A Cornucopia of Clever Clues

Problem-solving-crossword

Last month, in the afterglow of the Crossword Tournament From Your Couch event, I waxed nostalgic about some of the clever and tricky cluing that the constructors employed to keep the solvers on their toes.

I had so much fun poring over those puzzles and highlighting the clues that caught my eye that I’ve decided to do it again.

You see, I keep track of favorite clues from constructors as I solve various crosswords. Not only are they often witty, hilarious, and/or impressive, but they inspire me as a puzzler to always try to find entertaining, engaging new angles for clues.

So here are some favorites from my personal clue vault.

(And I’m crediting the constructor listed on the byline for each clue. These clues may have been created elsewhere and reused, created by the constructor, or changed by an editor, I have no way of knowing. So I’m just doing my best to give credit where credit is due.)


I’m a sucker for delicious wordplay, and thanks to a plethora of ingenious constructors, modern crosswords are rarely lacking in linguistic legerdemain.

One of my favorite cluing tropes is the old word-form switcheroo, when a constructor makes you think the clue is one word form (a verb, for instance) when it’s really a noun, or vice versa.

Erik Agard’s clue “Leaves from a club” certainly sounds like a verb, so it’s a fun surprise when you realize the answer is LETTUCE.

Similarly, the ability to utilize the multiple meanings of words can make for some seriously elusive clues. Mike Shenk’s “Volume setting?” has you thinking music or audio, but the answer SHELF also fits neatly.

Byron Walden is a master at this sort of cluing, as evidenced by his clue “Uruguayan uncle?” for the phrase NO MAS. Given how often TIO, TIA, MADRE, and other Spanish familial terms are used in crosswords, it’s a keen example of misdirection.

keep-right-misdirection

And playing with the tropes of crossword cluing creates opportunities for more wordplay.

“Trick or treat,” a clue from Aimee Lucido, masquerades as the common Halloween phrase when it’s really two examples cluing the answer VERB.

Similarly, “Jets or chargers starter” sounds like a sports reference, but the lowercase “chargers” reveals something else is afoot. The answer to this clue (which appeared in a puzzle constructed by Craig Mazan and Jeff Chen) is TURBO.

Erin Rhode’s “Drum, for some” sounds like a simple example-style clue, but the answer RHYME reveals how she hid her wordplay in plain sight.

Yes, these clues have a lot in common with wordplay clues, but they also play with the conventions of crossword cluing.

owl

Oh, and speaking of clues that hide their trickery in plain sight, I’ve got a few examples of that as well.

Kathy Weinberg once clued ROWS as “15 things in this puzzle,” which is the sort of clue that’s simultaneously so vague and so on-the-nose that it drives me insane.

Similarly, Steve Faiella uses modern slang to hide an answer in plain sight with the clue “Has beef with somebody, say.” That sure sounds like a vernacular use of “has beef with,” so you’re less likely to read the clue as a simple description of EATS, the actual answer. Very sly.

I’m going to close out today’s post with a clue that’s not only clever, it’s economical as well. Robyn Weintraub clued HOLE with two simple words — “Darn it!” — and it’s as hilarious as it is effective.

What are some of your favorite crossword clues, fellow puzzlers and PuzzleNationers? Let us know in the comments section below! We’d love to hear from you.


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Cultural Sensitivity and Crosswords: Where Is The Line?

crossword1

A few days ago, an entry in The New York Times Crossword caught the eye of a solver. That solver posted about it in the Facebook group “The Crossword Puzzle Collaboration Directory,” which is dedicated to encouraging new constructors to make and submit puzzles.

That post kicked off an intense debate about problematic entries and how to handle them. Not only is this topic far from settled, but it’s emblematic of a larger question: where is the line?

You see, one of the advantages of our modern Internet-savvy culture is that feedback is virtually instantaneous now. If someone is offended or troubled by an entry or clue in the Monday crossword, it doesn’t take days for a letter to the editor to arrive at the paper. It takes seconds to post online and reach a potential audience.

Of course, that rapid response is a double-edged sword, because hot takes and rush-to-judgment commentary are just as quick to spread.

