Constellations of signification: the crossword compiler’s art
byRobert L Fielding
The first crosswords appeared in the 19th Century, but the first appearance of a crossword in a British publication was in Pearson’s Magazine in February, 1922, and the first Times crossword appeared on February 1, 1930. Although crosswords appeared first in America, English crosswords developed their own style, and were and still usually are considerably more difficult than their American counterparts. Indeed, the type of crossword we know as ‘cryptic’ is peculiarly English, and so are many of the cultural references and encyclopedic clues in them. However, that is not to say that they cannot be completed by people from other places, and the vast majority of clues are sufficiently universal in construction to be accessible to any user of the English language from any community.
As users of words, we are used to dealing with their meanings, how they collocate with other words, their pronunciation and their spelling. However, when trying to solve cryptic crosswords in newspapers we are often called upon to look at other aspects of words: what they signify as a whole, or what each of their individual letters signifies, as well as their semantic meaning.
The confusion between semantics and semiotics, between meaning and signification, is at the heart of what the compiler does, how he confounds, puzzles, and misleads.
Edward de Bono has coined the term ‘lateral thinking’ to refer to ways of thinking that differ from more ‘normal’ ways. Categorizing items in ways that are unconventional and so leading us to think of alternative possibilities of thinking, is one such way.
For example, if we find the item ‘knife’ in the location ‘living room’ it sounds incongruous. That item is probably more often accompanied by the item ‘food’, or ‘lunch’ or a similar culinary term, and hence more often found in the location ‘dining room’. If neither of these is present, then it might be suggestive of other scenarios. Appearing in a play based on an Agatha Christie novel, for example, it might be associated with the words ‘stab wound’, ‘bloodstain’and labeled ‘murder weapon’. If it does not appear, it may be labeled ‘missing murder weapon’.
Considering the item ‘knife’, it may accompany the item ‘letter to be opened’ in the location ‘living room’, or something akin to ‘makeshift screwdriver’ in the event that the plug on the TV needs a new fuse. And it is precisely this alternative way of viewing items; words and letters that compilers of crosswords utilize to confound and puzzle us in the morning over our tea and toast. Instead of looking for meaning, which is one of the ways we view words, perhaps the main way, compilers use an array of means, more often closer to semiotics than semantics. They use the constellation of significations and associations as well as using ‘meaning’ in its traditional semantic sense, to lure us into their traps. As users of words, we habitually look for the meaning of a word, and it this that causes the delicious confusion in the mornings.
Academics traditionally look for some sort of order to the chaos that is their particular universe.
There is an order to the confusion in crossword clues that appear daily in the newspapers we read, and to substantiate my claim (something else that academics do) I have included a taxonomy of clue types with examples and explanations below. While it is hoped that would-be solvers and even would-be compilers like myself will find it useful and thought provoking, it is admitted that there is no real substitute for doing crosswords; trying to solve them, and looking at the solutions the next day in order to be able to complete one successfully some day.
Conventions, specific uses of terminology, and abbreviation are all common in any discipline. The discipline of the compiler is no exception, and accordingly a list of the more common conventions is provided to help newcomers.
Generally, anagrams are by far the most numerous type of clue to be found in most cryptic crosswords, closely followed by clues in which the whole word appears. Less frequent, but still popular are clues based upon encyclopedic knowledge, clues based around common collocations of words, and clues based upon the sound of a word or letter. Clues that use symbols other than letters, and those that cross word and syllable boundaries are much more unusual, but still worthy of comment and attention. Conventions in crosswords
Crossword clues are liberally sprinkled with certain conventions, appearing again and again, making them noteworthy here. This list is not fully comprehensive, and you may find ones to add to it. The main thing to understand in thinking about conventionalized pieces of ‘information’ is that they must be sufficiently universal to be understood. Crossword compilers have idiosyncrasies, but they can be recognized with sufficient practice. If you can explain it in rational terms, any crossword clue or any part to a clue is valid; there are no rules except this one.
