Here's a clue from Times crossword No. 25,519 (5 July):
One prisoner engaged in expressive sort of metalwork (8) [FILAGREE]
(select between the square brackets for the answer, or read on)
I certainly didn't solve this first time through, and it's quite possible that I had most or all of the checked letters ‑I‑A‑R‑E in place by the time I was prepared to make a stab at it. And even then it was a rather nervous stab, since I don't recall seeing that spelling before. However, "metalwork" and "one prisoner" made me moderately confident that I had the right answer (even though I was still nervous about "expressive"), and the fact that I couldn't think of anything else reasonable that would fit meant that I was desperate enough to bung in an unknown word - following my usual rule of only doing so in desperation.
Fortunately the checked letters, despite seeming on the face of it decidedly unhelpful, turned out to be in my favour. If they'd been F‑L‑G‑E‑, I'd have been torn between the familiar FILIGREE and the unknown FILAGREE and might have taken a chance with the former on the basis that there might be a strange meaning of "lig" which I hadn't come across before. Experienced solvers of the Listener crossword and other similar puzzles will no doubt be familiar with at least two meanings of "lig", including "to be a freeloader, esp
in the entertainment industry", which I suspect may even have come up in the daily Times cryptic. But even if I was doubtful whether LIG was a possible variant of LAG, I'm not sure I'd have dismissed it as being significantly less likely than FILAGREE as a variant of FILIGREE.
What's more, if you're a competitive solver who's trying to post a decent time, the temptation is to bung in the answer that will obviously fit the definition, without pausing to check the detail of the wordplay. This was illustrated a week later with this clue from Times crossword No. 25,525 (12 July):
Hostess about to pull out of business (7) [COMMERE]
I had a lucky break here, since the answer was a familiar word which "hostess" pointed me directly at, leaving the wordplay to complete a comparatively easy win. However, two of today's leading solvers were less lucky, and came to grief by bunging in COMPERE. It would be easy to criticise them, given that COMPERE doesn't obviously fit the wordplay (at any rate it's not obvious to me that it does); and once you've thought of COMMERCE, the relationship between père
should surely leap out at you (given even the most basic knowledge of French). But since I've made comparable mistakes myself in the past, I'm certainly not going to cast the first stone!
Interestingly the first OED citation for "commère" dates from 1904, ten years before the first citation for "compère" (in its modern sense).
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