Monday, May 18, 2015

13 Imaginative Ways to Talk of Prison

prison That place of confinement can boast of many imaginative substitutes for its name. Clues that show how these get used in crosswords.

1. JUG
Times 25628: Maybe go through mood changes of criminal: prison worried (9) CONJUGATE
CON (criminal) JUG (prison) ATE (worried)

Times 25775: Create revolutionary movement in prison (4) STIR
Double definition; 'stir' is slang for prison.

On the history and possible origin of this meaning of 'stir', Grammarphobia has an interesting write-up.

FT 14540 (Orense): Wake up cooler (4) STIR
Double definition; 'cooler' refers to prison, usually meant for the more dangerous criminals.

4. CAN
Indy 8876 (Phi): Prison Director guided to reduce light (6) CANDLE
CAN (prison) D (director) LE[d] (guided to reduce i.e. cut short)

[Not to forget, 'can' means other things too.]

Times 25869: Nick — adolescent making a mess (7) CANTEEN
CAN (nick - slang for prison) TEEN (adoloscent)

You'll usually find 'nick' on the clue's surface dressed as a proper noun, or as a verb meaning 'steal' or 'cut'.

Times 25964: Remove a key from prison outfit (3) RIG
BRIG (prison) – B (key, of music)

'Brig' is a military prison, especially in a navy ship.

FT14791 (Bradman): Imprisoned maiden? That gets media treatment (8) COVERAGE 
OVER (maiden, as in cricket) imprisoned i.e. put inside prison (CAGE)

FT14184 (Jason): One in pokey with excellent natter (6) CONFAB
CON (one in pokey - slang for prison) FAB (excellent)

Guardian 26203 (Rufus): Jug can clink (6) PRISON
Triple definition

10. TIME
Indy 8775 (Phi): Event enabling you to live out of time? (9) JAILBREAK cd
To 'do time' is to serve a prison sentence. 

11. BIRD
Sunday Times 4622 (Jeff Pearce): Fool can get drunk in bar (9) BIRDBRAIN
BIRD (can i.e. prison) (IN BAR)*

'Bird' can mean prison, a term in prison, or a prison inmate (short for jailbird). The word comes from bird-lime, rhyming slang for 'time'. Often used in the phrase 'do bird', which means 'do time'.


Similar to 'bird', 'porridge' can mean prison or a term in prison, especially in the phrase 'do porridge' (serve a prison sentence). The word gained wider currency with the BBC TV series Porridge, a sitcom about prison inmates.

FT14822 (Monk): Bishop, one putting on fat in time (8) PORRIDGE
RR (bishop - Right Reverend) I (one), putting on i.e. inside PODGE (fat). The definition 'time'

Wikipedia attributes this usage of 'porridge' to the staple diet of porridge in UK prisons.


Times 25303: One violently smashing lip has for a start to be imprisoned (12) SLEDGEHAMMER
EDGE (lip) H ('has', for a start), to be 'imprisoned' i.e. to be inside SLAMMER


Any other interesting prison terms you can think of? Add to the list in the comments section.

With such diversity of synonyms, it's not uncommon to find multi-definition clues associated with 'prison'. Till a while back, the maximum count of definitions that I'd seen in a single clue was in this clue for SET. Then in Dec 2014, I came across this outstanding 7-definitional:

Indy 8797 (Hieroglyph): Nick Cage can stir porridge inside big house in the States (6)
'nick', 'cage', 'can', 'stir', 'porridge', 'inside', 'big house' (in the States) - all mean prison.

Solve These

More clues that play on words referring to 'prison'. Have fun solving!

Sunday Times 4584 (Dean Mayer): A handle for jug, all in enamel (8) N_______
Times 25900: Fine golden bird on toy stall (4,3,4) P___ ___ ___E
Indy 8647 (Dac): Tough jailbird shown round a prison (4-4) C___-____
Times 24571: Cooler name rejected by psychologist (3)

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Thursday, April 30, 2015


Janus A few years ago, I was awestruck with the cleverness of this winning clue from the Azed Slip Archive:

The jungly mass one cleaves (7) MACHETE
[M (mass) +ACE (one)] cleaves i.e. holds (THE)* 
The whole clue is the definition: a machete is something that cleaves i.e. cuts through the jungly mass.