Both sides of that double-edged sword were in full effect as the replies piled up on that original Facebook post. As those in agreement with the original poster offered their support, counterpoints rolled in, either in defense of the entry or the clue.

(Naturally, given that this is the Internet, some chose to expand on the topic in general disagreement with a culture they claimed was too sensitive and quick to condemn every little thing that offended them. But since those people are an incredible waste of time and energy and have little interest in genuine discussion, this will be my last mention of them.)

Other posters focused on the mechanics of the puzzle itself, pointing out easy fixes that would have prevented the potentially problematic word from appearing at all. Some of these folks sided with the original poster, pointing out that a word that is potentially problematic should be edited out, and it’s part of a constructor’s job to think of these things.

And that’s the question. How much should constructors and editors be taking the potentially problematic aspects of words into consideration when constructing?

True, it’s not always possible to anticipate every negative response to the words filling your grid or the accompanying clues. (Heck, we have numerous examples of words and clues slipping through that catch fire with part of the audience in the worst possible way.)

But is that part of a constructor’s job?

In my opinion, yes, it is.

Crosswords should be inclusive. They should be an engaging activity that evokes occasional frustration but eventual satisfaction, whether you’re completing a grid, unraveling a particularly tricky theme, or besting your previous solving time. It should be fun. It should be entertainment, a distraction.

It should NOT be a place where people feel excluded, or where personal or historical traumas surface because of cluing or grid fill.

For example, I don’t believe CHINK should appear in crosswords, even as “flaw in one’s armor,” because anyone casually glancing at the grid will only see that word, not necessarily the context.

We can do better.

[Image courtesy of Bogoreducare.org.]

Originally, I wasn’t going to mention the specific clue/entry at all, because the issue is larger than this one example. But knowing the word that offended our original poster adds context.

The entry was NOOSE, and the clue was “End of a hangman’s rope.”

For the poster, the associations surrounding both clue and entry were troubling. But, for the most part, the main reason for posting appeared to be twofold:

1. Pointing out that the word’s inclusion in the grid was easily avoidable
2. Asking if other constructors/aspiring constructors found the entry as problematic as she did

She wasn’t calling for peoples’ heads. She was opening a dialogue and inviting discussion. She made her personal feelings clear — by using the word “appalled” — but made the discussion about something larger than her individual reaction.

Problem-solving-crossword

Some replies concerned the clue more than the entry, pointing out that the noose was used for many other, non-negative uses. The general association of nooses with lynching was brought up, with some instantly making the connection while others felt it was unfair or hypersensitive to make that association. Others brought up the word LYNCH, asking if the entry was problematic even if the cluing was about director David or actress Evanna.

These aren’t easy questions to answer. This is obviously not a debate that will be concluded anytime soon. But it’s one worth having.

And when it comes to conclusions to draw from all this, I think the original poster said it best in one of her replies: “In my opinion, it’s better to err on the side of empathy.”

Amen.


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Favorite Clues from CTFYC!

ctfccouch

Last week I sang the praises of the Crossword Tournament From Your Couch event, and rightfully so. The entire enterprise was delightful, and the puzzles were tricky and engaging in equal measure.

But I neglected to give the cluing their proper due, as many of the clever themes in CTFYC were bolstered by great cluing (and, occasionally, truly diabolical cluing).

What do I mean by that? Well, let’s look at a clue from the third tournament puzzle, Patrick Blindauer’s “Look Up.” This puzzle featured a clue that had numerous solvers asking for help upon returning to the livestream chat after solving.

The clue? “Response to teens, perhaps?”

The answer? BRR.

I confess, this one had me flummoxed as well. My initial answer was BRO, but that just didn’t seem to work with the crossings in that lower-left corner. Trusting the down entries more than this one, I left BRR in without getting the clue.

puzzle3grid

Of course, once I no longer had a timer lurking in my forebrain and a few seconds to think, I got the wordplay for “teens” — think temperature and not age — and the clue made total sense.

But given the response of some of the other solvers, I suspect this was the slipperiest clue of the entire tournament.

Which should come as no surprise given Blindauer’s pedigree as a constructor. That puzzle alone had a few more clever clues, including “Caught stealing, e.g.” for OUT and the much saltier “Smothers brother who isn’t a dick” for TOM.

