A Cracking Collection of Crossword Clues

Someone recently asked me about my favorite crossword clue, and after mentioning four or five off the top of my head, I cut myself off and tried to explain that it’s impossible for me to pick one.

So many clues are out there that surprised me, or outwitted me, or made me laugh, or made me think in an unexpected way. I could never narrow it down..

Regular readers who have seen my reviews of various crossword tournament puzzles will recall I like to highlight favorite clues.

I actually keep track of 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 these crucial crossword elements.

So today, I’d like to pull some favorites from my personal clue vault and give them some time in the spotlight.

(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.)

Misdirection

I love a good misdirection clue, because it not only has a straightforward meaning that sends you one way, but it has a true secondary meaning that usually only emerges once you’ve considered the clue for a bit.

Constructor Amanda Rafkin has a knack for these sorts of clues, delivering terrific examples with “Decline a raise?” for FOLD and “One who’s pro con?” for NERD.

It’s particularly great when a constructor can use a misdirection clue to put a new spin on a word you’ve seen dozens of times before. Peter Gordon did just that with both TYPO (“Character flaw?”) and AHS (“Sounds made with depressed tongues”), and even manages to be topical whilst doing so, as he did with the clue “Page with lines of dialogue” for ELLIOT.

Yacob Yonas took an awkward RE- word — all too common in crossword grids — and made it shine when he clued REHEM as “Take up again, say.” Priyanka Sethy did the same with a multi-word answer when she clued IGOTIT with the delightful “Catch phrase?”

Brendan Emmett Quigley covered up an ugly abbreviation answer — ECG — with a banger of a clue: “Ticker tape?”

As you can tell, misdirection clues are absolutely a favorite of mine.

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[Image courtesy of XKCD.]

I also can’t resist clues that get a little meta, playing with the format of cluing itself.

TYPO appears for a second time in today’s post, but the cluing is totally different, as Andrea Carla Michaels offered this meta treat: “Something annnoying about this clue but hopefully no others!”

And Francis Heaney went out of his way to word to clue the word AUTOMOBILES in a manner you’ll never forget: “‘Humorous People in ____ Acquiring Caffeinated Drinks’ (Jerry Seinfeld series whose name I might be remembering incorrectly)”

Using multiple examples in a clue not only shows off the variety of definitions some words have, but allows constructors to juxtapose these meanings in entertaining fashion.

Janie Smulyan deftly shows off this technique by cluing SPELLS “Some are dry, some are magic.” Concise and clever.

“Beehive part, or beehive parter” for COMB was Sid Sivakumar’s tricky way to use multiple meanings twice!

And although this Hannah Slovut offering isn’t as concise as the others in this clue for SEE, it’s still a terrific example of employing multiple uses of a word: “Different tense of ‘saw’ that may precede ‘saw'”

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[Image courtesy of David Louis Ghilchip.]

I know some crossword outlets aren’t fans of using clues that specifically reference each other — “With 21-Across, name of Charlie Chaplin film,” for instance — but other publishers are completely fine with this style of cluing.

Naturally, that allows constructors to have some fun making connections and using clues to reference each other.

Hannah Slovut utilized this technique in a recent puzzle, cluing STYE as “Ailment that might be seen near 63-Across.” (63-Across was the exclamation MYEYE.)

There are all sorts of cluing styles we didn’t cover in this post — trivia clues, fill-in-the-blank, clues that use capitalization or pronunciation to mislead the solver — but hopefully we’ll get to them in a future blog post.

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In the meantime, how about a few more misdirection clues for the road?

Brooke Husic made readers take a second look at a familiar word — “Surroundings?” — when she used it to clue SIEGES.

Catherine Cetta’s “Spot early on?” definitely sends you down the wrong path before you double-back and find the correct answer: PUP.

And we happily conclude with a clue from puzzle master Mike Shenk, who clearly had some fun with this one, cluing ANKLES with “They’re just over two feet.” Absolutely shameless.

