Crossword blog: The illest clues
A crossword clue tends to say one thing and mean another. It’s a place where you find words with more than one meaning – and sometimes, words with two senses which actually contradict each other, like this from the Sunday Telegraph…
27ac To show or not to show? (6)
…where SCREEN means both “conceal” (when you put something behind a screen) and “display” (when you put something on one). Even neater is Rufus in the Guardian…
6d Chopstick (6)
…playing on two senses of CLEAVE – to cling together and to split apart, as when chopped.
In the case of CLEAVE, the contradiction seems to stem from a coincidence: the distinct Anglo-Saxon “cleofian” and “cleofan” have both ended up as words with the same letters in the same order. In other examples, two opposing senses have a common root, like those verbs which were once nouns. When you dust something, are you adding (sugary) dust to it or removing (skin-flake-y) dust from it? Or both? (But why would you do both?)
Contradictory senses are an occupational hazard of verbing; other times, the inversion of meaning is quite deliberate. (That’s “quite” as in “entirely” rather than “to a limited degree”.) Our suited representatives and our hooded youths, say, are both adept at definition-flipping. This can of course lead to confusion, and so it did in Saturday’s New York Times puzzle, with its (non-cryptic) clue:
28d Wack, as in hip hop
The answer, ILLIN’, bothered solver Julieanne Smolinski, who contacted the paper, objecting that “wack” is derogatory and “illin’” commendatory:
Dear New York Times,
The clue for 28 down reads “Wack, in hip-hop,” and the answer provided is “ILLIN.” These are not the same things, at all!
Not Even a Hip-Hop Expert
The letter was forwarded to the puzzle’s editor Will Shortz, which as Deb Amlen notes at Wordplay, the NYT puzzle’s blog, is not a rare occurrence:
In his home office in Westchester, Mr. Shortz has file drawers of letters he has saved over the years, all claiming to have found a mistake in the puzzle…
The letter writers are either extremely pleased with themselves for having gotten one over on the puzzle master, or they are angry because it seems inconceivable that a mistake could have been made and they want their money back.
Shortz – something of a legend in American crosswording – replied with some citations:
The Dictionary of Contemporary Slang, by Tony Thorne, defines “illin’” as “bad, uncool,” and says it is a buzzword in the rap and hip-hop cultures. It seems to me that’s roughly the same as “wack” in the sense of worthless or stupid.
So who is right? And how can we tell? This paper’s crossword editor recently raised the question of whether digital sources should provide validation alongside “‘authoritative’ printed dictionaries”. Happily, in this case, the draft additions to the Oxford English Dictionary offer some help – both to Smolinski and to Shortz:
ill slang (orig. U.S., in the language of rap and hip-hop)
a. Aggressive, irrational, crazy; unpleasant, bad.
1979 G. O’BRIEN et al. Rapper’s Delight (song, perf. ‘Sugarhill Gang’)… Now there’s a time to laugh, a time to cry A time to live, and a time to die… To act civilized or act real ill.
b. Excellent, attractive; fashionable.
1986 M. DIAMOND et al. Rhymin’ Stealin’ (song)… Most illin-est b-boy, I got that feelin’ ‘Cause I am most ill and I’m rhymin’ and stealin’.
The New York Post approached someone from the music industry for some clarity, which I’m not sure was forthcoming. “No one would ever guess that the synonym for wack would be illin,” says Marvet Britto, which suggests the NYT printed a bad clue, before adding: “You have to understand the context of how it’s used. If you say ‘ill’, then it means cool and good, hot. If you say ‘illin’, then it’s the opposite” – which suggests the clue is not in the least wack. Unless “wack” means good now, but I didn’t get that memo.
Personally, I’m happy with the clue – and happier still to see one “J. Simmons” also cited in the OED for the first, positive sense of “ill”. Simmons is of course the Run of Run DMC and the quoted track is My Adidas (“Now me and my Adidas do the illest thing / We like to stamp out pimps with diamond rings”), the b-side of which, Peter Piper, provided very helpful guidance in 1986 for anyone confused by words which flip meaning:
Tricks are for kids, he plays much gigs
He’s a big bad wolf and you’re the three pigs
He’s a big bad wolf in your neighborhood
Not bad meaning “bad” but bad meaning “good”
Helpful, that is, for anyone who isn’t a fan of F Scott Fitzgerald. As the OED’s blog noted with pleasure last year, the dictionary “records ‘bad’ and ‘wicked’ used in a positive sense as long ago as 1897 and 1920 respectively”:
She sutny fix up a pohk chop ‘at’s bad to eat. (George Ade’s Pink Marsh, 1897)
‘Tell ‘em to play “Admiration”!’ shouted Sloane. ‘Phoebe and I are going to shake a wicked calf.’ (F. Scott Fitzgerald’s This Side of Paradise, 1920)
Finally for now, a Times clue which highlights a pair of words which mean something similar as nouns but work as opposites when verbs…
4d Flare’s antithesis as source of light (5)
…that is, flare and TAPER. Do you have a favourite contranym? Please leave the sickest examples below.