This clue plays on a special property of 'cleave': the word has two meanings diametrically opposed to each other. The clue's wordplay uses one meaning of 'cleave' (to hold/cling), while its definition uses the opposite (to cut/divide).

Thanks to a Mental Floss article, I found a name for such words with contradictory meanings. They are called contronyms (or contranyms), from the Latin contr[a] (contrary, in opposition) + –onym. Contronyms go by many other names: autoantonyms, antagonyms, or Janus words, called so after the Roman god of beginnings and endings, usually depicted with two faces looking in opposite directions. [T-Rex must be alone in calling them homographic homophonic autantonyms.]

A few examples we use commonly: DUST (to remove dust; to add dust), SCREEN (to show; to conceal), VARIETY (many types; a specific type). The folks at DailyWritingTips have compiled a pretty long list. Many contronyms are formed due to the prefix 'RE-' added to imply 'again': this meaning may contradict a separate meaning. RESIGN (renew a contract; give up on a contract), REPROVE (support or prove again; strongly disapprove), REPLACE (restore to initial position; remove from initial position) are some such words.

As you can guess, contronyms have great potential in cryptic clueing. They make even the basic double definition delightful.

Times 25889: Good or bad (6) WICKED
Independent 8822 (Phi): Spring and fall (4) TRIP

Contronyms can add mystery to the clue's definition.

Guardian 26124 (Nutmeg): Using old Latin in will could be wise or foolish (6) OWLISH
O (old) + L (Latin) in WISH (will). 'Owlish' could mean wise or foolish.

Or they can act as deceptive double-edged indicators.

Can you think of contronyms in other languages? One in Hindi is कल (KAL), which might mean yesterday/in the past or tomorrow/in the future.

Solve These

A few contronym-based clues for you to solve.

Times 25743: Making harder or softer (9) T________
Times 23609: On right, with fixed agenda, no Democrat! (6) ___G__
Guardian 25731 (Rufus): Certainly less than 50% (3,4) ___ H___

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Friday, April 17, 2015

Elementary Deceptions

As chemistry taught us, every chemical element has a unique symbol, a short character representation usually derived from the element's name. Fe = Iron (from Latin ferrum), O = oxygen, K = potassium (from Latin kalium) are a few popular examples.

Elements Periodic Table

Element name <-> symbol substitution forms the basis of some ingenious wordplay in crosswords.

Chemical elements whose names coincide with other meaningful words fit beautifully into cryptic clues. For example, 'lead' isn't just a metal - it can, among other things, stand for 'leash' or 'precedence' or a verb meaning 'guide'. Similarly, 'tin' can be can, 'copper' a policeman, 'iron' a verb about the pressing of clothes. The non-element meaning can misdirect the solver on the clue's surface while the element symbol contributes to the answer.

Sunday Indy 1292 (eXternal): Female's accepting lead on family film, new actress (7) HEPBURN
HER (female's) around Pb (lead) on U (family film, from the U certificate) N (new)

FT14789 (Io): Take 7Up out of tin at all? (4) EVER
R (recipe, take) + SEVEN 'out of tin' i.e. without Sn, with 'Up' implying reversal.

Further jugglery can happen with the element name <-> symbol substitution:

Sunday Times 4486 (Tim Moorey): Restrain dog with the small part of lead (4) CURB
CUR (dog) b (the small part of 'lead' i.e. the lowercase letter of 'Pb')

Sometimes, in place of the element name, a broader definition can get used.

