A few weeks ago, we wrote about the clear division in nearly all cryptic clues between the two essential components of a clue, the definition and the wordplay. Those are the elements that mutually prop one another up to lead to an unambiguous solution, and in most cases they are meant to be kept well apart.
But there are rare instances in which the definition and the wordplay get to mix it up a little. The classic case is the clue type known as an &lit. (the designation, which goes back to cryptic crosswords’ British roots, is short for “and literally so”). Here, the entire clue does double duty, serving as both the definition and the wordplay. These are the triple toe loops of the cryptic world: difficult to execute, flashy and impressive when done right. By convention, they’re generally flagged with a final exclamation point.
Here’s an example, from Puzzle #3232:
19 XERXES For example, masculine king from the East! (6)
(That, at least, is how the clue was supposed to read. Because of a communications mixup, it ran with “to” instead of “from”. Our apologies.)
The entire clue provides the wordplay (SEX plus REX reversed, or from the East) and at the same time it works as a definition for XERXES.
The workings of an &lit. clue are pretty straightforward, and there’s general agreement on the rules. In particular, clues that work fully with only one of the two parts—in which, say, the entire clue presents wordplay but the definition only accounts for part of the clue—are widely frowned upon. But a grayer area arises when a constructor allows a little leakage between the two parts. Here’s an example from last week’s puzzle:
1 HERACLES He clears stable? No and yes (8)
It’s impossible to break this clue into two discrete parts, yet it isn’t an &lit. either. Rather, it executes a sort of branching fork in the middle, so that “He clears stable? No” is the wordplay (an anagram of he clears) and “He clears stable? Yes” is the definition, a reference to Heracles’ labor in cleaning the Augean stable.
We would not have attempted such an unorthodox clue structure under just any circumstances. We did it here because “no and yes” seemed to justify that kind of switching mechanism, and because the clue presented the opportunity for a semi-inverted &lit. There may be other opportunities to write clues along these lines.
Then there’s the more casual breach, allowing small syntactic or semantic references to flow from one part of a clue to another. Here’s an example from Puzzle #3230:
17 NEON LIGHT Darkness engulfs Libya’s capital after many years—this could vanquish it? (4,5)
The definition (“this could vanquish it”) doesn’t stand on its own, because “it” refers back to the “Darkness” mentioned in the wordplay part of the clue. Purists are apt to reject such things; we don’t really mind them. To our way of thinking, a small leak here and there helps bind a clue together, and keeps a puzzle fresh and interesting.
If you have any thoughts on the issues raised here—or if you have comments, questions, kudos, or complaints about Puzzle #3237 or any previous puzzle—please post them in comments.