As you can tell, I love a clue with some misdirection to it.

Robyn Weintraub’s warm-up puzzle “Get the Pillows Ready” had some notable examples. If you saw “Took the wrong way?” would you come up with STOLE? She clued TEETH with “Location of some crowns” and spruced up a classic crossword entry, NTH, with the clue “Advanced degree for a mathematician?”

Great stuff all around.

Problem-solving-crossword

But it’s not just tricky clues that pique my interest. The other warm-up puzzle, “Put Your Feet Up,” constructed by Rachel Fabi, had a few different styles of clue that caught my eye.

For instance, you can offer multiple clues or multiple examples for the same clue, which can lead to enjoyable wordplay. The clue “Hot thing to drink or spill” for TEA mixes a classic clue with a more updated, slangy use, making for a more interesting clue overall.

I’m also a sucker for a really wordy clue with personality, and Rachel didn’t disappoint. “Joke type that becomes a cellist if you repeat its first two letters instead of its last two” is an incredibly wordy (and very funny) way to clue the unusual entry YO MAMA.

yoyomama

The clues for OUT, NTH, and TEA are particularly great because those words appear in crosswords ALL THE TIME, and so at some point, you inevitably feel like you’ve seen every possible clue a dozen times over. So when somebody can find a new wrinkle or breathe new life into a tired entry, you rejoice.

Joel Fagliano’s clue “Thing that nobody ever wins” for TIE and “Manual’s intended reader” for USER from Laura Braunstein and Jesse Lansner’s tournament puzzle also fit the bill. I don’t think I’ve encountered either clue before.

bluesclues

[Wait, not that sort of clue…]

And here’s one more before I wrap this post up. Naturally, I’m returning to my favorite cluing style, misdirection, this time courtesy of Byron Walden from the CTFYC finals.

The clue: “Wanders around LAX?”

The answer: TSA

I read the clue three times before I got it, the perfect a-ha moment sort of clue.

What are some of your favorite clues, fellow puzzlers and PuzzleNationers? Let us know in the comments section below. We’d love to hear from you!


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Puzzle Plagiarism?

[Image courtesy of PlagiarismToday.com.]

Today’s post isn’t the usual Follow-Up Friday fare. Instead of returning to a previous subject, I’d like to discuss a topic that I expect I’ll be returning to in Follow-Up Friday form in the near future.

There is a certain pride and sense of accomplishment you experience as a puzzler when you come up with an exciting, innovative, unexpected theme idea for a puzzle, or when you pen a terrific clue for a word. Whether the wordplay is spot on or you’ve simply found a way to reinvigorate a tired bit of crosswordese, you feel like you’re adding something to the ever-expanding crossword lexicon, leaving a mark on the world of puzzles.

Unfortunately, there’s also the flip side of that coin, and those who would pilfer the hard work of others for their own gain. And in a story broken by the team at FiveThirtyEight, there may be something equally unsavory going on behind the scenes of the USA Today crossword and the Universal syndicated crossword.

You can check out the full story, but in short, an enterprising programmer named Saul Pwanson created a searchable database of crossword puzzles that identified similarities in published crosswords, and it uncovered an irregularly high number of repeated entries, grids, and clues in the USA Today and Universal crosswords, both of which are edited by Timothy Parker.

More than 60 puzzles feature suspicious instances of repetition — the word “plagiarism” comes to mind, certainly — and it has sparked an investigation. In fact, only a day after the story first broke, Universal Uclick (which owns both the USA Today crossword and the Universal syndicated crossword) stated that the subject of the investigation, Parker himself, “has agreed to temporarily step back from any editorial role for both USA Today and Universal Crosswords.”

I’ve heard that oversight of the USA Today crossword has already passed to another editor of note in the crossword world, constructor Fred Piscop (author of last Wednesday’s New York Times crossword), but I wonder if more examples of crossword duplication are lurking out there.

With resources like XWord Info and the Pre-Shortzian Puzzle Project out there, the history of crosswords is becoming more and more accessible and searchable. I can’t help but wonder if more scandals are lurking down the pike.


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Playing with your words!