Gotta love it.

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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Vague Cluing: Yea or Nay?

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When is vagueness in crossword cluing a bad thing?

That’s kind of a loaded question, because I think it depends on the clue and the solver’s knowledge base. But there are definitely good vague clues and bad vague clues.

Someone on Reddit’s r/crossword forum mentioned the clue “Son of Zeus,” which got a laugh from folks who remember their Greek mythology and just how… prolific Zeus was.

But to me, this isn’t necessarily a bad clue. You know the number of letters (4 in this particular case), which helps narrow down the field a lot.

There are some synonym-style clues that do lend themselves to multiple answers, which can be frustrating for solvers.

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For instance, if you have a 5-letter word and the clue is “Kingly,” you could have REGAL or ROYAL, and those shared letters add a level of uncertainty and challenge to the grid. Similarly, if you have a 5-letter word and the clue is “Escape” or “Sidestep,” you’ve got EVADE, ELUDE, AVOID, and DODGE all as possibilities. That’s a little tougher.

But all of these clues seem fair to me. The vague cluing style that really irks me is “Certain [blank]”.

“Certain cat,” for example, might as well just be “Cat.” The word “certain” adds literally NOTHING to the clue. “Type of [blank]” and “Kind of [blank]” clues can also fall into this trap, but there are a fair number of cases where those clues point toward a category, not just an example of that particular group, so “Type of” and “Kind of” still provide some context.

But “certain” is a waste of typing. You could have given me a helpful adjective, or a misleading one, or a funny one. Instead, it’s the least helpful addition possible.

That sort of vague cluing is infuriating, because there’s no cleverness or art to it. Obviously, the only exception here would be some sort of wordplay involving the definition of “certain.” Something like “Certain thing?” for LOCK or GIVEN. But those are pretty rare.

In the end, vagueness can be a tool for clever cluing or a bit of filler in a long-overused clue. It’s all up to the constructor.

Are there are any vague clues or cluing tropes that get your goat, fellow puzzlers and PuzzleNationers? Let us know in the comments section below! We’d love to hear from you.


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Halfway through the Boswords 2020 Fall Themeless League!

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Last night marked the fifth week of competitive puzzly fun in the Boswords 2020 Fall Themeless League.

If you’re unfamiliar, the Boswords 2020 Fall Themeless League is a clever weekly spin on traditional crossword tournament-style solving. Instead of cracking through a number of puzzles in a single day (or two), the Fall Themeless League consists of one themeless crossword each week, scored based on your accuracy and how fast you complete the grid.

Each week’s puzzle only has one grid, but there are three sets of clues, each representing a different difficulty level for solvers. Smooth is the least challenging, Choppy is the middle ground, and Stormy is the most challenging. (When solvers registered to participate — which you can still do now! — they chose the difficulty level that suited them best.)

With a lineup of top-flight constructors involved and the Boswords team organizing, it was a can’t miss prospect, and hundreds of solvers signed up for the challenge of two months of themeless puzzle solving and a bit of friendly competition.

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Now that we’re officially halfway through the season, it feels like the right time to take a moment and reflect on the last four weeks of puzzling.

I will only be referencing the previous four puzzles — not last night’s Week 5 themeless — so there are only potential spoilers for non-participants. Competitors may read at their leisure.

Although I am quite familiar with crosswords, I am far from the fastest or cagiest solver, nor have I ever competed in any tournament solving, so I opted to enter the Choppy rank.

And I have very much enjoyed the experience thus far. Themeless puzzles always often a fun challenge, mixing long answers — often crossing or stacked with other long answers — with strong cluing, clever grid design, and most notably, no theme around which to frame the grid (or your solve, if you happen to dig into the theme entries immediately).

