Cryptic Crosswords – The Rules by Anax

Charades (Word Sums)

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The word “charade” has been used for many years to describe a clue in which the wordplay consists of two or more individual pieces strung together. The name seems to have come about as a reference to the old TV panel game “Give Us A Clue” in which celebrity contestants had to mime the titles of books, plays, films or TV programmes, and usually did this by breaking those titles down into individual words. The series finished in 1992, so memories of it are beginning to fade, and in Crosswordland the more user-friendly term “word sum” is beginning to take over. “Charade” remains popular on crossword blogs, though, and for that reason we’ll stick to it here.

The charade clue can be one of the more straightforward to solve, since there is no manipulation of the order of letters in the answer, but it’s a clue type which also gives the setter plenty of scope to provide either a starter clue or something far more devilish. There are three basic areas in which the setter can choose between at least two options:

Number of components

Many words will break down into just two parts, but sometimes the setter can find a better clue by using three or more.

Word order

A (component 1) + B (component 2) = C (answer) of course, but B + A = C as well. The setter may find that describing B as after A can lead to a more convincing image.

Link words

If the word order has been changed to put one component after another, this must be indicated in the clue. Otherwise there is no requirement to use a “plus” word; A + B = C can also be written as A B C, A + B C, or A B = C.

On the subject of link words, there has been some confusion over the use of “on”.

In a down clue, “on” can only mean “on top of” – i.e. it links one component to the next one (as is therefore optional).

In an across clue, “on” tags one component to the end of another:

Heather’s on fire, which is a shock (9)

Here we have the old cryptic stalwart LING (heather) which is “on” (after) START (to “fire” e.g. an engine) to give STARTLING, defined as “a shock”. This would not work as a down clue!

There isn’t a logical reason for “on” having only this use in an across clue. If you think of place-names, Henley-on-Thames describes Henley as being “next to” the Thames; it isn’t specific about left or right. It is entirely this ambiguity which has led crossword editors to mutually agree that “on” should be given a single role in an across charade clue. Was this a heads-or-tails decision? No; while helping to remove ambiguity for solvers, it is also intended to help setters. As mentioned above, where components are given in order the setter can use link wording or not – where components are juxtaposed the clue must say so, and indicators such as “after”, “following”, “behind” etc. tend to be quite specific in meaning, which can make them hard to “bury” in the clue. “On” is an innocuous little word which can be incorporated without harming the surface reading too much.

When is a charade not a charade?

To be honest, the answer to this question is only useful if you want identify and analyse wordplay after solving a clue, but if your wish is to gain a deeper understanding of how clues work and how they are categorised there’s certainly no harm in having the knowledge.

A proper charade clue uses only whole components which are either words or standard dictionary abbreviations. Have a look at this:

My face is warm (7)

This is a charade using COR (my!) and DIAL (face) to give CORDIAL (warm). But the following is not a charade:

Warm, cold or laid-back (7)

Here we have the same definition (warm), but the wordplay has C (cold – standard abbreviation, so it’s a charade so far!), then OR (given as “or” – not all components will be disguised in a clue) and finally a reversal of LAID to give DIAL. Stringing these together does indeed give CORDIAL, but the clue features a different type of wordplay, namely the reversal of LAID, so it is in fact what is called a complex clue; that is, one which features more than one type of wordplay. The same applies here:

Warm top of collar or face (7)

There’s no reversal at work here. We have C (the first letter, or “top”, of “collar”) plus OR and DIAL (face), but because C is not represented by a dictionary definition it falls into the “initial letters” category, so the clue comprises that type of device plus a charade; thus it’s a complex clue.

Before finishing with this one, let’s have an example where the components are juxtaposed, and then a charade clue of a slightly different type:

OK, that’s outstanding after all (7)

There’s another undisguised component here, where we have OWED (outstanding) placed after ALL to give ALLOWED (OK).

Some trees must be cut down before the rest (5,2,3)

In this clue the charade is presented in a different way. The answer is FIRST OF ALL (slightly loosely defined as “before the rest”) and this can be split up to give FIRS TO FALL. Instead of treating these separately the setter has spotted that they make a fairly coherent sentence, so has chosen a form of wording to represent just that, in “some trees must be cut down”.

This example does appear to be more akin to a double meaning clue – but it isn’t, because the letters in the answer have been split up in a different way.


Talking of double meaning clues, that will be the next subject.

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