One of the unexpected perks of writing this blog is being contacted by fellow puzzlers. Some send me links and “Have you seen this?” messages, while others ask questions about puzzles and games that make for terrific blog post ideas.

In the last year or so, there has been an increase in actual puzzles. Whether a puzzle goes viral and gets shared around Facebook or they encounter it somewhere and ask for help solving it, it’s fun and a little humbling to represent the puzzle community as a (fairly minor) authority on puzzles.

Of course, I suspect some of those people are trying to stump me. And that’s okay too.

Recently, I received a message with the following brain teaser:

What’s common between the following set of words (Tiny, Noun, English, Polysyllabic, Sesquipedalian)?
Also, what’s common between these words (Verb, German, Misspelled, Hyphenated, and Monosyllabic)?

As a puzzle fan and a word nerd, I quickly realized that wordplay was afoot!

The first set of words are all autonyms (also known as autological words or homological words). They describe themselves. Tiny is a small word, Noun is a noun, etc.

It can be fun to go hunting for autonyms. How about real, pentasyllabic, mellifluous, self-explanatory, or grandiloquent?

There are lots of wordplay possibilities here. The fear of long words is called hippopotomonstrosesquipedaliophobia, which seems a bit cruel. Also, lethologica is the inability to remember the correct word for a given concept or item. But that’s a hard word to remember, so it’s quite possible to have lethologica lethologica.

It’s rare to see wordplay like this in crosswords, but you do see it on occasion. For instance, if you see the clue “Civic center?,” it might take you a second to come up with the answer VEE.

As for the second set of words, they’re the opposite of autonyms, since they don’t describe themselves. Verb isn’t a verb, Misspelled isn’t misspelled, Monosyllabic isn’t single-syllabled, etc. These words are called heterological words.

And these words work their way into common wordplay with ease. Who hasn’t received a forward or seen a Facebook post asking, “Why is ‘abbreviated’ so long?” Because it’s heterological.

You could ask “Why isn’t ‘alphabetical’ alphabetical?” Well, it would be if we spelled it “aaabcehillpt.” Similarly, “backwards” would be backwards if we spelled it “sdrawkcab” and “vowelless” would be vowelless if we spelled it “vwllss.” That makes heterological words autological.

There’s even a paradox that applies to this specific word: the Grelling-Nelson paradox.

It’s both simple and brain-melting all at once. If “heterological” is heterological, then it describes itself, which makes it autological, which is a contradiction. But if “heterological” is not heterological, then by default, it is autological, which it can’t be since it doesn’t describe itself, so again, contradiction.

That makes your head hurt. It’s like a wordy version of the Barber paradox.

In a small town, the barber shaves all those, and only those, who do not shave themselves.” So if he shaves himself, he doesn’t. And if he doesn’t, he does.

Thanks, paradoxes, but I think I’ll stick with autonyms for now. They make life easier.


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It’s Follow-Up Friday: View a Clue Animals edition!

Welcome to Follow-Up Friday!

By this time, you know the drill. Follow-Up Friday is a chance for us to revisit the subjects of previous posts and bring the PuzzleNation audience up to speed on all things puzzly.

And today, we’ve got answers to last week’s View a Clue game!


If you recall, we selected ten animals that commonly show up in crossword grids — some have become crosswordese at this point — to see if the PuzzleNation audience could identify them from pictures.

Without further ado, let’s get to the answers!

#1 (5 letters)

Answer: ELAND, an African antelope

#2 (3 letters)

Answer: KEA, a New Zealand parrot

#3 (3 letters)

Answer: EMU, a flightless Australian bird

#4 (5 letters)

Answer: COATI, a tropical raccoon-like animal

#5 (4 letters)

Answer: NENE, a Hawaiian goose

#6 (3 or 4 letters)

Answer: ERN or ERNE, a sea eagle

#7 (4 letters)

Answer: IBEX, a horned mountain goat

#8 (3 letters)

Answer: SEI, a large whale

#9 (5 letters)

Answer: OKAPI, an African animal and kin to the giraffe

#10 (4 letters)

Answer: ANOA, an Indonesian buffalo


How many did you get? Let me know in the comments below! And if you have ideas for another View a Clue game, tell us below!

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