The cluing feels very fresh, mixing topical entries, meme fodder, and slang with traditional crossword classics and a dash of pop culture references. Although my lack of football knowledge betrayed me in week 1, I’ve made up some ground in weeks 3 and 4, posting my two quickest times, both with clean grids.

My times are far from cheetah-like; the top solvers in the Choppy rankings often solve these puzzles in half the time I do, and manage perfect scores to boot. I am getting faster, it seems, which is probably due to a growing familiarity with the solving interface, wasting less time maneuvering the screen.

I’m definitely finding it challenging. There are plenty of clues I pass over two or three times before coming up with something that fits the entries I’ve already placed, and these diabolical constructors always slip some devious wordplay and a-ha cluing into their puzzles.

In October alone, solvers contended with puzzles from Tracy Gray, Nate Cardin, Amanda Rafkin, and David Quarfoot, each bringing a unique style and flavor to their grid entries and cluing. Each themeless has been a challenge all its own, and once you finally figure out each solver’s tricks, you’re confronted with a new constructor the next week, and you start all over again.

Still, it’s great fun, a nice puzzly touch to the week that feels like you’re part of a community, bolstered not only by a communal solving experience once a week, but by Twitch chats and interactions with the organizers and fellow solvers.

We’re only halfway through, and I’d have to declare the Boswords 2020 Fall Themeless League a rousing success. I can’t wait to see what surprises the November puzzles bring, and what awaits the top solvers in the championship round.

Whether you’re competing alongside us or simply enjoying puzzles at your own speed, thanks for visiting. And happy puzzling!


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The Great Crossword Debate: Overused Vs. Obscure

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Making a great crossword puzzle is not easy. Heck, making a GOOD crossword puzzle is not easy.

You want the theme to be creative, innovative even, but still something that can be intuited from a clever title and crafty clues.

You want the clues to be engaging, challenging, funny, tricky, and loaded with wordplay and personality.

And you want the grid fill to be fresh and interesting, yet accessible. You want to avoid obscurities, abbreviations, nonsensical partial-phrases, and the dreaded Naticks where two difficult entries cross.

But you also want to add to the lexicon of grid fill, leaving behind the tired vowel-heavy words that have become cliche or crosswordese.

Even if you accomplish all that, you also want your puzzle to have an overall consistent level of difficulty. Having a bunch of easy words in the grid only highlights the hard words necessitated when you construct yourself into a corner. A sudden spike in vocabulary and eccentricity is always noticeable.

So completing every grid becomes a balancing act between new and old, pop culture-loaded and traditional, obscure and overused.

This raises the question posed in a Reddit thread recently:

Which bothers you more, words that you probably wouldn’t know without a dictionary OR filling out OLEO and ARIA for the millionth time?

Both options had their proponents, so I’d like to give you my thoughts on each side of this cruciverbalist coin.


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Obscure Over Overused

A well-constructed grid can overcome the occasional obscure entry. After all, since you have Across and Down entries, several accessible Across answers can hand you a difficult Down answer that you didn’t know.

You can assist with an informative clue. It might get a little lengthy, but like a well-written trivia question, you can often provide enough context to get somebody in the ballpark, even if they don’t know the exact word or phrase they need. If it FEELS fair, I think solvers will forgive some peculiar entries, as long as you don’t go overboard.

Also, if you’re a crossword fan, you’re probably a word nerd, and who doesn’t like learning new words?

As one contributor to the thread said, “I’d rather eke out a solution than fill in EKE OUT or EKE BY again.”


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Overused Over Obscure

The very nature of crosswords demands letter arrangements that are conducive to building tight grids. Your vowel-heavy entries, your alternating consonant-vowel ABAB patterns, the occasional all-consonants abbreviation or all-vowels exhalation or size measurement… these are necessary evils.

But that doesn’t mean the cluing has to be boring. I absolutely love it when a constructor finds a new twist on an entry you’ve seen a billion times. I laughed out loud when Patti Varol clued EWE as “Baa nana?” because it was a take I’d never seen before.

