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Welcome to this week’s Friday Post.  As explained in articles 1 and 2 of this series, I am using cryptic crossword clues to introduce reasonably advanced ESL learners to authentic English vocabulary in a very different, and I hope mind-stretching, way. Words or phrases which readers may wish to make a particular note of are shown in bold italics.

There are many ways in which cryptic clues can be constructed.  One common way is to use an ‘anagram‘.  An anagram is a word or words the letters of which can be rearranged to form a new word or words.

To give a simple example, RAT is an anagram of ART (and vice versa).  In addition, RAT and ART are both anagrams of TAR.

So far, so good – but in a typical cryptic clue, it is not quite as simple as that.  For a start, it is only rarely stated clearly that one is dealing with an anagram.  Instead, there is a word or phrase that hints that the letters of one or more words in the clue are mixed up.  These ‘hints’ are usually words that can be interpreted to mean ‘changed’, ‘stirred’, ‘shaken’, ‘out of order’, ‘jumbled’, ‘rearranged’ etc.

As usual, there is a word or phrase in the clue which tells you what the answer actually means.

Thus a clue for RAT could be:

Rodent rearranges art (3)

The word ‘rearranges’ provides the hint that the letters in the word ‘art’ are put in a different order and the ‘rodent’ tells you the answer is RAT (and not TAR).

The clue for RAT could equally well be written as:

New form of art displays small creature (3)

In this case the anagram is hinted at by the phrase ‘new form of’ and the words which define rat (‘small creature’) come at the end.  The answer (RAT) is displayed (shown) when the letters in ‘art’ are rearranged.

The clue for RAT could also be written with another definition, for example:

Tar is shaken, revealing despicable person (3)

In this case, the hint that the answer is an anagram of ‘tar’ is ‘shaken’ (i.e. the letters have been shaken about) and a despicable person (someone deserving hatred and contempt) is a slang meaning of the word ‘rat’, made famous by James Cagney in the film ‘Taxi’ (1932), often misquoted as:

You dirty rat, you killed my brother!”

The point I am making is that the clue could be written in many different ways.

Now, here is another clue – from the Daily Telegraph Prize Crossword No. 27,612 (4th October, 2014):

I stress out nuns (7)

Again. there is nothing that tells you categorically (explicitly, absolutely) that this cryptic clue is an anagram.  Part of the skill in solving the clue is spotting that it is.  In this case the word ‘out’ (implying ‘out of the normal order’) is the hint.

The words ‘I stress’ have a total of 7 letters so it seems highly likely that they are used to make the anagram.  It follows that the meaning of the answer (one word) must be ‘nuns’.

I will pause there and invite you to come up with the solution yourself.  You can contact me through the Patently English website.

This post has provided a short introduction to a big subject – the cryptic anagram; we will encounter more (and more complex) examples as the series progresses.  For now, I hope you do not meet too many people who could be described as despicable (for the phonetics and definition see here) and I hope you never have the occasion (never need) to call someone a dirty rat.  However the words are there if required!

More next Friday.

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