When it comes to a cryptic crossword, what you see is not what you should, necessarily, get. Though the surface reading of a clue will make grammatical sense (although not always logical sense), it is a mirage, a distraction. What you see is to divert your attention from what is really there. And to solve the clue takes a slightly idiosyncratic mind with a large vocabulary and a fondness for absolutely terrible puns.
Can I give you more concrete information? There’s no way I can go into all the potential intricacies hidden within a cryptic clue in a short, breezy column without you wishing me ill, and possibly forming some kind of lynch mob in retaliation. So let’s be practical. We’ll take this clue, from Guardian Crossword 25,717, which is a personal favourite of mine, being both concise and challenging:
Complaint of the glade in Innisfree? (4)
English Lit students should have a head-start with this; “glade in Innisfree” clearly refers to the poem “The Lake Isle of Innisfree”, by William Butler Yeats, where he “lives alone in the bee-loud glade”. So the glade is “bee-loud”, which seems to be the key to our clue. But that’s not much of a complaint, is it? Plus, the answer is only four letters long.
If you’re thinking “loud” at this moment, nice try, but it doesn’t fit either. You see, while you might complain that something is loud, that’s not what the word means here. Each cryptic clue contains a definition of the answer, one of the rules crossword setters have to make sure things don’t get too fiendishly difficult and unsolvable. It’s always at the start or the end of a clue, and since “glade in Innisfree” is obviously the part of the clue we’re using to work out the answer, that means the word we’re looking for must be a synonym of “complaint”.
So we’re back to looking at “bee-loud”. And this is where it gets tricksy. Many clues in cryptic crosswords are what’s known as “charade” clues; each word of the clue you solve is only a part of the answer, and then you join them together. Often you find abbreviations used, like Roman numerals (five can mean V, for instance), country codes, (Swiss meaning CH), elements (silver for AU) or US states (New York for NY). In this case, only one part of “bee-loud” needs to be decoded; loud. You see, another common abbreviation used is musical dynamics, such as F, for forte, or “loud”. Add that to the back of BEE, and what do we have? BEEF, in the sense of “having a beef” with someone, which is a synonym of complaint.
And so we have it! Is it tricksy and underhanded, and just a little bit over-intellectual? Certainly, but that is the fun of the cryptic crossword; matching wits with the setter, and hopefully succeeding. Enjoying the wordplay of a particularly good clue, or maybe just getting the joke. And suddenly what you saw – a frankly baffling array of disparate sentences – slowly fits together to be something quite different.
Merchandise passed with lack of competition will fare well (7)