- v/c/d/x as Roman numerals
- weekend = K
- dunderhead = D/fathead = F etc
4. Fourth of July = Y / air terminal =r
Items associated with the letters of the alphabet, including some common abbreviations associated with each letter.
- middle of week = EE/E
- Ac = account or bill
- R = Right/L = Left
- North = N etc
- E, G, B, D, F = Notes in music, thus ‘noted’
- Sapper/engineer = RE (Royal Engineers)
- Again = re
- Navy = RN
- Pound Sterling = L
- Team/side = eleven
- banker = river
- The German = Der/Das
All standard, well-known abbreviations can be and are used in crossword clues, but the associations of letters with other items are sometimes special, in the sense that they may not strike one as such immediately. Reading the solutions to crosswords does help in this respect. Here are some that readily spring to mind. Be on the lookout for others though.
1.A – article/A1 at Lloyds/A-grade/Grade -A
2. B – bee/spelling bee/B-roads/Bea for Beatrice/Grade B/Musical note
3. C – Hundred (Roman numerals)/ many/see/sea/circa=round about
4. D – old penny/exam grade/note in music/River Dee
5. E - =MC2/east/musical note/East
6. F – Fail grade/musical note
7. G – G-men( Feds)/GI/musical note/Gee!
8. H – dropped aitches/Ho for house
9. I – eye/I/ego/one/1/upright/perpendicular pronoun
10. J - 1st of July/January/jay
11. K – Kay/Quay/thousand/grand/kg
12. L – pounds Sterling/Hell/
13. M – many/abbreviation of Emma
14. N – North/No/Nil/None
15. O – zero/duck/nil/hole
16. P – Pen/originator of writing (pen)/pea
17. Q – queue
18. R – Right/Aarr!
19. S –/South/plurals/ SS for ship/steamer
20. T – tea for two/to a T/T-junction/T-shirt
21. U – U-bend/corner/up/you
22. V – shape/V/VI/IV (Roman numerals)/V-bomber/V-neck
23. W – West/with
24. X – cross/ten (Roman numerals)
25. Y – fourth of July/last of January/you/Why?/Y-fronts
26. Z – last letter/omega/A to Z/Zoo Anagrams
Anagrams are ‘signposted’ in many ways, but there is a more or less definable pattern. The words, ‘agitatedly’, ‘bad’, ‘broken’, misguided’, ‘upset’, and ‘possibly’ are used in the examples here. The alert reader will notice that all these words are broadly synonymous with the word ‘chaotic’ or ‘mixed up’, signifying that an anagram is called for. In the first example, it as anagram of the word ‘strode’ that is being asked for, with the words, ‘around the head of a bank’ supplying the letter ‘B’(See Conventions above)
to complete the conundrum and provide the solution ‘DEBTORS’.
If we were to read the sentence from the traditional point of view of semantics, using the system we know as grammar, we would be able to paraphrase the clue as something like the following:- ‘The people who had borrowed money from the bank surrounded the manager in a worried fashion.’
Appearing as it does in a cryptic crossword however, it means nothing of the sort. The remaining examples are similarly constructed, with some minor differences. See what you make of them.
Borrowers strode agitatedly around the head of a bank 7 DEBTORS
When an East ender gets a bad cigar it’s not funny 6 TRAGIC
Something sticking a broken stapler 7 PLASTER
Gangs of assorted mates 5 TEAMS
It definitely shows one’s a poor misguided fathead 5 PROOF
If upset by the dog having no tail, it’s still a pet’s name 4 FIDO
Possibly useless harangues at the airport. 6 HANGAR
- The word appears in the clue in full
This type of clue is probably the easiest to solve, but they do sometimes confound us.
Take the clue: ‘Capital city in Czechoslovakia.’ A colleague of mine gladly and quickly supplied his answer, PRAGUE, and was astonished when I told him the answer was ‘OSLO’.
The words in the clue that include the solution are usually phrased in such a way as to mislead, but the semantic clue is invariably given to assist in the solution, though as already stated, it may be ‘hidden’.
