Thursday, 30 July 2009



A concept closely related with palindromes is the semordnilap. 

Notice that it's palindrome, reversed? While a palindrome is identical either way, a semordnilap spells another meaningful but different text when reversed.

Such as:

This term is apparently a new coinage as my Chambers 2000 doesn't list it, but it gets plenty of hits on the web.

So, a whole reversal clue is based on a semordnilap. Here's a nice recent one:

Guardian 24672 (Rufus): Retired don is still in bed (3, 2)
The answer is NOT UP, the reverse of PUT ON.

I've talked about reversal clues in detail here: the Reversal Clue Type.


  • Some semordnilaps are not coincidental, the term yob was reputedly coined specifically as a reverse spelling of the word boy.

  • The reverse spelling of Mr. Mxyzptlk has a powerful role to play in Superman comics. If the supervillain said or spelled Kltpzyxm (i.e. his name backwards), he was involuntarily sent back to the fifth dimension for at least 90 days. Superman should be glad the supervillain did not have a palindromic name.

  • The magic Mirror Of Erised in the Harry Potter books, which shows "not your face but your heart's desire", aptly takes its name from the reflection of "desire".

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Tuesday, 28 July 2009


"Do Geese See God?" visualization A schoolmate Nitin would introduce himself with the line: "I'm Nitin, the same backwards and forwards". However cheesy that may be, at least it gave a mnemonic - people didn't forget his palindromic name in a hurry.

Palindromes are words or phrases that read the same in either direction. Words like MUM, DEED, REFER, the famous long one MALAYALAM. Phrases like NURSES RUN and MADAM I'M ADAM and SO MANY DYNAMOS.

When a palindrome appears in a cryptic puzzle, the clue will often make use of its same-both-ways attribute in the wordplay.

Sample these:

Times Sunday 4312: It swivels up and down (7)
FT 13124 (Mudd): Flat food turned over just the same (4)
Times 24250: Standard that may be raised to no effect (5)
Guardian 24502 (Orlando): Witnesses going up and down (4)


  • The word "palindrome" is derived from the Greek palíndromos, meaning "running back" (palín = back + dromos = running).

  • Other than the traditional palindrome which has character-by-character symmetry, variants such as these are also classed as palindromes:

    • Word-Unit Palindrome: A phrase/sentence with symmetry of words rather than letters.  e.g. Fall leaves after leaves fall.
    • Mirrored Palindrome: A graphically reversible sequence. e.g. WOW, bid. A traditional palindrome is not necessarily mirrored (e.g. DID is not a mirrored palindrome).

  • The Shishupala Vadha, an epic Sanskrit poem composed by Magha in the 8th century, has a stanza which is palindromic not just forwards and backwards but also up and down. Read more here.

  • The Guardian carried a palindrome-themed puzzle by Araucaria a few months ago. Check it out here: Guardian 24587.

  • If you are afraid of palindromes, you're suffering from aibohphobia according to Wikipedia's list of jocular phobias (and if you're really possessed by this fear then don't learn this word as it is itself a palindrome).

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Friday, 24 July 2009

When Fillers Are Not Fillers

puzzle-with-missing-piece With all this talk about connectors, let's not forget the reverse – words that we assume are connectors, and it turns out they are part of the wordplay.

Something like:

FT 13134 (Armonie): Fuss about a soldier's slow movement (6) AD{A GI}O
Here, the "A" isn't just to help the surface, it is used in the answer.

FT 13137 (Viking): Conned fall guy in getting payment (9) GAINFULLY*
One might think that (FALL + GUY + IN) would arrange into a word meaning "payment", but "getting" is not a link word here, it is part of the definition.

What do you say to the next one? Will you ever look at "fillers" the same way again?

Times 24281: Direct, at first not direct (7)
[Can't work out the answer? Hint: Don't ignore ANY part of the clue!]

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Tuesday, 21 July 2009

Same Connector, Unequal Impact

link words in cryptic cluesIn my last post about connectors in cryptic clues, I mentioned an area of general agreement: connectors that logically link wordplay and definition are considered fair.

So, something like this:

[wordplay] to [solution]

is fine, as "to" indicates leading towards the solution.

