Crossword roundup: exactly how much is a smidgen?

·4 min read
<span>Photograph: David Levene/The Guardian</span>
Photograph: David Levene/The Guardian

We find usefully vague terms unhelpfully defined in our pick of the best of the broadsheets’ cryptic clues

In the sample clues below, the links take you to explainers from our beginners series. The setter’s name often links to an interview with him or her, in case you feel like getting to know these people better.

The news in clues

For the last Harry Potter anniversary I can remember, the setter known locally as Brendan created the charming symmetry of, on the same day, a Potter-themed cryptic in the Times and a Potter-themed American-style puzzle in the New York paper of the same name, and described the process at the NYT’s Wordplay blog.

No such luck for this anniversary, though we do have a typically smart royal-themed prize puzzle from Brendan for which the annotated solution is now available, and the wizard features in this clue from Imogen

15d See the end of Harry Potter prepared for printing plate (10)
[definition: printing plate]
[wordplay: anagram (“prepared”) of SEE, the last letter (“end”) of HARRY & POTTER]
[anagram of SEEYPOTTER]


In memoriam

Farewell to cryptic setter and sometime composer Stephen Sondheim. I’m currently enjoying the cryptic puzzles he set for New York magazine in the late 1960s and hope to report back presently on Sondheim’s puzzles and puzzles about Sondheim.


On the subject of American-style puzzles, I urge you to go to the Washington Post immediately and click on The Haunted House, as the link is about to expire. This part of the post is where we share recommendations of puzzles to be found outside the usual places; while it’s called “paper-free”, the best thing to do this time is to press “Print” on the first puzzle, which will generate a two-page pdf with a multipart puzzle that is as much fun as I’ve had this year.

In fact, I started the year by recommending another Sunday puzzle by the same constructor, Evan Birnholz, and it’s worth noting that the paper’s daily mini (and weekly meta) seems to have survived its three-month trial.

Latter patter

There’s some numeric jiggery-pokery going on in Crucible’s latest puzzle, among such pleasing clues …

11a A little nipper trapped between poles (7)
[definition: a little]
[wordplay: biting creature (“nipper”) inside (“trapped between”) abbrevs for north and south (“poles”)]
[MIDGE inside SN]

… as this one for SMIDGEN. Do you, like me, enjoy recipes that use terms such as SMIDGEN (or SMIDGEON, as Wodehouse spelled it), allowing the grownup cook to use his or her skill and judgment? Do you, like me, feel a little sad when you see a claim that a word “means” something simply because some person or corporation has tried to define it in some way?

If either answer is a yes, I recommend you avoid American recipe sites, as there is a danger that they will sooner or later purport to inform you that when a recipe calls for a SMIDGEN, you need to invest in a special spoon that contains 132 of a teaspoon. The subject of our next challenge can be found in the same nested set. Apparently measuring exactly two smidgens, or a quarter of a tad: reader, how would you clue PINCH?

Cluing competition

Many thanks for your clues for INCH. What a word, allowing for many delightful definitions, including “Newlaplandes”, “Elected gutless cartoonish creep” and Steveran’s sly “Small part of Scotland Yard division”, and familiar enough that we could handle Tony Collman’s “Section of the FT”?

The audacity award was hotly contested, and goes to Combinatorialist for the egg-headed “Twin primes advance incrementally”. The runners-up are HairApparent’s terse “Wind dropping with distance” and Joey_Joe_Joe’s apposite “Amount of rain chronicled using this measure”; the winner is Catarella’s grimly topical “Leaders of industrialised nations hope to restrict carbon – scarcely progress”.

Kludos to Catarella. Please leave entries for this fortnight’s competition – as well as your non-print finds, and picks from the broadsheet cryptics – below. The latest in our collaborative playlist Healing Music Recorded in 2020-21 to Accompany a Solve or Even Listen To is from one of us, cluing competition stalwart Welly Wearer.

Puzzling elsewhere

We’ve mentioned Zooms and Twitches and even books but I’m almost certain we haven’t yet had a “live action/tabletop puzzle game, identifying locations through clues, revealing your route as you solve them”, so let’s fix that:

Clue of the fortnight

By my count we have now had two puzzles from Bobcat, both in the Financial Times. The more recent one has clues like this one …

1d I’m afraid Newton’s in trouble for submission (8)
[definition: submission]
[wordplay: expression meaning “I’m afraid” & abbrev. for scientific unit Newton, both contained by (“in”) synonym for “trouble”]
[EEK & N, both inside MESS]

… for MEEKNESS, so I look forward to more of this ilk.

• Here’s a collection of all our explainers, interviews and other helpful bits and bobs.

• The Shipping Forecast Puzzle Book by Alan Connor, which is partly but not predominantly cryptic, can be ordered from the Guardian Bookshop.

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