Tuesday, October 14, 2008

Puns: When They Work, When They Don’t

Jam? Which?

Words with multiple meanings not just add richness to language but are also fodder for cryptic crosswords. Typically, the surface of a cryptic clue uses one form of the word, the solution uses the other.

FILM can be a movie, it can also be a membrane. ROW can be an array, it can also mean to propel a boat. Crossword setters exploit different senses of a word to confuse, and you need to think laterally not to fall for the trap. Take the title of Sandy Balfour's book, for example:

Pretty girl in crimson rose (8)

"Crimson rose" makes you think of a red flower, but that's not how this should be read. ROSE in this clue actually means "became active in opposition", and you must read it that way to arrive at the solution, RE{BELLE}D.

Notice something interesting here? ROSE has more than one meaning, but when you're reading the clue above you are most likely to think of the flower, because that is its most popular meaning.

Clues based on words for which all meanings are not 'equal' (i.e. some meanings are more common than others) are more effective when the surface reading involves the more popular or intuitive (primary) meaning, and the solution involves the lesser used (oblique) meaning. Consider this clue from Times 24040:

Land reformer in Indian city taking new look round (8)

"look" is used in the primary sense of "glance" in the surface reading, but is to be used in the oblique sense of "aspect" in the solution. The answer is AGRA {RIA N}<-.

Now take these clues from THC9350 and 9351:

(1) Brown follows hub set up in country (6)
(2) Come to terms with a finally willing grass holding back the last bit (5)

How does one read these clues?
(1) Brown = the tan color, you think, but that does not make sense in the surface reading so you re-interpret Brown as a proper noun. The answer the clue gives is BHU* TAN. The pun on "brown" causes no confusion, because you had first thought of TAN anyway.

(2) Grass evokes the image of lawns and pastures, then you realize it doesn't fit in with the surface reading and say "Oh wait, grass also means police informer", now the clue seems fine. The answer the clue gives is A G REE{-d}.

It takes no effort to fit in brown=TAN and grass=REED into the solution, as those are the meanings that suggest themselves more readily.

How much better it would be to reverse this scenario - use grass to refer to the usual green herbage in the surface, and police informer in the solution.

Clues work best when they challenge the solver to unravel subsidiary meanings for the solution, and not for making sense of the surface.

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