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Last time I left you this clue to solve:

Post Office stocks exciting picture (5)

The answer is PHOTO (short for photograph), meaning picture.  I told you it was a word you would have heard of.

Why is PHOTO correct?  Because:

(1) An abbreviation for Post Office is PO (mentioned last week)

(2) A slang word for exciting is ‘hot’ (hot can have an extraordinarily large number of meanings; see here).

(3) The word stocks implies that HOT is inside the letters PO.  A shop might stock a particular item, meaning that has it and keeps it inside the shop.  ‘Do you stock skiing gloves?’ might elicit the answer:  ‘I’m sorry but we don’t stock them.’ Or the response might be: ‘I’m sorry but we don’t have them in stock’.

It is amazing how much a simple clue can teach you.

Solving cryptic clues sometimes requires a certain specialist (but not too specialist) knowledge.  Awareness of the symbols for chemical elements (Cu for copper; Fe for iron; Au for Gold etc.) is one example; knowing abbreviations for US States such as Virginia (VA) or California (CA) is another.  Here are a couple of clues from Daily Telegraph Puzzle No. 27,735 (26th February 2015) which require a passing knowledge of art and pop culture respectively.

The first reads:

Artist who copies Monet among others? (13)

Your first thought should be: ‘is there an anagram involved and is the clue nothing to do with Monet at all?’  However, that does not look likely given that the answer requires 13 letters and there is no obvious word that hints at an anagram.

The next thing to ask oneself is: ‘what do I know about Monet’? Probably the first thing that springs to mind is that he was a leading light (prominent figure) in the impressionist school of painting. An entry in Wikipedia is here.

So, could the answer be impressionist?  It defines ‘Monet among others’ but why are the words ‘artist who copies’ included?  Every word in the clue serves a purpose, and surely impressionist painters were (or are) original artists who do not copy others.

In fact IMPRESSIONIST is the correct answer but for a reason which requires a good understanding of the English language (that is why studying English through the medium of cryptic clues is so rewarding).

The word ‘impressionist’ need not necessarily refer to an artist in the sense of a painter.  An impressionist can be an artist in a different sense, namely a performer or entertainer who takes off (copies) well known people, such as politicians, by mimicking their voices and mannerisms.  You can find a definition here.  An impressionist can therefore be both ‘an artist who copies’ and ‘Monet among others’, which is why the solution is correct.

The second clue is rather harder:

A monolith?  Not Charlie Watts (8,5)

The solution is STANDING STONE, an expression used for a monolith (a large single upright block of stone) dating back to ancient times.  Standing stones may be found on their own or as part of a group, the most famous in England being Stonehenge. A photo of the standing stones on the Isle of Lewis in Scotland may be seen here.   There are various theories about why standing stones were erected, when, and by whom.  You can read more in this Wikipedia entry.

But why is standing stone correct?  It is a monolith, certainly, but why is it not Charlie Watts?  Here is where the specialist knowledge comes in. The reason, as all Rolling Stones fans will know, is that Charlie Watts is the group’s drummer – and therefore plays seated, not standing.  He can therefore be described as a ‘stone’ (a member of the Rolling Stones) but not a ‘standing’ stone – a very neat pun!

Although ‘standing stone’ is a term you are rarely likely to use, never for one moment imagine that crossword clues involve only obscure or out of date English. The reference to the Rolling Stones (unless you consider them to be out of date) should prove that.  Indeed, many crossword clues rely on words or meanings that are extremely contemporary (‘hot’, discussed above, is a case in point).

An example of a word which has only entered the language recently occurred in the answer to the following clue (from the same crossword as above):

Idiot gets phrase cut short in chat network (7)

Have a go at this yourselves.  The answer will appear next week.