Weekend Word Wrap: cryptic words

I was tempted to categorize this post in my running feature, Things considered a big deal in Europe but not in the States, because, sadly, cryptic puzzles haven't really caught on here like they have in England, where they were invented and popularized. Originally an extension of the crossword puzzle, Edward Powys Mathers is thought to be the first person to write cryptic clues exclusively (first for The Saturday Westminster in 1925 and then The Observer).

So what is a cryptic puzzle clue exactly? Well, the short answer goes something like this: it's a clue that contains a word puzzle within it. To solve the larger puzzle, you first have to solve all the tiny puzzles buried in the clues. And, just to make your job more interesting, you also have to figure out what kind of puzzle the author is employing, as there exists a small pantload of different varieties. Because we'd be here all the-blog-long, I'm only going to run down a list of the clues you need to know today before I send you off on your own to solve some fun clues created especially for us by my friend Tom Toce. (For the seasoned puzzle solvers out there, feel free to skip on past this part.)

First off, almost every cryptic clue is divided into two parts: the definition and the wordplay. Sometimes the definition will come first, sometimes the wordplay will come first. Part of your job is to figure out how to read the clue before attempting to solve it. On top of all this, there will usually be a parenthetical number at the end of the clue, as well. Don't freak out! It simply lets you know how many letters are in the answer.

Now then, here are six very common cryptic puzzle clue categories:

The Anagram clue: In this clue, one side of the clue contains an anagram. You will also find an anagram tip-off word, or indicator that lets you know there's an anagram in the clue. Often-employed tip-off words include strange, mixed up, muddled, wild, and drunk. Here's an example of an anagram clue:

A slice of meat looks strange on a skate (5)

So here, "a slice of meat" is the definition, found on the left side of the clue, while "looks strange on" is your tip-off that there's an anagram in the clue and skate is the word to be rearranged. The answer contains 5 letters, so it can only be STEAK. Steak is a slice of meat and it's also an anagram of skate.

The Hidden Answer clue: As it sounds, here one part of the clue has the definition and the other has a hidden answer stretched over multiple words. There will also be your good friend again, the tip-off word, or indicator. For container clues, these include hides, incorporates, is part of, and going through. Here's an example of a hidden answer:

Smart youngster incorporates best picture in 1955 (5)

Here, our 5-letter answer is defined on the right side of the clue: "best picture in 1955" "“ and that would be MARTY, of course. And then the word incorporated in sMART Youngster, is, of course, also MARTY.

The Homophone clue: This is a fun one, maybe my favorite. Here you're looking for two words that are spelled differently but pronounced the same way. The tip-off word will always be related to sound, speech, or the ear, etc. Here's an example:

Sounds like the part he played in that film went down hill (4)

So here, the clue begins with a tip-off phrase "Sounds like," and then you get your homophones: "the part he played in that film" is a role and "went down hill" is another roll. Because both homophones contain 4 letters, here, the answer would be ROLE, not roll, because the homophone closest to the indicator is always the correct answer. (Obviously if the two words were they're and their, the parenthetical number would give you your answer.)

The Deletion clue: In this clue, one or more letters need to be removed. Most often, words lose the first letter (called "beheading") or the last letter, or sometimes even internal letters. Indicators that there's a deletion needed include chop off, remove, off, take, etc. Here's an example:

Paint without tea to develop an ache (4)

Here the definition is on the right side of the clue "an ache" and the word play is on the left Paint-t=PAIN.

The Double Definition clue: In this one, there is no wordplay. You just have two definitions to deal with, and sometimes the two are homographs, to boot! Here's a classic example:
Shoe coating from Warsaw (6)
Get it? "Shoe coating" is polish and someone "from Warsaw" is Polish! Fun, right?

The Combination Clue: Here you'll find two different puzzle-clues in one clue. I know what you're thinking: oh joy. But, honestly, they are pretty cool once you get the hang of "˜em. Other tip-offs you want to look for in the clues: the word even usually means you only want to use even letters in a word (the 2nd, 4th, 6th, and so on), while odd sometimes means the odd numbers (but also might mean there's an anagram, so be careful!).
As in crosswords, other languages as well as abbreviations can be used. "In French" often means you have to translate a word into French. So if you see "she said in French" you're probably looking for elle. Saint might actually be St, which could be used in a container. Here's an example:
Saint Baseball Referee joined up for base of tree (5)
Answer? STUMP, of course. (Saint = st + ump "baseball referee")

For a complete list of all the different types of clues, you can check out this cool site here. But, as I promised, today's warm-up clues really only use the types I just described above.

Tom Toce put these 10 clues together for us. (Hint: Each answer has something to do with Albert Einstein.) Tom has published puzzles in The Sondheim Review, Contingencies, and on the NY Times Puzzle Forum Web site.

albert-einstein-1.jpgHave fun with "˜em and check back at the end of the weekend for the answers. In two weeks, we'll try a much harder, full-scale cryptic puzzle and the first to solve it will get a nifty mental_floss book from our store. So practice now and gear up for the biggie, coming soon"¦ Meanwhile, let's see who can get all 10 of these first! Bragging rights, anyone? anyone?

