One of the best-known and wittiest precepts about cryptic crosswords was the British constructor Ximenes’s description of a cryptic clue as containing three things: (1) a definition, (2) wordplay and (3) nothing else. (See “Fair and Square.”)
Yet in practice, the wide and eclectic world of cryptic crosswording admits of other possibilities. Some British constructors allow for clues that consist only of straight definitions, if they’re done in a punny or unorthodox way. They call these “cryptic definitions.” Here are some examples taken from Don Manley’s Chambers Crossword Manual:
CANDLE A wicked thing (6)
SWINDLER Keen observer of gulls? (8)
LAST TRAIN Presumably one doesn’t run after it? (4,5)
Some constructors and editors also approve of clues that point to the answer in three different ways—with three definitions in place of the usual two, for instance, or with one standard wordplay and two definitions.
These are never going to be used more than occasionally, but they do show up in cryptics. Or at least, they do elsewhere. In The Nation, not so much.
Nation reader Tom Atkins recently wrote, “I miss Frank Lewis! His cavalier ways with the rules of constructing cryptic crosswords put me off for a long time, but I eventually came to appreciate the ambiguity of his random mixture of one-, two- and three-part clues. Some of Kosman and Picciotto’s clues are fiendishly clever, but…they seldom bend the rules.”
Guilty as charged! It’s true that we have consistently stuck with the idea that a cryptic clue has two parts, definition and wordplay. Usually the parts are disjointed, sometimes they are coterminous (see “Lit Parade”). On this front, our biggest deviation from US orthodoxy is the occasional clue in which we allow the definition to leak into the wordplay (see “Breaching the Firewall”).
Yet, as solvers, we do enjoy “cryptic definition” clues when they are used in non-cryptic crosswords, and feel the same about the not-as-frequent Frank Lewis three-part cryptic clues. Why do we not use such clues ourselves?
It’s certainly not because we play strictly by the rules. After all, we have pushed the envelope with new types of clues (see “The Rebus Clue,” <“a href="http://www.thenation.com/blog/172274/i-hear-you">I Hear You” and “Going to the Bank”). We have followed in Frank Lewis’s footsteps by splitting entries into different locations in the diagram, and having clues cross-reference each other, as well as in other respects (see “The Etymological Taboo” and “What’s a Three-Letter Word For?”).
So it’s not that we’re beholden to any particular dogma. The truth is much more mundane: We probably stick to two-part clues mostly from force of habit. But stay tuned: this may change.
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