we offered some tips for beginners on solving the Nation puzzle and other similar cryptic crosswords. Yet beginners and veterans alike are bound to occasionally run up against puzzles that resist their best efforts. One key strategy in these situations is simply to give the puzzle time (we recently quoted some of our solvers who have found this approach helpful). But when even that doesn’t do the job, why not get help? Here are some ways to do that.

Solving with a partner, or even with a group, can be great fun. Bouncing possible solutions off someone else is often a quick path to that “aha!” moment that makes puzzling worthwhile. Also, your areas of expertise may complement each other, and each member of the team benefits from the combined knowledge of the whole group. And it is a good way for an experienced solver to mentor a beginner. (In fact, we know of one such arrangement where the solving is discussed via Skype.) For decades, we belonged to a group in Berkeley that met to work on Frank Lewis’s puzzles over breakfast. Most of us felt we wouldn’t be able to solve them on our own, given the frequency of references to topics we knew nothing about, the abundance of words we didn’t know and his nonstandard cluing style. The same group now gathers to test-solve the Nation puzzle.

Consulting spouses, housemates, coworkers or even perfect strangers is always an option. In general, those people aren’t necessarily likely to know how to solve cryptic clues, but they can still confirm that Starsky and Hutch was in fact a TV show, that “superheat” means to heat past the boiling point, or that Sydney Greenstreet is indeed an actor.

Answers to such questions are of course always available on the web. In a previous post, we suggested some helpful websites, and here are a couple more.

• If you don’t like unscrambling long anagrams, try consulting the Internet Anagram Server which spits out one-word or multi-word anagrams. You can also restrict the usually voluminous output in various ways.

• The Chambers Word Wizard will not only anagram strings of letters, but will also find words with a given letter pattern, such as S?P?R???T.

• Perhaps most relevant to readers of this blog, the Nation Cryptic Crossword Forum is a place where you can out-and-out ask for hints on our puzzles from Braze, the blog’s host.

And of course, we welcome your 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.

The Big Four

[First, 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.]

Ask a wordplay aficionado about the “Big Four” and it's possible they’ll know just what you’re talking about: J, Q, X, and Z, the four least commonly used letters in the English alphabet (or to put it another way, the four highest-scoring letters in Scrabble). These are the letters that lend spice and flavor to a crossword grid, keeping it from devolving into a blandly undistinguished mess of E’s and N’s and T’s and S’s.

But the culinary metaphor is a good one, because like spices the Big Four need to be used sparingly for maximum effect. Put too many of them in a grid and the result can be overbearing. The goal, ideally, is to sprinkle just enough unusual letters through a grid so that the solver is pleased by the overall effect without quite being aware why.

As in so many areas of life, the key is moderation, and this is even more true in cryptic crosswords than in standard crosswords, for a couple of reasons. For one thing, a cryptic crossword grid contains fewer letters—about 160, give or take, compared to as many as 190 in a standard crossword of the same dimensions—so distinctive letters stand out more piquantly.

But the more pressing difference is that a cryptic clue is much more sensitive than a standard clue to the particular letters in the word being clued. When it comes to Central American currency, for instance, the Guatemalan quetzal is no harder to clue in a standard crossword than a Nicaraguan peso (it’s much harder to get into the grid in the first place, but that’s another story).

Writing a cryptic clue for QUETZAL, on the other hand, is a headache. The big four letters resist all the usual cryptic techniques—they don’t play well with others in anagrams, they’re hard to disguise, they lend themselves to few obvious abbreviations, and so on.

So we’ve learned to keep them to a minimum. In fact, a look through our records shows that we’ve never yet included a word with more than one of the Big Four: no EQUINOX, no JACUZZI, no QUARTZITE. But here are a few entries we have used that would earn a high score in Scrabble:

AQUA VITAE  Liquor with a drop of absinthe, as six eat up (4,5)
BANJOIST  Prohibit support for Pete Seeger, e.g. (8)
EXPLOSIVE  Volatile former pâtissier originally chopped olives (9)
LAZYBONES  Idler is confused by zeal, son (9)
QUARTET  Tauter “Dancing Queen” is foremost for ABBA, e.g. (7)
WOZNIAK  Tech pioneer: “I know A-Z, but in a different order” (7)

Are there words or clues including the Big Four that you particularly like or dislike? 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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