No love from a stranger 5 ANGER
In the dictionary, a word meaning ‘ruling’ 5 EDICT
For me also loveless, they can be sustaining. 5 MEALS
Repair a bad situation in the Aleutians HEAL
Were it not for the fact that much of what we say and write is idiomatic in the sense that it is heavily collocational, the job of crossword compilers would be far more difficult. All the clues point to well known collocates. With the clue for the word ‘duty’, the compiler could have used the other word that collocates with it; ‘free’, for example. Hence, the clue might have read, ‘Drinks are free of it outside the country.’ To take a dim view of something is quite a common utterance, though these things do go out of fashion.
Piping? 3 HOT
One is obliged to do it or pay it 4 DUTY
Sort of view one may take of a power cut 3 DIM
Actor’s assistant, possibly Welsh 7 DRESSER
- Encyclopedic knowledge
With General Knowledge crosswords, the trouble is that you either know the answer or you don’t. If you don’t, knowing where to find the answer is the next best thing. So it is with clues calling on one’s encyclopedic knowledge, and for that reason they are not as rewarding. You either know the answer or you do not, whereas all the other types of clues invite you to think laterally. Here are a few examples to illustrate my point. If you have never heard of Charles Dickens’nom de plume, then there isn’t much to be done except hope the other lines fill in the squares for you.
Spider on the snooker table 4 REST
Writer of Dickensian sketches 3 BOZ (‘Sketches by Boz’ is a series of short stories by Charles Dickens.)
Moorish battle location 7 MARSTON (Marson Moor is the site of a very famous battle in English history.)
South African boys 5 NATAL (Nat and Al are both boys’ names. NATAL is a province in South Africa)
- Collocations from encyclopedic knowledge
Again, if you do not know the name of the song known colloquially as Danny Boy, or The Londonderry Air then there isn’t much you can do about it. However, even if you do, you might not understand the conundrum, which is why the compiler phrased it in the way s/he did.
That boy with an air 5 DANNY (‘Danny Boy’ is in first line of the song ‘The Londonderry Air’)
Are they all named Atkins? 7 TOMMIES (Tommy Atkins-name of British soldier)
It’s deep in old Ethiopia ABYSS (Abyssinia is the former name of what is now Ethiopia)
- Plays on letters
With these types of clues we are back in the realm of thinking about words and letters in a different way. The clue that reads, ‘White, like a layer of eggs’, the pun works several ways. The semantic clue is ‘white’, and the words ‘like’ provide ‘AS’, the words ‘a layer of eggs’ providing the remaining part ‘Hen’ giving the completed word ‘ASHEN’. Thinking of a hen as a layer of eggs, which is precisely correct, but not usually stated that way, provides us with the difficulty. Splitting the word ‘ashen’ into two parts also adds to the confusion.
In all the examples, the semantic portion of the clue is ‘hidden’ in a sentence or phrase written in such a way as to deceive. Having the solution does help though.
Speak rhetorically of the love for speed 5 ORATE
American soldiers method of operating a device 5 GISMO
White, like a layer of eggs 5 ASHEN
Trouble the medical officer just in case 6 MOLEST
- Conundrums based upon encyclopedic knowledge
Mendelssohn’s cat 5 FELIX (The composer Mendelssohn’s first name was Felix, which is also the name of a cat in a well known cartoon.)
Simple saint 5 SIMON (‘Simple Simon’ is the subject of a well known children’s nursery rhyme. Simon was one of the apostles.)
When to make a start as PM 2,4 AT NOON (PM is the abbreviation for Prime Minister, and, in lower case, post meridian.)
Game in which men get pushed around 5 CHESS (The pieces in a chess set are known as ‘men’.)
Conqueror written of as “Just” WILLIAM (William was the name of the incorrigible schoolboy in Richmal Compton’s novel ‘Just William’.)
- Clues based on sounds
When high suspicion is voiced, avoid being discovered 4,3 FIND OUT (Fine doubt=high suspicion.)
