Fair and Square

Fair and Square

Our basic philosophical stance on cryptic conventions.


In Great Britain, cryptic crosswords appear daily in multiple newspapers, and the community of constructors and solvers is vastly larger than its US counterpart. One wonderful consequence of this state of affairs is a much wider range of voices among puzzle constructors than we have here in the United States. We’ll write more about British cryptics in a future post, but today, we’d like to say something about a debate that started there, and really never happened here in the United States.

The two sides in that debate differ about what makes for an acceptable cryptic clue. On one side, some constructors rely on wit and loose word associations to create entertaining puzzles, without worrying too much about rules and technicalities. In the United States, our predecessor Frank Lewis was the sole representative of this style. On the other side, some constructors call for “square dealing.” To paraphrase the founder of that school of thought, Ximenes (Derrick Macnutt), a cryptic clue should include three things: a definition, wordplay and nothing else. The wordplay, while deceitful, should work rigorously and offer a logical path to the answer.

In our tenure at The Nation, we have strayed from this basic principle just once. Here is a clue that we used in #3199:

Sulky quality encountered downtown? (9)

The answer was PETULANCE, and we had intended the wordplay to suggest sixties pop singer Petula Clark, whose hit song was “Downtown.” From there, the solver would be pretty close to the answer. This generated some perplexity, as most people felt the clue just didn’t work. We have to agree; it was not fair.

We learned our lesson from that: We definitely belong on the side of the square-dealers. Still, we regret the fact that in the US, a lot of additional restrictions have been added to the basic square-dealing ethos. Among the “rules” that are generally followed by American constructors, for example, are these:

Entries in a cryptic crossword should all be common words.

Definition and wordplay should be completely unrelated etymologically.

Spacing should not be used deceitfully.

Our view is that these rules, and many others like them, have been an unnecessary burden to cryptic crosswords in the United States, and may have reduced the breadth of their appeal. We have already violated all three, while staying within the bounds of square dealing as defined above.

Among the less-than-common grid entries we’ve used are GIRASOLE (#3201), MERMAID’S PURSE (#3202) and YCLEPT (#3226).

Clues violating the etymology taboo include those for ACTS OF GOD (Floods, e.g., in Divine Comedy routines) in #3208, SLIP OF THE TONGUE (Mistake that could make a shoe uncomfortable?) in #3211 and ONE NIGHT STAND (Single piece of furniture’s hookup) in #3220.

As for clues where we used spacing deceptively, we know we’ve done it, but we can’t seem to find any examples!

We are well acquainted with US cryptic standards, and in fact co-edited hundreds of puzzles for The Enigma within that framework. But when the opportunity to create a weekly black-square cryptic for The Nation came along, we realized that we would want to experiment with some new ideas. We touched on one of these last week, and we’ll discuss more in future posts.

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Katrina vanden Heuvel
Editorial Director and Publisher, The Nation

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