Cryptic Crosswords – The Rules by Anax

Double Meanings (Double Definitions)

+ – + – + – + – + – + – + – + – + – + – + – + – + – + – +

On the face of it, a double meaning clue does exactly what it says on the tin; an answer has two alternative definitions strung together to form the clue. Inevitably, perhaps, there’s a little more to it. The purest form of this wordplay device is something like this:

Fixed diet (4)

The answer is FAST, which means “fixed” (as of, for example, a dye which doesn’t run) and “diet”. The clue is as pared down as it can be, each definition being given a single word, and the solver reading this clue will immediately assume a double definition is at work. For the same answer we can add a single link word:

Fleet is stuck (4)

This time “fleet” is used to mean “quick”, and “stuck” has a similar meaning to “fixed” in the first example, but this clue adds “is” to tell us the first definition IS for a word which also has the second definition. The setter can use any form of link word(s) to describe the first definition as also meaning the second.

The term double meaning is itself deceptive because it’s by no means uncommon for the setter to string three (occasionally even more) alternative definitions together. Strictly we should call this device multiple meaning but double meaning has been around for so long that we just accept it. In crossword blogging lingo, you’re likely to see the term abbreviated to either DM or, more often, DD…

…Hang on. If DD is more often used than DM, why use double meaning as the wordplay type? Well, even though “meaning” and “definition” mean the same, in describing a clue type it’s easier to think of double meaning as two distinct meanings; for some reason double definition tends to make you think of a single definition being somehow repeated using alternative words.

The subject of link words will be covered in a future article, but I just want to mention how they can be used in a double meaning clue. We’ve seen “is” as a very simple and direct link word with a specific meaning, but examples such as this are quite valid:

Express in sound (4)

For the answer FAST the setter uses “express” as in “quick” and “sound” as in “unmoving”, but what about that link word “in”? If we refer to the two definitions as A and B, the clue tells us that the answer A can also be found IN the alternative definition B. There is a lot of shorthand used in crossword-speak and this is just one example of a very short word which needs to be expanded into several words before you see its message.

On the comparatively rare occasions when the setter uses three (or more) meanings, there is no obligation to choose between having link words between all meanings or none at all; there is complete freedom to mix and match:

Deny oneself like mad to get secure (4)

Yes, it’s the same answer FAST again, this time given the three meanings “deny oneself” (food), “like mad” (quickly) and “secure” (fixed in position) – and we also have “to get”, which merely indicates that using the first two definitions can result in the third one.

Although the ideal is to use wholly distinct alternative meanings it doesn’t always happen that way, and in even the highest quality newspapers you’ll occasionally find “weaker” examples such as:

Fleet like the wind (4)

The intention here is to suggest that a fleet of sailing boats benefits from having wind to propel them, and in that sense the clue presents a reasonable image. The problem is that the two meanings “fleet” and “like the wind” both mean FAST in the sense of “quick”, so it isn’t really a double meaning clue – it’s two takes on the same meaning.

Not all double meanings are direct:

Slim, which is not how you’d describe a tortoise (4)

We’re given a straight definition in “slim” – a verb meaning to FAST or diet – but the second meaning “not how you’d describe a tortoise” is far removed from what you might expect to find in a dictionary. It’s all fair, though!

As you read through the various clue samples for FAST, one thing should become apparent; in each case the double meaning principle is being adhered to but what varies is the level of difficulty, and for the setter this is a hugely important area of technique to get right.

Many amateur setters make the mistake of thinking that a clue can only be good if it’s tough to solve. Yes, some puzzles are much harder than others, but that’s because there is a wide variety of solving audiences who expect and enjoy different levels of challenge. But a puzzle in which every clue is hard is likely to be impenetrable for even the most experienced solver.

Let’s imagine we’re setting a puzzle with FAST as one of the answers. In most grids the unchecked letters will be either F – S  – or – A – T. The F – S – pattern offers only 5 core English words, whereas – A – T offers around 40. If the setter produces a stinker of a clue for – A – T it’s likely to go unsolved; setter loses!

We’ll have a look at fairness and accessibility towards the end of the series.


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