She sounds Indian. 3 SUE (Sioux Indians)
- Clues that cross word and syllable boundaries
Get away from the house adjoining the mine 3,2 HOP IT (Ho = house/pit = mine)
- Clues that use symbols other than letters
Of these beasts, the wild one is about to get a cross 4 OXEN
Does it mean nothing chaps 4 OMEN
See a bar as smart C-LEVER
- Combinations of types of clue
I leave the air terminal with a Russian 4 IGOR (air terminal =r)
Fear of an ancient deity, I see PAN-IC
- Clues that use coincidence
A films star’s gratitude 6 T-HANKS (Tom Hanks)
- Clues that use the different meanings of a word.
Concealing a bad defeat HIDING
- Clues that use conventions
Sorceress accompanied round about WITcHThe compiler’s ‘constellation of associations’ for the word ‘damage’
The common enough word ‘damage’ provides the compiler with a mine of possible clues and their sources. Here are just some of them. Being aware of the possibilities open to the compiler helps the would be solver, but there is no real substitute for attempts, and looking up the solution the day after. In that way, it is possible to ‘get used to’ the way the compiler works, though well constructed crosswords are seldom simple, and that is their chief appeal, perhaps, that and the fact that cryptic crosswords, if completed, yield insights into certain facets and aspects of letters, words, and their meaning and associations. Above all, I feel that solving cryptic crosswords of the kind dealt with above is a valuable means of staying sharp, and seeing language for what it is, a system of manipulations of symbols that accords with certain of our cerebral networks, and a means of enlarging and increasing them.Word
damage (6 letters) Parts of speech
Noun (countable) Verb (transitive/regular/infinitive)Colloquial use
What’s the damage? = How much does it cost?Collocation
No damage/brain damage/extensive damage/fire damage
D = Grade/Capital of Denmark/4th letter of the alphabet/Delta/
Shape of letter
Dam---Reservoir bank/mother/sounds like the curse word
Am—morning/ante meridian/part of the verb ‘to be’ reversed Master
Age—Length of time/long time/adjective meaning to grow oldConventions
: d = capital of Denmark
d = head of Dudley
D =Name = Dee (Simon Dee/ Dee as first name)
D = dunderhead
D = first of day
D = last of the dead
D = third consonant in the alphabet
D = sound of prefix in ‘detoxification’/ ‘devalue’ etc
D = last letter in regular past tense verbs
D = Exam grade (ie. Just passed/lowest pass grade)
D = Musical note (Doe, a deer, a female deer)Synonyms of
harm, injury, destruction, hurt, abuse, vandalism, ruin, havoc, of ‘damage’:
accident, loss, suffering Possible clues
Era of the motherbased upon
: How old the reservoir is
Length of time reservoir has been there Anagrams
: Made with the leader of Guernsey
Madge mixed up with Ann initially
Dunderhead with time in the morning
Dingus Magee first, initiallyClues that include anagram
Hurt Madge and Ann initially. Dam(A)ge
Possibly meade in the capital of Germany, it’s destruction. Dama(G)e
Dunderhead with time in the morning to hurt D(am)age
Dingus Magea initially broken up to injure D(amage) Sounds
: Curse +Less quiet page (Page-p / Note convention of p for quiet/ pianissimo) Dam(n) + page-p = ageClues based on sound
: Soundly curse less quiet page means destruction
Sound blasted eraDistortions
-------------------dam + age— d + am + age
NB. If you are not aware that a particular word even exists, the constellation of associations and meanings surrounding the word will be unknown to you are unlikely to get the solution. The real beauty of this type of puzzle is that it is possible to work out what the word you need is by using the ‘logic’ I have outlined above. In this sense, crossword clues are not merely time fillers, but do exercise the mind in ways that are sufficiently unusual for them to be novel and appealing.
More often than not, compilers of cryptic crosswords use words that are in current use, it depends, possibly, on what sort of a fix they get themselves into doing the compiling. Crossword compilers are human too, you know. Robert L Fielding