Trivia Teaser

What did Joseph Swan invent?

Light bulb

South American Spotted Cat


By Miranda

When writing clues for crosswords we are constrained to be brief. This is the result of the form of a crossword being determined by the technology at the time of its development.

The first crosswords appeared in print on paper, initially in a newspaper. Two things emerged. Fixed grids – think about the difficulties of proofing a new grid each day, especially in the days when every little number in the crossword grid had to be put in by hand. And short clues – occupying just a column width, thus pleasing to the eye and leaving more space for advertising, news items or more puzzles (depending on the publication).

Our search for variety and brevity has put the burden of comprehension firmly on your shoulders. You may not know that each day you successfully negotiate the minefield of the adjectival use of participles from verbs that are both transitive and intransitive (see Fowler’s ‘angel dropped from heaven’ for the best-ever distinction). But when we're writing clues, we depend on your skill.

So, 'South American spotted cat'.

Nice statement, conveys little – which South American?, where did she/he see the cat?

In the context of the clues in a crossword puzzle however, you immediately conclude that we want it to describe something specific so you reject the sentence construction - 'spotted' won't be an active verb. And you leap to 'what sort of cat?'.

This leaves the 'spotted cat' as 'a cat which has been spotted', ie one having been painted in a polka fashion or one characteristically seen (one that hangs round human habitation, perhaps, or one lacking effective camouflage), or 'a cat which has spots'. You then take the leap to the 'has spots' version and reach an OCELOT.

Thanks for your work – it makes our job much easier.

I still get a giggle from this clue nonetheless, and we can all be amused by 'Japanese battered dish' or 'Iberian drowned valley'.

Which clues make you laugh?


PS: Congratulations to ely9, who takes the prize for her token converter naming entry. It will now be known as the "Rainbow Tokenator". 

Comment on this blog



8 Responses to

South American Spotted Cat

Tinkers said:
February 03, 2010 at 11:07 PM

Congratulations ely9. Great name for the rainbow.

February 04, 2010 at 8:03 PM

I have been doing crossword puzzles for so many decades (I think I began before I turned 10, that I never really considered that the clues may have different meanings to the ones I understand. Oh I have been aware that other interpretations could be possible, but usually reject them instantly. After all, generally one or more letters are already in the word. Interesting article, though, Miranda. And yes, for the past month or so I have been busy, and did only my xword puzzles and went off.

luddite said:
February 05, 2010 at 6:08 PM

Brings to mind the riddle: Q. How do you titillate an ocelot? A. ? I'll wait for some replies first.

February 05, 2010 at 9:40 PM

I know the answer, but I'm not putting it here, lol.

luddite said:
February 06, 2010 at 11:30 AM

I thought the age of extreme prude was over and expected a few more comments by now. A. You oscillate its titallot.

February 08, 2010 at 2:33 PM

Hi, Miranda, I like the really witty cryptic clues. Many long years ago a Bulletin magazine cryptic compiler had the best "groaners" you could hope for. One would sit bolt upright in bed at 3 a.m. with the answer having finally surfaced. I groaned today at a cryptic clue "A little night music making one sad". Answer: DISCONSOLATE. "Normal" crossword puzzles are more logical, but less fun, for me. Thanks for your blog.

February 12, 2010 at 1:38 PM

Luddite, thank you for giving the answer, it is really funny. I did not know it. Very very punny, I should have said.

February 13, 2010 at 8:17 PM

I agree with you Beauregarde...cryptic clues can be hilarious and obscure, deliberately playing on the complexity of our language. I have to admit to laughing at the occasional normal clue when the meanings are compacted into 2 or 3 words and the mind wakes up to a second meaning.