  1. Christmas around the 7th?--dynamite, man (5)
  2. William or Harry takes 2000 pounds to school (9)
  3. Re-order three in medium (5)
  4. Sam's hysterical church service (4)
  5. Dad, the big top is there for all to see (6)
  6. Swiss city to go up in flames, I hear (4)
  7. Grant for one theory of relativity (7)
  8. Manger destroyed by the Nazis, for example (6)
  9. Emit retro publication (4)
  10. Eurydice left out the cubes (4)
6 Wordsmiths Who Couldn't Spell

This month marks my 6-year anniversary blogging for mental_floss. It also marks's 6-year anniversary in the blogosphere. To celebrate the more than 2,000 daily posts, I'll be republishing some of my favorite posts from these last half-dozen years, starting today, running to the end of the month. Hope you enjoy this stroll down memory lane...

(Originally published on Feb. 3, 2009)

1. Alfred Mosher Butts

Best known for: inventing Scrabble (first called Lexiko, and then later, Criss Cross Words)
But did you know: We owe our Scrabble addictions to the Depression? Butts was an architect who suddenly found himself unemployed. With nothing but time on his hands, he set about to invent a board game (he must have been, er, bored, without work).
So how bad was his spelling? By his own admission, Butts says he wasn't a good speller, and was delighted when his Scrabble score hit 300. Apparently his wife Nina, a former school teacher, usually outplayed him.

2. William Faulkner

faulkner.jpgBest known for: his stream of consciousness technique in such celebrated novels as his 1929 classic, The Sound and the Fury
But did you know: the title of the novel comes from a Macbeth soliloquy? "It is a tale told by an idiot, full of sound and fury, signifying nothing."
So how bad was his spelling? One of Faulkner's editors at Random House, Albert Erskine, said, "I know that he did not wish to have carried through from typescript to printed book his typing mistakes, misspellings (as opposed to coinages), faulty punctuation and accidental repetition. He depended on my predecessors, and later on me, to point out such errors and correct them; and though we never achieved anything like a perfect performance, we tried."

3. F. Scott Fitzgerald

f-scott-fitzgerald-1921.jpgBest known for: The Great Gatsby
But did you know: The novel didn't sell well during Fitzgerald's lifetime? (fewer than 25,000 copies)
So how bad was his spelling? Preeminent American literary critic Edmund Wilson described This Side of Paradise as "one of the most illiterate books of any merit ever published."

4. Ernest Hemingway

hemingway.jpgBest known for: those great stoic characters, like Robert Jordan in the 1940 novel For Whom the Bell Tolls
But did you know: Hemingway was decorated as a hero after being injured during WWI? And served as a war correspondent in both the Spanish Civil War and WWII? (in case you ever wondered how he got all those Spanish Civil War details down so well in For Whom the Bell Tolls)
So how bad was his spelling? Whenever his newspaper editors complained about it, he'd retort, "Well, that's what you're hired to correct!"

5. John Keats

john-keats.jpgBest known for: the 1820 poem, Ode on a Grecian Urn
But did you know: tuberculosis took the young Keats in 1821, at only 26 years of age? The same disease had already claimed his mother and younger brother.
So how bad was his spelling? In a letter to his great love Fanny Brawne, Keats spelled the color purple, purplue. This generated a longer conversation between the two, as Keats tried to save face by suggesting he'd meant to coin a new portmanteaux - a cross between purple and blue.

6. Jane Austen

HI08_JaneAusten_1.jpgBest known for: her elegant novels, like Pride and Prejudice, published in 1813
But did you know: she'd actually written the novel a good 15 years earlier, under the title First Impressions, but the publisher rejected it? (Let this be a lesson to all ye aspiring writers!) Then, after Sense and Sensibility was published in 1811, there was interest in the older story, which, after some editing, was eventually published with the title we know today.
So how bad was her spelling? She once misspelled one of her teenage works as "Love and Freindship" and is infamously known to have spelt scissors as scissars.

Check out all past Weekend Word Wraps>>

Phrase Origins: The Real McCoy and On The Wagon

We use these hackneyed expressions all the time (hence the hackneyed element), but where do they come from? I’m reviving the Weekend Word Wrap feature from years ago to take a look at a couple each week or so. First up, The Real McCoy.

The Real McCoy

Our version is actually a variation of the original Scottish phrase dating back to the mid 19th century, “A drappie o’ the real MacKay" What’s interesting here is that the ay in MacKay is actually pronounced like “eye.”
But what about the real meaning? Well, there are a few interesting theories. The first refers to a brand of fine whisky that was made in Scotland in the 1850s and then was marketed as 'the real MacKay' starting in 1870. Another theory involves Elijah McCoy, a Canadian inventor who was educated in Scotland, who invented a successful machine for lubricating engines that wound up spawning myriad copies, all inferior to the original. The design was patented in 1872.

On The Wagon

The term “On The Wagon” also has a few origin stories but my favorite derives from prisoners who were on their way to jail on the back of a wagon. They were allowed one last drink in the local pub before the enforced temperance inside their cells. The other popular one, and the one many say is more accurate (though one can never be sure) is about being "on the water wagon." Back in the day, water wagons would come through town hosing down the streets to keep the dust from getting out of hand. So if you were sitting atop this wagon, you were drinking water, not alcohol.

Have any phrases or expressions you want me to take a look at next week? Leave your suggestions in the comments below.

Check out past Weekend Word Wraps here.


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