Clever Cluing & Playing With Expectations

Probably my favorite aspect of a truly great crossword puzzle is topnotch cluing. For me, the perfect field of clues covers a lot of subjects (history, pop culture, etc.), uses engaging wordplay to make me work for my solve, and surprises me a few times with some diabolically clever cluing.

That last one is particularly difficult, because a clever clue needs to work on multiple levels, misleading you in one direction but still allowing you to have that a-ha moment of realization when you finally get it. Clever clues play with a solver’s expectations, trusting us to make snap assumptions that turn out to be wrong.

[Trust me, Google Image searching “a-ha moment” is a delightful way to spend a few minutes. This woman seems WAY too excited, even for a eureka moment.]

For instance, “Second cousin?” is one of my all-time favorite clues. It uses an established phrase to push you in one direction (following what sounds like a standard synonym-style clue), but any crossword solver worth their salt knows that a question mark implies some wordplay is afoot.

Indeed, the common crossword clue construction “____ kin” or “____ cousin” — meaning something like or similar to whatever fills that blank — provides our next hint, pushing our attention back to the word “second.” And once it clicks that we’re not using “second” in terms of counting, but in terms of “increment of time,” the wordplay reveals the real answer: MOMENT.

It’s a great a-ha clue, seemingly simple but immensely clever.

There was a terrific story on about another case of a solver’s expectations getting the best of him. Detroit Tigers player Max Scherzer was excited to see himself referenced in a USA Today crossword, under the clue “Max Scherzer’s pride.”

The answer was a three-letter word, and the constructor was expecting most solvers to come up with ARM as the answer. But Scherzer had something else in mind, posting on his Twitter account:

Check out 7 down in the USA TODAY… If They did their homework the answer should be DIC for eye color. #luvdablueye

DIC is the standard DMV abbreviation for dichromatic eyes, meaning eyes of two different colors.

Just goes to show you need to keep an open mind and stow your expectations at the door when you tackle crosswords these days.

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