One of the chief requirements of a cryptic clue, as all solvers and constructors know, is a meaningful surface. You can’t just string a bunch of words together in a row, willy-nilly, and pass it off as part of a legitimate cryptic.

But beneath that simple directive lies a whole slew of difficult borderline cases and tricky judgment calls. That’s because “meaningful” isn’t a simple binary attribute; it exists along a spectrum, and constructors have to figure out where to draw their own line. At one end of the spectrum is pure gibberish, while at the other are sentences or phrases so natural they hardly seem like clues at all. Years ago, one of us wrote this clue:
   ACCURSED Goddamn cue cards got mixed up (8)
and was tickled when a solver pronounced it “the cryptic clue most likely to have been spoken in real life.”

It’s the area in between those extremes that can be treacherous. In general, we try to write clues that are syntactically sound and whose meaning doesn’t seem too blatantly forced. That often leads us into conversations like this:

—I like the wordplay here, but I don’t quite understand the surface.

—Well, there’s a macaw on the tennis court, see, and she’s got a purple cigar that won’t stay lit because… Yeah, I’ll change it.

But we still wind up with clues whose naturalness may be debatable. For example:

MILLIONS Reversible, thin coat for big cat: that’s a lot of money (8)

OREGANO Herb donuts captivate Shakespearean princess (7)

PARODY Weird Al’s specialty punishment: interrupting compensation (6)

Other clues have a wacky surface that is intended to be part of their charm.

PRESERVER Vishnu the maître d’? (9)

RED-BAITER Fire ant, perhaps, consuming the head of Andrew McCarthy, famously (3-6)

SPEED OF LIGHT Swimsuit escape: Einstein thought about it a lot (5,2,5)

And occasionally, a clue will force us so far into the weeds that there’s nothing to do but fess up and laugh about it.

SOUL MUSIC Genre that Aretha Franklin helped popularize in order that Albert Einstein’s hometown is supported by uranium (really—that’s not a typo) (4,5)

This week’s multiple-choice clueing challenge: MILLIONS, OREGANO, or PARODY. To comment (and see other readers’ comments), please click on this post’s title and scroll to the bottom of the resulting screen. And now, four links:
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