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OK, so here is the deal.  (Meaning, ‘here is what we are going to do’ – a ‘deal’ in the sense of a commercial transaction is not necessarily implied in this colloquial expression.) In the forthcoming series of posts I am going to use as a basis for discussing authentic English some clues from cryptic crossword puzzles!

In case readers are not aware, solving ‘cryptic’ crosswords is a pastime mainly (although not exclusively) found in the United Kingdom.  Most major British newspapers publish a cryptic crossword daily.  However, the country is divided sharply between a minority of those that love cryptic crosswords and a majority of those that consider them either to be a waste of time or impossible to comprehend.  For a cryptic crossword is not like a concise or ‘quick’ one in which the clues are straightforward definitions of the answers: a cryptic crossword has clues that appear to make no sense unless they are read in the right way.  The clues are cryptic in the sense of being mysterious – a puzzle in themselves. You will see what I mean shortly.

Why then use this method of teaching English to Speakers of Other Languages?  If the majority of native English speakers do not understand cryptic clues, why should a non-English speaker, with a more limited grasp of the language, do any better?  And what could he or she possibly expect to learn?

Well, let’s see.

Crossword puzzles have been a tool in ESL teaching for many years.  As long ago as 1986, James Little, writing in the TESL Canada Journal (Volume 4) observed that:

“Crossword puzzles offer many possibilities for language learning.”

And indeed, in a study published in 2013, The Use of Crossword Puzzles as a Vocabulary Learning Strategy: A Case of English as Second Language in Kenyan Secondary Schools, Martin Njoroge et. al. presented hard evidence to support the effectiveness of crossword puzzles in enhancing vocabulary.

However, overwhelmingly, the use of crossword puzzles in ESL teaching has involved the ‘concise’, rather than the ‘cryptic’ sort, although, as Little (loc. cit.) notes: ” … cryptic clues in the form of anagrams occasionally appear.”

[An anagram, as we shall see, is where the letters of a word (or words) can be rearranged to make a completely different word (or words), but this is only one of a number of ways in which a cryptic clue can be constructed.]

It is my belief that reasonably advanced learners of English should not be ‘wrapped in cotton wool’ (meaning ‘protected’, ‘shielded from something challenging’) and should be exposed to the intellectual stimulation of all types of cryptic clue.  While they might find such clues hard to grasp at first, the satisfaction experienced ‘when the penny drops’ (when something is suddenly understood) should help to stimulate new cognitive pathways and help the learner better understand the structure and shape of the language.

In any event, even if this thesis seems fanciful (it is admittedly unproven), cryptic clues provide endless possibilities for talking points, general education, and ideas which otherwise one would never think of juxtaposing (putting side by side).

All that said, it is high time we looked at a cryptic clue. The one I have chosen comes from the Daily Telegraph Puzzle No 27,510 (7 June, 2014).

It reads: Breaks for mad fellow on board (8)

The number 8 in brackets (in US English ‘parentheses’) refers to the number of letters in the answer. One thing you need to know right away is that there is always a word or words in the clue which the answer actually means, although that is not normally obvious.  In this case the answer is likely either to mean ‘breaks’ or ‘board’.

Actually (I am going to solve it for you now), it means ‘breaks’ and the answer is SHATTERS (it is conventional to fill in crossword grids in capital letters).

Why then does the clue refer to a mad fellow being on board?  What on earth (meaning ‘what’, but more emphatically) has that to do with the answer ‘shatters’ (meaning ‘breaks into many pieces’)?

Here, believe it or not, is the reason. There is a saying in English ‘as mad as a hatter’ (meaning ‘really crazy’).  Much has been written about the origin of this expression. According to Wikipedia, hatters (people who make hats) used, many years ago, material which was treated with mercury, a highly poisonous metal that frequently caused dementia.  Therefore, the ‘mad fellow’ (a ‘fellow’ being a man) in the clue could be a HATTER, which you will notice is the middle 6 letters of the answer.

But what of the S at the beginning and the S at the end?  Where do they come from?

Here is the reason.

Ships are frequently referred to as SS followed by the name of the vessel.  SS is one of many prefixes for ships (see Wikipedia for a full list) and stands for Screw Steamer (that is a ship driven by a propeller or screw, although SS is often understood to mean ‘steamship’).

So where, I hear you ask, do ships come into it? They are not mentioned in the clue.  Well, yes they are, indirectly, since if you are ‘on board’ you could well be on a ship!  And (you will have to take this from me) the fact that the SS is separated (one S appearing before HATTER and one at the end) is because the HATTER is literally ‘on board’ and carried by the letters S and S.

So that is why the answer is SHATTERS!  No-one said it was going to be easy – but that is the challenge and allure of the cryptic clue.  If you see people on a train in the UK, newspaper folded in front of them, earnestly chewing their pens and deep in thought, this is the sort of thing they will be wrestling with!

This post is already far too long (it will be shorter next week) but I must add that the verb ‘to shatter’ (you can hear it pronounced and read a definition here) is a good word to know.  It conveys more than ‘to break’, in the sense that it is more dramatic.  If something shatters it breaks into many pieces and cannot be mended (‘I dropped the wine glass and it shattered’).  The verb can also be used figuratively to great effect, as in the slogan: ‘Drinking and Driving Shatters Lives.‘  Finally, and this is a modern expression, ‘shattered’, as an adjective, can be used as an informal term to signify great fatigue, often after hard work, exercise, or a good night out!  For example: ‘I am going to bed.  I am (or I feel) completely shattered’.

So there you have it – the power of the cryptic clue in providing not only intellectual stimulation but also educational interest.  One short clue led us to a discussion of mercury poisoning in hat makers, steamships, and ways in which the word ‘shatter’ can be used.  I hope you found it beneficial.

If you have got this far thank you for reading – and if you are interested in 1:1 coaching, please visit my companion website, Patently English.

More next Friday.

Bill Tyrrell