Yes?? Not so fast!

The link word "to" can have different effect on different clues.

Take these two:

THC 9568: I almost adhere to a Wagnerian heroine (6) I SOLDE{-r}
and this one: A painter has turned back to desert (4) {SAH AR A}<-

Both have valid surfaces, correct wordplay + definition and the same link word "to", but the padding in the second clue is not so harmless. It can be argued that it leads the solver to look for a synonym of the verb "to desert" (to run away/abandon). The first clue does not have this issue, as "a Wagnerian heroine" can only be a noun.

In general, connectors before nouns cause less mischief than those before adjectives, verbs and such like. Take the case of articles in clues.

THC 9460: Monarch overwhelmed by a Pole's voice projection (5) TENO{-r+N}
THC 9577: Barbate Oriental in Germany, a spiritless revolutionary (7) {B{E}ARD ED}<-

The first clue lets you read "a Pole" as "N" so the connector doesn't interfere with the clue's parsing. The second clue does not provide that option, as "Germany a spiritless" can only give "DE A DRAB", the solver has to work out then that "A" must be discarded.

The rest being equivalent, my vote goes for clues that manage their misdirection without relying on superfluous link words for it.

PS: Taking a cue from this comment, I've not mentioned setters' names so that subconscious biases don't influence our estimation of clues!

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Saturday, 18 July 2009

Thoughts On Connectors


A few days ago, maddy wrote a comment with pertinent questions about the use of connectors in cryptic clues: "…how much is too much?? What is acceptable and what is not??"

As I see it, there is no single correct answer. There's a lot of ground that fair setters will agree on but sometimes it's a matter of taste than rules for right-wrong. Here are some of my thoughts on this. But first things first.

What are connectors?

For those new to cryptic crosswords, connectors are those words in a clue that give meaning to its surface but are superfluous to its cryptic meaning.

For example:
THC 9583 (Sankalak): Dress that, with time, becomes rubbish (7) GARB AGE
The above is a charade in which only the elements "Dress time rubbish" play an active role in the wordplay, the rest is padding. The clue needs the remaining words for its facade or surface, but the wordplay can easily do without them.

In contrast, here's another clue from Sankalak that has no connectors:

THC 9584 (Sankalak): Sad, yet somehow unwavering (6) STEADY*
"Sad yet" is the anagram fodder, "somehow" the anagrind and "unwavering" the definition. No padding.

Fair Connectors

Words that link the wordplay and solution in the following forms are considered valid quite universally:

[wordplay] is
leading to
to get
[solution] is
given by
derived from

Things begin to get fuzzy when link words creep inside the wordplay. The most acceptable kinds are words like 'and' between charade components, or articles before common nouns.

Some examples of connectors inside the wordplay, which I think are all right:

Sunday Times 4295: [Animation with cello playing] is [soothing stuff] (8,6) CALAMINE LOTION*
THC 9506 (Gridman): [Bill has a levy] for [admission] (6) AC CESS

How much is too much?

The answer lies not in the count but in the role played by the connectors. A connector must connect – i.e. link together the wordplay in the direction of the solution, not detract from the solution.

Ask: Does the connector change the real meaning of the clue, giving no logical path to the answer? Is the only way to solve the clue by ignoring the connector?

If the answer is "yes", then even one connector is too much.

Let's revisit Sankalak's first clue again.
Dress that, with time, becomes rubbish (7)

Parsing it gives this format:
[charade component 1] that with [charade component 2] becomes [solution]

Three connectors, but all coherently come together leading to the answer. The clue says what it means, however deviously it may say it. That's a core requirement for fair clueing, and this clue passes gracefully in spite of being 50%-full of connectors.

Take this clue now:

THC 9577 (Neyartha): Cook pate stew too with edible root (5,6) SWEET POTATO*

Simple enough anagram, with one connector only. But is it an acceptable connector?

Parsing it gives this format:
[anagrind] [anagram fodder] with [solution]

This does not provide a logical path to the answer, the only way to make sense of the clue is by dropping the connector. That's a flaw that fair setters would try to avoid.

