A classic Monty Python sketch concerns a meeting of the Royal Society for Putting Things on Top of Other Things. That, of course, is simply silly. But as cryptic crossword constructors, we do often feel like a local chapter of a hypothetical Society for Putting Things Inside Other Things.
One of the first things we check for when writing a cryptic clue is to see whether the answer word can be read as one word (or word part or anagrammed word) within another. There’s a certain purity and elegance about container clues that makes them a delight to construct and to solve. For one thing, containers often break the entry at unexpected and entertaining places that do not correspond to the entry’s etymology. For another, there’s a clarity to the way the wordplay works that is evident and pleasurable to even a beginning solver.
Some British puzzlers call container clues “sandwich clues,” which is a great word for it. See, for example, the (London) Sunday Times clue-writing contest post from last September.
As you read the examples below, pay attention to the indicator, the word used to indicate what is inside, and/or what is outside. Much of the challenge in writing this kind of clue lies in finding an indicator that flows naturally in the surface reading of the clue, while at the same time doing its cryptic job.
The most basic type of container clue is simply a matter of putting one word into another. Here’s an elemental example from Puzzle #3232:
RANSOMED Paid to release South African money, with a portion invested (8)
In this clue, SOME (“a portion”) is “invested” in RAND (“South African money”) to yield the solution, which means “paid to release.” Note that this is a piece of wordplay that couldn’t be used with any other form of the answer (RANSOMS, RANSOMING, etc.), because the -ED inflection provides the necessary E for SOME.
Here’s another, from Puzzle #3227:
SMASHING Carol, about long-running TV show: “It’s first-rate” (8)
Again, only two words come into play here: MASH (the “long-running TV show”) and SING (“carol,” as a verb).
Containers work just as well with multi-word phrases, as in this clue from Puzzle #3228:
FILIBUSTER Delaying tactic resulting from strain, assuming I clear the table (10)
Here, FILTER (“strain”) goes around I BUS (“I clear the table”) to create a container clue with only two parts, but more than two words.
Much more commonly, though, the container approach needs to be combined with the other building blocks of cryptic clueing. This clue from Puzzle #3216 combines a charade with a multi-word container:
LET THERE BE LIGHT Divine words in Paris: “The narrow includes the revolutionary” (3,5,2,5)
First comes LE (“in Paris, the”), before you even get to the container part (TIGHT around THE REBEL).
One thing that’s occasionally fun to pull off is the nested word container, as in this one from Puzzle #3237:
CRITICIZE Find fault with concierge, superficially, about luxurious hotel around here in Paris (9)
In this clue, we put around RITZ (“luxurious hotel”) around ICI (“here in Paris”)—and then put CE (“concierge, superficially”) around the entire thing. Rings within rings!
SPOILER ALERT: In this week’s puzzle these clues involve containers (often in conjunction with other wordplay techniques): 12A, 23A, 9D, 16D, 21D.
Do you have favorite container clues? Please share them below, where you can also post comments, questions, kudos, or complaints about last week’s puzzle or any previous puzzle.