Saturday 1 November 2008

Agent Nouns In Crosswords

In cryptic crosswords, words have unexpected meanings.

A typical trick involves words ending in '-er'. One interpretation of this form of word is as an agent noun, i.e. a noun obtained by adding an '-er' suffix to a verb (action) to denote someone/something that does that action. This is generally the oblique interpretation of that word, which the surface reading skillfully hides.

Take this double-definition clue from The Hindu 9366:
Butter in computer memory (3)

Your first thought is of "butter" as in the fatty thing you put on bread, but you need to actually think of it as "one that butts" to get the solution.

Here's a collection of words that work as agent nouns, or can pass off as agent nouns in a cryptic sense, with examples of how that is woven into cryptic clues.

Word Straight Meaning Cryptic Meaning Clue Examples
BANKER One who works in a bank One that has banks (river)

One you can rely upon
Guardian 24224:
Trendy Italian banker boxes celebrated doctor (11) HIP PO CRATES

Guardian 24120:
See a fast scramble to be an MP’s banker (4, 4) SAFE SEAT*
BETTER Good in comparison One who bets Guardian 24317:
It’s preferable to be a speculator (6) BETTER [2]

Item of clothing

ET 3067:
Pleas for reform might be a bit of a bloomer (5) SEPAL*

Guardian 24317:
This could make a bloomer, say (5) FLOUR [CD]
BUTTER Dairy product One that butts (ram/goat) Times 23849:
Butter bread, notably omitting filling, and try with a starter of tomatoes (5,4) NAN N{-otabl}Y GO A T
DENIER One who denies Silk fiber weight
Old coin
FT 12743:
One rejecting sheer quality (6) DENIER [2]
FLOWER Blossom of a plant One that flows (river) NIE 9849:
Pakistan flower business lacks go (5) INDUS{-try}
JABBER Chatter One that pricks or punches NIE 9697:
Jabber and annoy (6) NEEDLE [2]
MISTER Form of address for a man One that produces mist Times 24038:
Mister, a shilling! - heartfelt plea (7) S PRAYER
NUMBER Symbol for counting (1, 2, …) One that causes numbness Times 24055:
A number having a stylistic principle(11) AN AESTHETIC
PUTTER Golf club One that puts

Move aimlessly
They lay in irons (7) PUTTERS [2]
SEWER Drain One that sews (tailor) Guardian 24470:
Sewer joint takes strain (10) SEAM STRESS
SKIER One who skis High ball Guardian 24376:
One going up in the air or along the snow (5) SKIER [2]
SUMMER The warm season One that sums Times 24068:
Frames for summer's activities? (5) ABACI [CD]


Sometimes crossword compilers use the double-bluff. You read "flower" in the clue and begin thinking of rivers, when actually it referred to a regular flower all along. 

A few examples where the agent noun ploy was not used:

THC 2622: Sewer, initially dry, before the wet weather (5) D RAIN
NIE 9737: A flower came up (5) A ROSE
THC 8189: Mister, admit the princess for deportment (6) M{ANNE}R

Further Reading:

To keep track of updates on Crossword Unclued, subscribe to it in a reader via RSS Feed. You can also subscribe by email and have articles delivered to your inbox.


Ganesh T S said...

Came across this nice clue relevant to your post above in FT 12924 set by Aardvark:

Cooked oyster has no time to take back butter flavouring (8)


The 'butter' in the surface reading leads the solver astray, which makes this one of the top clues in the puzzle!

Shuchi said...

That's a nice one Ganesh. Thanks for sharing.

xwd_fiend said...

I don't think your table makes sense. Meanings like "one you can rely on"/"safe bet" for BANKER and "loaf" for BLOOMER are only "cryptic meanings" in these particular clues, and are supported by the dictionary (if you're using the right one ...).

The meanings like {BANKER = something with banks} and {FLOWER = something that flows}, which don't appear in the dictionary, have to be regarded as "cryptic" in all cases, because you would never encounter these meanings outside a cryptic crossword.

Strictly, BANKER = something with banks is not an agent noun - a river does not bank in the same way that it flows. So the overall group is really -ER words.

Anonymous said...

Good list! You can also include "LAYER" for HEN.

michael said...

I think the definitions for "denier" are switched.

Shuchi said...

Hi michael,

The table lists the more common meaning under "Straight Meaning", the less common/cryptic meaning under "Cryptic Meaning". In most cases - BUTTER and MISTER for example - the less common/cryptic meaning is an agent noun, but in a few - DENIER and SKIER for example - it is the other way round.

I have edited the intro to the table to make this clearer.