In Closing…

I'll hasten to add an analogy from the book Outliers by Malcolm Gladwell, which I'm reading currently with great interest.

Talking about plane crashes, Gladwell illustrates that crashes rarely happen because of huge catastrophic failures – engine parts do not explode in a fiery bang, the rudder doesn't suddenly snap. Crashes are more likely to be the result of trivial malfunctions/errors that on their own would not cause accidents, calamity strikes when a bunch of such errors occur all at once.

The same holds true for cryptic clues. Superfluous connectors by themselves do not spoil the clue totally – at least for me. If the rest is fine, I will not even notice while solving. But when combined with complicated wordplay, poorly checked grid or a vague definition for a hard word – that spells c-r-a-s-h.

Coming Up

I was writing more about the same connector being unequal in different clues, but that's making this article too long. So will follow up soon with a separate post. Hang on!

Update: Here's the follow-up post: Same Connector, Unequal Impact.

Meanwhile, give some thought to the connectors in these clues. What do you say? Completely fair, just pass muster or unfair?

THC 9564 (Gridman): Emotion attains a different range (5)
THC 9536 (Gridman): New slates smashed? But that’s known to me already! (5,4)
THC 9547 (Neyartha): Tractor operator does firmware development out of Wisconsin (6)

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Wednesday, 8 July 2009

Crossword Solving Aids

crossword-solver Sometimes, we take up the grid and pen, start solving and fill in the whole puzzle.

Sometimes, we don't. We get stuck on a word we don't know. We have a corner remaining and not enough crossings to take us along further.

What do you do when that happens?

Set aside the puzzle and move on?
Keep wondering what those missing answers are, wait for the solution to be published? Visit the solving communities to check?
Use aids to help you reach the end?

If you're the last kind, you are spoilt for choice. All kinds of crossword aids are at your disposal - the old-fashioned print dictionaries, knowledge resources on the internet, anagram solver, electronic encyclopedias, even Artificial Intelligence-equipped crossword solver software that claim they can complete a cryptic crossword without human intervention.

Is using aids cheating?

If aids are used in informal solving, I see no 'ethical' problems with it. Crossword solving is for fun. If a solver's choice is to use an automated clue solver to give answers, so be it. That choice doesn't make sense to me – it is equivalent to sending someone else to watch a great movie on your behalf - but it is surely not a deceitful activity to merit such a strong name!

I wish the Guardian crossword site would rename their "Cheat" button to a milder "Show" or "Reveal" :)

Which aids do you use?

Based on what I've grown accustomed to or what I've come to like, I use these:

Chambers Dictionary: This huge red hard-bound book is by my side whenever I attempt the tougher crosswords at home. Some crosswords like the Azed make special mention of the edition number: 2008 (11th edition) currently. Sadly this edition is not available in India, but for most purposes my 2000 edition works fine. If you can get hold of the latest edition, though, do that. (And if you can find it in India, please leave a comment to tell me where.)

An online Chambers dictionary/thesaurus exists but that is a 'lite' version of the real thing. I use this for quick confirmation when I am solving online. A word of caution - this dictionary doesn't list obscure words or rare meanings of words, and what's more worrying, it might be listing words that are not legit according to standard dictionaries (I say this based on the incorrectly spelt FUSCHIA (sic)). I use it more out of habit than anything else, it's good for easy lookups but might not be dependable for difficult words.

Wikipedia: European wars, English counties, Western classical music – for information in such areas that I know little about, I go to Wikipedia. A fair clue's wordplay and checking give enough pointers to lead to the solution, from there it's just a matter of verifying it. e.g. A clue like "Seaman, beginning to search through charts, misconstrued Scottish area (9) – FT 13107 (Aardvark)" can be solved and confidently answered – backed by a look at Wikipedia - even if one hasn't heard of the Scottish area before. Not all clues are so generous though and one might have to trawl through Wikipedia some more, but one picks up a lot of trivia in the process which may come in handy in future puzzles.