Here are a few more examples of really smart ways I’ve seen overused entries clued:

  • “It’s never been the capital of England (and it surely won’t be now)” for EURO (Steve Faiella)
  • “Name-dropper’s abbr.” for ETAL (Patrick Berry)
  • “It’s three before November” for KILO (Andy Kravis)
  • “Fix plot holes, maybe” for HOE (Peter Gordon)
  • “50/50, e.g.” for ONE (Michael Shteyman). This one really plays with your expectations.
  • “Hawaiian beach ball?” for LUAU (George Barany)

Still, this is no excuse for going incredibly obtuse with your cluing just to be different. Making an esoteric reference just to avoid saying “Sandwich cookie” for OREO might be more annoying to a solver than just the overused answer itself.

On the flip side, you can treat them as gimmes, cluing them with familiar phrasing and letting them serve as the jumping-off points for longer, more difficult entries or the themed entries the puzzle is constructed around. Some familiar words are always welcome, particularly if a solver is feeling daunted with a particular puzzle’s or day’s standard difficulty.

(One poster even suggested pre-populating the grid with common crosswordese like OLEO, kinda like the set numbers in a Sudoku. I don’t think I’ve ever seen that approach before.)


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So, have we come to any conclusions today? Probably not.

As I said before, it’s a tightrope every constructor must walk on the way to finishing a crossword. Every constructor has a different method for getting across, a different formula for success. Some even manage to make it look effortless.

What do you think, fellow puzzlers and PuzzleNationers? Do you favor overused entries or obscure ones? Let us know in the comments section below. We’d love to hear from you!


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A Collection of Cracking Crossword Clues

Someone recently asked me about my favorite crossword clue, and after mentioning four or five off the top of my head, I cut myself off and tried to explain that it’s impossible for me to pick one.

So many clues are out there that surprised me, or outwitted me, or made me laugh, or made me think in an unexpected way. I could never narrow it down..

Regular readers who have seen my reviews of various crossword tournament puzzles will recall I like to highlight favorite clues.

I actually keep track of 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 these crucial crossword elements.

So today, I’d like to pull some favorites from my personal clue vault and give them some time in the spotlight.

(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.)

angeloz

One of the most engaging aspects of crossword cluing is how constructors can accomplish so much with just a few words.

I love a good misdirection clue, because it not only has a straightforward meaning that sends you one way, but it has a true secondary meaning that usually only emerges once you’ve considered the clue for a bit.

The word ANTE lends itself to this sort of cluing — particularly given the meaning of “house” with regards to casinos and cards — and I think Janie Smulyan’s “House payments” clue was the best one I’ve seen in a while.

Similarly, Peter Gordon is a whiz at making a few words speak volumes, and his clue “Foot in ‘the door'” made my mind go in a few directions before you finally land on IAMB.

Of course, it’s not just concise phrasing that lends itself to wordplay. Patti Varol led solvers down a delightful garden path with the clue “They may be called on account of rain,” which cleverly clues the answer CABS.

You can also use multiple examples to mislead solvers. Neville Fogarty accomplished this with the clue “Org. with Magic and Wizards,” which no doubt has people pondering Hogwarts or the Ministry of Magic before realizing the answer is NBA.

Patrick Berry offered another terrific example with the clue “Time or Money,” where the capitalization is the only hint to the true answer, MAG.

Another genre of cluing that doesn’t get enough love is trivia cluing. I love learning new things, and crosswords don’t just teach you peculiarities of language like variant spellings. They also teach you the names of European rivers, organizational abbreviations, and even silent film stars.

And when a clue offers some trivia I didn’t know, that’s just a solving bonus.

Aimee Lucido is very good at keeping her trivia clues topical, and she’s previously used “127 congresspeople, as of last month” for WOMEN. In a similar vein, she taught a little bit of gender history with the clue “All the students at Dartmouth, until 1972” for MEN.

