Sunday, March 25, 2007

Cryptics, part I

They say that keeping the mind engaged and active is one of the keys to fending off Alzheimer's. It seemed a wise move a few years ago for me to take up (or, more accurately, return to) doing crossword puzzles as a way to keep my mind agile. But conventional crosswords bore me; once you have a good grasp of some of the oft-repeated filler words, solving a regular puzzle becomes an exercise in fast writing (no offense meant to my New York Times crossword solving friends - those are a cut above and more an exercise in frustration for me than anything else).

Enter the cryptic crossword.

Invented in Britain, the cryptic clues are "riddles within riddles". In a conventional crossword, the clues are fairly straightforward definitions of the answers. A cryptic clue, however, has two parts: one is a definition, the other a wordplay that leads to the same answer in a more roundabout way. It's up to you to figure out which is which.

There are 8 basic types of wordplay in a cryptic clue:

1. Anagram. "Tangled", "confused", "weird" or "badly formed" or any word or phrase suggesting mixing, strangeness or poor condition may indicate an anagram. The indicator will be immediately adjacent to the word/s that should be anagramed.

So...Confused king is involved in winter sport (6 letters) becomes skiing when you realize that "confused" indicates an anagram of the next six letters.

This is one of the most common and easiest wordplays.

2. Hidden word. Edgar Allen Poe would have liked this one - the answer is hidden in plain sight in the clue.

Plumes in knife at her side (8 letters) is feathers: beginning at the "f" in knife you can see the answer spelled out. Tricky, huh? "In" or "inside" can be clues to a container, but they can be more subtle: Aha! Green pens match (5) is agree. Aha! Green "pens" in the answer.

It helps to ignore extraneous punctuation and capitalization.

3. Reversal. Twice the work, twice the fun.

Returned beer of kings (5) becomes regal. Lager is type of beer; lager written backwards is regal, which is a word meaning of kings.

Yeah, I feel the same way. These can also be done in vertical spaces, where "rising" or "northward" are the indicators. I suck at these.

4. Homophone. That's homo-phone, not -phobe, thank you.

Hot dog topping gathered for the audience (7) becomes mustered. You put mustard on hot dogs, and when you gather an audience or a crowd, you can say you have "mustered" them...they sound alike.

Sometimes they take pity on you and indicate clearly it is a homophone by using "to a listener", "from a reporter" or the like. My personal favorite is "to an auditor", which, because of my professional training, means something entirely different to me than "to one who hears". Trips me up every time.

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