Wednesday, November 27, 2013

Printer’s Devilry (Puzzle No. 3,305)

Well if you noticed that last week’s The Nation was not a double issue, and we have a holiday coming up tomorrow, and those pieces of information led you to look for a new cryptic from Hot and Trazom on Wednesday and not Thursday, congratulations, you were right!

Link to puzzle

Degree of difficulty (by standards of this weekly puzzle): mostly easy.

Hozom’s comment: “Sending a Letter Off” in which Hot and Trazom show how versatile the deletion element is in cryptic cluing.  I would have spread this theme over several blog posts, since there are so many kinds of deletions: beginning, end, both ends, middle, a specific letter, and much more.  They’re simple enough, and frequently easy enough, that they work well when compounded with other clue types like reversals or anagrams.

This week I’ve been working on one of the original Stephen Sondheim puzzles from New York Magazine: “Printer’s Devilry” (I’ll have to locate my original scan from the microfilm to confirm the date).  Printer’s Devilry is a notoriously difficult kind of clue, usually found not in the normal cryptic mix, but in standalone puzzles where all the clues are of this type.  That’s because there really isn’t a good indicator for the clue type, or even an acceptable direct indication like we have for Spoonerisms.  Further, it needs a pretty lengthy set of instructions plus an example, unless you’re writing for the narrowest of solving audiences.  Afrit is credited with inventing the clue type in 1937, and is duly acknowledged by Sondheim here.

The concept is a variant on the simple hidden word clue, except you aren’t given a definition and the answer is already taken out of the wordplay fodder.  So not only do you have to figure out the answer, you have to figure out where it belongs in the clue.  Both the original phrase and the phrase with the answer removed have to make sense, and if the modified phrase reads smoothly, it’s incredibly difficult.  But if the clue has a fairly obvious scar in it, you can guess that that’s where the answer goes, and get the beginning or end of the answer from the surrounding string.

Since it’d be a spoiler to those working this puzzle, I’ll put the examples and how I figured them out below the fold.

I’m of mixed feelings about seeing more of these in American cryptics.  From what I’ve gotten of the Sondheim so far (9 out of the 36 clues and a handful of additional partials), the results can be really clever or really boring.  So I think the key is to select only the good ones for your puzzle.  But if you need to build an entire grid of these, some of the fill is going to be the kind of stuff that only can be done awfully.  And from there, you get a puzzle that’s neither solvable nor entertaining.  So maybe the way to introduce these is as the theme answers in a grid: selected to be good examples of the clue type, asterisked so you don’t need to try and fit an indicator into the clue.

Richard Maltby?  Mark Halpin?  Other variety cryptic constructors?  How about it?

[spoiler warning]

So here are a couple of examples to explain what I mean by a “scar” in the phrase, and other ways to narrow down the possibilities of a printer’s devilry.

“I didn’t notice: my hub-caps were stolid, driven off”
Here the word “stolid” jumped out at me, so I figured the break had to be there.  What happens to hubcaps in New York City?  They get stolen, so the break probably comes after “sto” and the answer is going to start with “len.”  Look around for a six-letter word starting with “len” and you eventually get “lentil”
“I didn’t notice my hubcaps were stolen till I’d driven off.”

“To be a tar: every cowardly soldier’s reaction to battle”
This time, I noticed that “to be a tar” could be heteronymmed (relocate the spaces between words) into “to beat a r__” and obviously the next letters would be “treat.”
“To beat a retreat is every cowardly soldier’s reaction to battle”

Those are the two main approaches to getting a toehold on a printer’s devilry.


  1. I believe it's Mark Halpin, not Halpern.

  2. Thank you, Nathan. Great work on that Hex Pathfinder, by the way!


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