With Wikipedia, one has to be careful about quality and accuracy. The comments on the header/footer of the article, plus the History/Discussion tabs, give a good idea of how recently edited or disputed the article is. Since the knowledge areas in crosswords that I search for are generally stable and non-controversial, and most knowledge is at the surface level (e.g. a fictional character's name, not an in-depth understanding of her role in the book) – Wikipedia has been pretty reliable for me.

Google: Unfamiliar idioms and phrases, colloquialism or slang – I simply put them into Google. Enclosing a long phrase within double-quotes and writing "meaning" next to it gives better search results.

Last but not least, as they say - I check with a Tamil friend when faced with clues of this kind from The Hindu Crossword: "Congratulation to workers for silk from south India (5)– THC 9471 (Gridman)" :P

That's about it. Also, I resort to aids only after I have finished as much as of the crossword as I possibly could on my own. If I'm blogging about a puzzle, I think it's important to mention the solutions obtained with external help.

I don't go for stronger aids like pattern match or anagram solver but if people want to, I think that's fine. To me the greater evil of such forms of crossword help is not the 'cheating' factor but that they hinder improvement in solving skills. The only way to attain the level where one glances at the anagram fodder and gets the answer, is the Do-It-Yourself way. The shortcut of anagram solver will not get one there.

Which aids do you use? And what do you think about using aids?

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Friday, 3 July 2009



A hindonym is an English word that sounds the same as an unrelated Hindi word.

Take these for instance:

Word English Meaning Hindi Meaning
BUS vehicle;
computer circuit
enough, stop!
SAW past tense of 'see';
tool for cutting;
proverb; …

If you have never heard about hindonyms before, that's because it isn't a dictionary word.

My uncle had coined the term "hindonym" years ago. To keep us occupied on an idle day during school summer vacations, he set me and my cousins the task of preparing a list of such words. I wish I had preserved that list, it ran into pages.

These two clues from today's Financial Times 13119 (Bradman) reminded me of hindonyms:

Big cheese finally making fortune (4)
County chaps looking fashionable once? (5)

In Hindi, badi cheez (बड़ी चीज़) means the same as "big cheese". Cheese and चीज़ sound identical, but on their own they have different meanings. Apparently, the expression "big cheese" has originated from its Hindi equivalent.

The answer to the second clue is BUCKS. In English, BUCK can mean a male deer, a fashionable guy, to object strongly…and in Hindi, it can be a rude way to say: Speak!

Bilingual Double-Definitions

Readers who know Hindi – how about writing hindonym-based double definitions?

Sample Clue: Irritate God (3)
Answer: RUB / रब

The conditions are:

  1. Of the two definitions, one should be for the English word, the other for the Hindi word. Any order is fine.
  2. The word length should be according to the English word.
  3. The PH sound should be accurate. Silly flower (4) will not do – FOOL is फ़ूल, flower is फूल. Notice the missing dot! [I have mentioned this specially as this common mispronunciation is a pet peeve :P]

Here's one from me to start with:

Servant, strike the door with this! (7)

Post answers and your own clues in the comments section.

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Thursday, 2 July 2009

Reversal Indicators

As regular readers might have noticed, I've been putting together a list of clue type indicators. Reversals this time. (Check out the other indicators by clicking on the Index button on the site's header.) 

To recap, reversal clues are those in which a word/phrase is turned around to give the solution.
e.g. (from NIE) Rising star, nonsense! (4) RATS <-

A specialty of reversal indicators: many indicators will work only for ACROSS clues and not for DOWN clues, and vice-versa.

  1. ACROSS clue reversal indicators suggest a change of direction horizontally. e.g. going west, to the left.
  2. DOWN clue reversal indicators suggest a change of direction vertically. e.g. going up, mounting, rising.
  3. Generic reversal indicators such as around, back can be used for both ACROSS and DOWN clues.

[Given that, quick question: where in the puzzle can you expect to see the above clue "Rising star, nonsense! (4)" – the Across set, the Down set, or either of the two?]

Here's a compilation of frequently seen reversal indicators, grouped into those three categories – ACROSS only, DOWN only, and Generic.

Reversal Indicators – ACROSS only

Reversal Indicators – DOWN only

Reversal Indicators – Generic

Thanks to Ganesh for his inputs in compiling this list.

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