Last week’s exposé on writing a clue for CROSSWORDS included a mention of my philosophy regarding clueing words strictly from their etymological building blocks. That is, writing clues using synonyms of the component parts. I’ve discussed this a number of times over the years, but I don’t think I’ve told the whole story.
I learnt how to solve cryptics from my English teacher when I was 15. Our class solved The Guardian cryptic that appeared in The Sun-Herald in NSW every week. By the end of year 10, I was solving it by myself, although it would take me most of the week and references were almost always needed. The Guardian cryptic became the only crossword I solved as The Sun-Herald was the only paper my parents bought. It never occurred to me that there were other cryptics available to solve, and one a week was still enough to satisfy my solving urges. Moving forward following IT study and the securing of a steady job, I started to wonder if I could make money on the side writing crosswords. My early style was based solely on my solving experience of The Guardian (not surprisingly), and I had no reason to doubt that this path was a righteous one. It would be years before I made the effort to solve other crosswords, do some research and read books written by setters. I joined the Australian Crossword Club (ACC) and learnt a lot about setting, using feedback from members to refine my work. In 1998 I loaded one of my ACC crosswords, an Alphanumeric Jigsaw, onto my (old) website for everyone to have a go at, and it’s still there.
One day I received an email from an American solver about this clue: D Departed home for the morgue (9). The clue is a simple charade: (departed = DEAD) + (home = HOUSE). The emailer was disappointed that the clue was no more than the sum of its original parts, with little disguise. This certainly confused me, as I’d seen 1000s of clues written this way, and every UK cryptic contained such structures, not always all the components but at least one. Further investigation found that clues created this way were not allowed in US cryptics, something I had no idea about. Once I started looking deeper, I realised the inherent problem with clueing this way, shortchanging solvers by doing nothing more than applying synonym substitution. Solving became frustrating as I could now see setters taking the easy way out. I no longer liked clues that I used too, and felt cheated even if the setter had changed the word form or picked a definition that seemed far removed from its corresponding part in the answer. Definitions listed under the same root word are there for a reason no matter what the context. This revelation fundamentally changed the way I clued, although I knew I could revert to my old ways if needed as there were no restrictions imposed by Oz and UK publications. Solvers wouldn’t know the difference either.
In 2000 at the ACC’s annual gathering, Noel Jessop told me about his efforts have a cryptic published in the New York Times (NYT). He thought a relatively standard cryptic with a few American things thrown in would get him a guernsey. His crossword was rejected though due mainly to his use of synonym substitution that he had used all his life. One example was for Alaskan port, Anchorage, that he had clued by referencing the port and the meaning of anchorage, creating a double-definition clue. Will Shortz, the NYT crossword editor, dismissed this clue asking Noel where he thought the city’s name came from in the first place. Noel abandoned his efforts to get published in the NYT, but it made me think I should have a go since I was more used to the style and requirements
needed to set a US cryptic. In May 2001 I had my first NYT cryptic published. The experience of putting it together and being edited according to US and NYT rules was invaluable. It further reinforced my position on synonym substitution and that resolve hasn’t wavered since.