Tap the Sign: Anagrams (Part 1)

How to mix up letters without mixing up solvers.

While they aren’t the most common clue type — that’s charades — anagrams are common enough that we’ll have to detour through two tangents before a fourth and final post in the series.

The pen lathe in the room is of course the third rail of cryptics: No Indirect anagrams. This is so critical that it rises from a don’t to a true can’t … notwithstanding the gray areas covered below.

What do we mean when we say indirect anagrams? The letters for your anagrams should be provided in the puzzle, preferably in a single group. So if you want to clue TIMES as an anagram of MITES, you need to say “Measures scattered mites” and not “Measures scattered arachnids.” Why? OK, sure, mites are arachnids — but so are a lot of other things, including 100,000 species of spiders, and you are making us anagram all of them to find a word that could mean measures. Even a simple word like MITES has 120 different anagrams — sure, some of them are nonsense like TSMIE, but there’s EMITS, ITEMS, SMITE …. Now take 120 and multiply it by all of the five-letter arachnids and it’s just too much to ask of a solver. Using synonyms in charades, reversals and containers is a cornerstone of cryptic wordplay, because there it’s only the permutations of words, not the nested permutation of words and then their letters. In anagrams and hiddens, the letters need to just be there.

Indirect-anagram thinking has some pernicious offshoots. One you’ll frequently see in UK puzzles: including a common figure of speech alongside the rest of the anagram’s fodder. For instance: God spreading Red Sea (4) for ARES (R SEA)*, R being a common abbreviation for red.) The temptation here is that solvers who sniff out an anagram indicator will look for a contiguous string of letters adjacent to the indicator that matches the clue’s enumeration — but in the above clue, there are no four-letter strings to “spread,” delaying your ability to arrive at the intended solution. To our eye, however, this practice is no different and no less unfair than any other indirect anagram and ought to be avoided. Others feel differently, and we’ve seen the UK influence spread into North American indie puzzles, so even if we are unable to say can’t about this usage, we still say don’t.

But … there is one kind of indirect anagram we don’t mind. Namely, the one that tells you exactly how to remix it. This commonly comes in the form of a cycling clue (where you know the letters retain their order but start at a different point in the word). Lowest part of octave leaps to uppermost part (6) turns EIGHTH into HEIGHT. Or, it can be an anagram that is exactly explained, such as a clue that tells you to swap the first and last letters: Shower once case of depilatory is exchanged (4) flips the case, or outer letters, of NAIR to get RAIN. These exceptions are rare and can be tricky to make explicit, but they’re all good.

Part of what makes cycling and swapping clues work so well is that they tend to appear at a rate of less than one per puzzle — the scarcity makes them precious. Another viable anagram approach that should also be restricted to that same frequency is separating your anagram fodder. Almost all anagram clues should have an indicator adjacent to a string of the answer’s length. When might it not? Deceptive punctuation is one case. We would tap the sign at It serves shots of blended ryes and gin (7) for SYRINGE because gin is estranged from the indicator with other potential fodder in-between, but we could let … blended ryes & gin slide, albeit just once per puzzle. Additionally, you might have fodder in two places in the clue, combined with two indicators. Unlicensed traders loosened reins circumscribing petrol at sea (11) clues INTERLOPERS — which is to say, IN(TERLOP*)ERS*, which is to say, loosened REINS — INERS — circumscribing PETROL at sea — TERLOP. The level of execution of a good cryptic clue is always high, but clues like this really bring into focus how high that must be — there are lots of ways to take that same parse and get lost in the cryptic grammar in a way that will frustrate a solver. But even when you can do it well — once, maybe twice per puzzle is enough.

Like all forms of writing, cryptic clue writing is a kill your darlings business. There is no surface so good that it cannot be reexamined to ensure that fairness to the solver is made paramount. By going to that well too often, you run afoul of your solvers’ expectations for anagrams. It’s by only occasionally subverting them that your shenanigans have power — a fireworks display that’s all finale is exhausting. Anagrams are extremely flexible — there’s never a “need” to overrely on edge cases. Deploy them with maximum thoughtfulness.

Finally, don’t make all of your longest words in the puzzle anagrams. Anagrams are very useful for long words, but when the solver clocks that all the spanners are anagrams, it has that stale auto-solving flavor, like when double definitions are always exactly two words — where’s the cleverness?

When we wrap this up in four posts, we’ll discuss that deathless piece of cryptic snark: “Everything is an anagram indicator.”

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