The double definition is the simplest and most straightforward type of cryptic clue. It contains no anagrams, no reversals, no charades—none of the elaborate mechanisms that characterize all the other clue types. For wordplay, it simply serves up a second definition, thus providing the required two paths to a solution by the shortest possible means. In fact, beginning solvers may note that a two-word clue is almost always a double definition, since two words do not provide enough raw materials for any of the other, more complicated clue types.
Yet within this simple framework, the double definition (or double-def to aficionados) covers a deceptively wide range of operations. It also raises a number of tricky questions—particularly the issue of how unrelated the two meanings must be for a clue to be seen as legitimate.
Our general principle is that a word should exist as separate entries in the dictionary in order to be the basis of a double-def. That is to say, we should be dealing not with two different senses of a single word, but with two different words that happen to be spelled identically—as for instance FELL (sinister) and FELL (stumbled), or MINE (pit) and MINE (belonging to me). Etymology is often a good indicator in these cases. And if two words are spelled identically but pronounced differently—such as SUPPLY (equip) and SUPPLY (in a limber manner)—well, so much the better.
But as is so often the case, we regard this more as a guideline than as an iron-clad rule. Sometimes a clue works so nicely on the surface that a little etymological kinship can be overlooked. For example:
IRON Press club (4)
Or the etymological link may be there but not readily apparent to the casual solver:
FINE Penalty? Yes! (4)
In still other cases, a difference in pronunciation can compensate for etymological overlap:
OBJECT Oppose goal (6)
The most common vehicle for double definition clues are short monosyllabic words that have come into the language in different ways. For instance:
RAIL Bird’s means of transportation (4)
TANK Military vehicle to fail completely (4)
CHAD Piece of paper hanging from The Nation (4)
But sometimes longer words can lend themselves to double-defs as well:
UNIONIZED Having no charge in a labor group (9)
CONSTITUTIONAL Walk within legal limits (14)
One particularly fertile source of double definition clues are proper names, which can be read differently depending on whether or not they are capitalized. For example:
EVERT Former tennis champion is upset (5)
SHEEN Luster of an actor (father or son) (5)
Double definition can also shade into puns, when one of the definitions is a whimsical coinage or secondary meaning:
HOWLER Wolf’s blunder (6)
WOODSY Tiger-like, or evoking the forest (6)
Then there are the full-on puns:
PASSING THE BAR Daunting challenge for an aspiring lawyer—or an alcoholic? (7,3,3)
And every once in a long while, it’s possible to come up with a double-definition clue that is an &lit. Here’s one:
GAME Duck, Duck, Goose, for instance! (4)
Do you have any favorite double-definition 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.
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