Between the Cracks

Between the Cracks

Puns and other clues that resist easy classification


Over the course of the past year or two on this blog, we’ve provided notes on each of the major clue types encountered in cryptic crosswords—from the bread-and-butter charades and anagrams to more intricate types like &lit’s and letter banks. We’ve pretty much covered all the standard types.

Yet there are still a few clues that don’t fit into any of the standard sorting pigeonholes. These usually begin in our minds as some kind of joke or play on words, which we then cajole into some semblance of a cryptic clue. Just how hard these clues are to categorize became clear to us when we began supplying annotations for the puzzle solutions.

Take, for example, this clue from Puzzle 3284:
   DOME OF THE ROCK  Dwayne Johnson’s head is a world landmark (4,2,3,4)

If you absolutely had to classify this into one of the standard clue types, you might say it’s a double definition, because it provides two separate ways to read the answer phrase. But it’s quite different in aspect from a standard double definition, which uses two (ideally unrelated) senses of a single word:
   JACK  Raise money (4)
   ROACHES  Fish for bugs (7)

In general, we tend to resort to the all-purpose catchall “pun” in describing these clues in the solutions. It’s a fuzzy descriptor that doesn’t quite catch the full variety of these jeux d’esprit:
   DEMEANING  Shameful process of making people nicer? (9)
   FLAT FEET  They measure your apartment and keep you out of the army (4,4)
   HOLISTIC  Concerning the totality of, like, Swiss cheese? (8)
   LATIN  “Orcuspay” language? (5)
   THE LION IN WINTER  O’Toole-Hepburn movie in which pride comes after a fall? (3,4,2,6)

And even “pun” doesn’t cover clues that are built on rebuses or other kinds of evasive wordplay:
   CORD  Rope, using ____ for a new beginning, becomes cope or dope (4)
   FOREST RANGER  Public sяrvant (6,6)
   THREE BLIND MICE  Nursery rhyme about Mckey, Mnne and Mortmer? (5,5,4)

These and other such clues are a reminder that although classifying wordplay is a helpful guide to understanding them, there’s no system comprehensive enough to encompass a subject as elusive and protean as puzzles.

This week’s clueing challenge: CATEGORY. To comment (and see other readers’ comments), please click on this post’s title and scroll to the bottom of the resulting screen. And now, four links:
• The current puzzle
• Our puzzle-solving guidelines | PDF
• Our e-books (solve past puzzles on your iOS device—many hints provided by the software!)
• A Nation puzzle solver’s blog where every one of our clues is explained in detail. This is also where you can post quibbles, questions, kudos or complaints about the current puzzle, as well as ask for hints.

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