FT14642 (Mudd): Precious thing, wind, in summer (6) AUGUST
Au (precious thing – the symbol for gold) GUST (wind)

Times 25065: Most curious split appearing back on shiny metal (4) AGOG
GO (split) reversed, after Ag (shiny metal – the symbol for silver)

Uppercase Illusions

What's more devilish is the use of the element symbol on the clue's surface when it happens to match another unrelated English word.

Guardian 25872 (Arachne): I have supper after ten (6) IODINE
DINE (have supper) after 10 (ten). The personal pronoun is also the chemical symbol for iodine.

Guardian 25818 (Paul): At sea, Titan at sea (8) ASTATINE
(SEA TITAN)*. 'At' is also the chemical symbol for astatine.

The initial capital of the chemical symbol poses a hurdle in clue-writing: since false lowercasing is not OK, the clue cannot say "at" when it means "At" for Astatine. The workaround is to make the initcap of the chemical symbol look like an inconspicuous punctuation-driven uppercase.

A D-by-E that uses this trick with two such symbols:

Guardian 24730 (Arachne): They're essential. Am I? (8) ELEMENTS
Am and I are examples of elements: Am is americium, and I iodine.

Other such words to watch out for: As = arsenic, He = helium. But don't rule out yet element symbols that by themselves mean nothing, as the setter can do this:

FT 13938 (Crux): Pub's empty – could indicate some kind of poisoning (4) LEAD
Empty 'Pub' = Pb, the symbol for lead. And then there's lead poisoning.

Solve These

Enjoy solving these cryptic crossword clues that play on element names and symbols.

Times 24143: Lead put into gold (two billion) in only a bit of a lather! (4,6)
Times 25767: He, I, and then you, we hear, occupying leadership position (6)
Guardian 26234 (Arachne): White copper put black boy in cell without clothes (3,4)
Indy 8817 (Monk): Tough guy possibly viewed as female? (4,3)
Indy 8847 (Anax): As is one kind bearing malice, running after the man (8,7)

Also try this Guardian puzzle by Brendan, themed on chemical elements. And see the blog on FT14457 by Loroso (the crossword is no longer available on the FT site), in which all the Across clues have an element symbol omitted from the wordplay.

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Friday, March 27, 2015

A Puzzling Difference Between Crossword Solvers and Non-Solvers

Why don't we do a crossword puzzle. It'll only take us five minutes. Or, in your case, six.

– says Joan Clarke to Alan Turing in the 2014 film The Imitation Game.The Imitation Game

Something about the dialogue between these wonderful solvers seemed off to me.

People who solve crosswords call it 'crossword' or 'puzzle' in conversation.
People who call it 'crossword puzzle' are usually those who don't solve crosswords.

Is this an Indian thing? Would seasoned solvers elsewhere, when they get together, talk of 'crossword puzzles' instead of 'crosswords'?

Or has the lingo changed with time, just as 'crossword' gets shortened to 'crossie' among the younger Indian solvers nowadays?

An online search shows interesting evidence.

On Alan Connor's Guardian Crossword blog, the term 'crossword puzzle' appears either when emphasizing a difference from other types of puzzles, or when quoting from non-crossword sources: e.g. an announcement on The Imitation Game publicity puzzle, an excerpt from the script of The American President, a crossword story in Orlando Sentinel. Elsewhere it is 'crossword' or 'puzzle', sometimes 'cryptics' in the plural.

In this Will Shortz interview on Bitter Lawyer (a non-crossword legal humour site), the interviewer uses the term 'crossword puzzle' in a question, but Will Shortz responds with 'crossword' or 'puzzle'. In another interview with him, this one on Wordplay (NYT crossword blog), neither interviewer nor interviewee says 'crossword puzzle' except when referring to ACPT.

In a crossword-focused Q&A with David Kwong (crossword consultant for The Imitation Game), the only time he uses the expression 'crossword puzzle' is when he quotes from the film's script - “[Alan,] you just defeated Nazism with a crossword puzzle".

So, do you do 'crosswords' or 'crossword puzzles'? How do you refer to them when you talk to other crossword people?

