As we’ve discussed before, there are plenty of opportunities for a cryptic clue writer to bend the rules of grammar and orthography in order to deceive solvers. In the early years of American cryptics, “Disregard punctuation” was often a standard warning affixed to puzzles, and solvers today know, for example, that a comma can break up a unitary phrase without violating the underlying cryptic reading. We’ve gone even further in some of our clues by joining separate words into a single compound—using “forefront” to indicate the letter F, for instance, and sometimes even eliding the word break between the two halves of a clue.
Yet there’s one rule that seems to remain constant and impervious to tweaking—at least by us—and it has to do with capitalization. For all our willingness to push the limits in other areas, we haven’t yet worked up the nerve to use “Polish” to mean “polish,” or “curt” to mean the pitcher Curt Schilling (for that matter, we wouldn’t conflate him with the former Austrian currency either).
Why not? Well, because capitalization is really part of a word’s spelling, which means it defines the difference between two words. “Polish” and “polish” are distinct linguistic entities, so we don’t use them interchangeably.
(Parenthetically, a different but related issue arose recently when we had to clue the word TAIPAN in Puzzle 3278. Our original clue was “In China, a foreign businessman busted piñata,” but we subsequently decided that “taipan” and “piñata” weren’t truly anagrams. So we changed the clue to “In China, a foreign businessman damaged patina”—a less smooth surface but a sounder clue.)
Still, the fact that an uncapitalized word and its capitalized counterpart are different doesn’t bar a constructor from using one as a decoy for the other. You just have to be tricky about it.
The time-honored method is to put the word at the beginning of the clue. Since every clue begins with a capital letter by convention (well, except for that clue we wrote one time about k.d. lang), the solver can’t tell the difference between “Polish” and “polish” if you start the clue that way.
Occasionally, that lets us clue a proper name as though it were a common noun. For instance:
CATFISH Hunter fit poorly in capital (7)
But the reverse is much more common, a clue in which a common noun is masquerading as a proper name. Here are a few examples:
HAIRDO Bob, for one, is rigorous about intelligence operations up front (6)
HIJACK Rob greeting John familiarly (6)
SMASHING Carol, about long-running TV show: “It’s first-rate” (8)
TABOO Bill loves that which is forbidden (5)
UNGUARDED Frank’s guru and mystic: Ed (9)
As you can see, every one of those clues starts with the name in question. It’s a constraint that lends structure to our clue-writing—which is the kind of constraint we like best.
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