Evan Birnholz offered some musical information with the clue “1986 #1 hit ‘On My Own,’ e.g., ironically,” slyly cluing the answer word DUET.

Paolo Pasco snuck this very peculiar nugget of information into one of his crosswords, explaining that “Coconut oil has one of 4.” This clue is almost impenetrable until you realize the answer is SPF. (Was this covered in an episode of Gilligan’s Island or Survivor or something?)

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[Image courtesy of Collider.]

Howard Jones managed to incorporate both trivia and an act of misdirection with the clue “This might begin with E,” deftly making it hard to see the answer EYETEST.

Craig Mazan and Jeff Chan presented some movie trivia with the clue “Word cried 15 times in a row by Meg Ryan in ‘When Harry Met Sally...'” Anyone who has seen the film instantly recognizes the answer here: YES. But the thought of the constructors actually counting for this clue tickles me greatly.

As we pointed out above, multiple examples can really enhance a clue, and that counts in trivia clues as well. Peter Gordon played with capitalization with the clue “Santa Fe and Tucson, e.g.” for the answer SUV. Terrific misdirect here.

Bryan Betancur, meanwhile, drew a nice character parallel with the clue “Pixar hero or Verne antihero” for the answer NEMO.

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[Image courtesy of Disney/Pixar.]

I know some crossword outlets aren’t fans of using clues that specifically reference each other — “With 21-Across, name of Charlie Chaplin film,” for instance — but other publishers are completely fine with this style of cluing.

And naturally, that allows constructors to have some fun making connections and using clues to reference each other.

Matt Gaffney had two clues that offered information on each other with the pairing “33-Across, in a lab” and “30-Across, on the kitchen table,” which clued NACL and SALT respectively.

Peter Gordon had a doozy of a clue in a themeless puzzle with HARRY ANGSTROM as an answer, where he tied that entry into a clue with a mathematical twist.

The clue “Film character whose last name is roughly 95 septillion times longer than 23-Across’s?” for BUZZ LIGHTYEAR is a stroke of genius. Having two characters with units of size/distance for names really works here, and the science/math nerd in me thoroughly enjoyed.

Finally, a trick I don’t see too often — but very much appreciate — is a clue that references ITSELF in order to play with the solver’s expectations.

Rebecca Falcon nailed this idea with her clue for 46-Across: “With 46-Across, comforting words.” The answer? THERE.

Gotta love it.

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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Lollapuzzoola 13 Lands This Weekend! (Virtually!)

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Yes, “the best tournament held in New York on a Saturday in August” is bringing a New York Saturday in August to you, as Lollapuzzoola 13 goes virtual.

Whether you’ll be solving on that Saturday or as part of the Next Day Division, you’re sure to encounter some top-notch puzzles worthy of the Lollapuzzoola name.

Just look at the constructors involved in this year’s tournament! Stella Zawistowski and Robyn Weintraub return for the second year in a row, and they’ll be joined Rachel Fabi, Brooke Husic, joon pahk, and Sid Sivakumar (who just constructed for this year’s Boswords tournament). I can’t wait to see what they have in store for the competitors!

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Starting around 12:30pm Eastern, you can follow along on the Twitch livestream that will be running for the duration of the tournament. In addition to the five tournament puzzles and championship rounds, there will be bonus games and a virtual pizza party! (Be sure to bring your own pizza.)

This is not only another wonderful opportunity to bring the puzzle community together, it’s also a charitable event, as a portion of the proceeds from the tournament will be donated to Color of Change and the Save the Children Coronavirus Response Fund.

It should be a great time, either in person or for solvers at home. Lollapuzzoola is truly one of the highlights of the puzzle calendar.

You can click here for all things Lollapuzzoola, and to check out last year’s tournament puzzles, click here for our in-depth review!

Are you planning on attending Lollapuzzoola 13 or solving from home? Let us know! We’d love to hear from you!


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