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Wednesday, March 11, 2015

Quadruple Pangram in THC

The Hindu Crossword 11335 by AfterDark featured a technical marvel – a quadruple pangram in a 15x15 British-style grid.

Quadruple Pangram, The Hindu Crossword  

Why is it a technical marvel?

Fitting the entire English alphabet four times in a 15x15 blocked grid requires the setter to predetermine 104 letters in an about 160-letter grid. Doing this with meaningful, clueable words, while also meeting the requirements of symmetry and checking, is an extraordinary achievement - not just rare, but possibly the first-ever in a British-style 15x15 grid. [If you have come across any other, please let me know.]

First-ever quadruple pangram in a 15x15?

Quadruple pangrams have appeared before in American-style grids. The first quadruple pangram in the New York Times (NYT), created by Peter Wentz, was published in Nov 2010. To accommodate the quadruple pangram, a non-standard 16x15 grid was used for this puzzle. In Dec 2012, American setter Matt Gaffney took up the challenge of fitting a quintuple pangram into a 16x15 grid. He didn't quite achieve it, ending with a grid six letters short of the goal.

In March 2013, Raymond C Young's crossword created a quadruple pangram in an American-style 15x15.

British-style grids have fewer lights in comparison with American-style grids, which makes the quest for a quadruple pangram even harder.

How did AfterDark do it?

In the setter's own words:

The first step was to choose the right grid. I had to look for a 15x15 that had a high letter count, yet avoided 3-letter solutions (in THC, 3-letter solutions are rare). Also, I had to find a grid that didn't have long words (they pose a big challenge in fitting in rare letters) and could accommodate more words. Fortunately, Crossword Compiler software helps in giving out such stats. I zeroed in on a grid with a mean word length of around 6, and an option of 38 words.

The second step was to deal with the difficult letters like Z,Q,J. In general, I chose slots where these letters could avoid a crossing. I then started from the NW quarter, trying to optimise the usage of difficult letters. And moved anti-clockwise, quarter by quarter, constantly checking for the number of times I had used the letters.

That was only the beginning. Each quarter ended up changing many times.

Strangely, after trying too hard to fit in the rare letters, in the end I was stuck with K, H & G. This happened because, every time a word choice was given, I opted to ignore the easy letters as I believed I could fit them in any time. When it came to the NE quarter at last, I was left with just 3 words but 7 letters to be included. This, again, led to a total alteration of two quarters.

There were words I deliberately avoided for one of these reasons: they were obscure (the barometer for that essentially was whether I had heard of the words somewhere or not), they didn't lend themselves to good definition, or they were "unclueable". Despite that, a few obscure words crept in, but I ensured that the wordplay and crossings would help the solver.

The last word that fell in place was – ironically - 1A, which throughout the process had remained intact (it was the first to be filled). To make place for a G in the end, DAZZLE became DANZIG (I had a luxury of an excess Z). Then what was taking EONS (3D) came out GUNS blazing.

AfterDark (Shrikanth Thirumalaiswami as he's known outside of crosswords) is no stranger to crossword grid artistry. Some of his past specials have been: every answer containing double letters, a pangram of end-letters of answers, 3 lipograms (A, E and T) with the letter excluded from the grid as well as the clues, a triple pangram.

Pangram of End Letters 

Do you like pangrammatic puzzles?

I landed on this very interesting article which reasons that pangrams don't matter in puzzle-making and, with their Scrabble-y words, tend to annoy the solver.

Compassionate solvers, not wanting to hurt a puzzle's feelings, might soft-pedal a bad solving experience by saying: "This puzzle is lame, but at least it's a pangram."  My friends, it's probably lame because it's a pangram.

Another puts forth a defence against that argument.

Like all technical accomplishments, it has nothing to do with whether a theme is clever or the fill is fresh. It’s completely artificial.

By the way, so is the syllable count in haiku or the meter in a sonnet.

Solvers and setters, which side of the debate are you on?

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