tony_sever (tony_sever) wrote,

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Definition by example

Here's a clue from last week's Sunday Times cryptic (No. 4504 by Tim Moorey):
Wesley: a religious icon (4) [MARY]
(select between the square brackets for the answer, or read on)
I'm guessing that even experienced solvers would have had difficulty solving this without the checked letters - and indeed despite thinking of the correct answer immediately (and for the right reasons) once I had M‑R‑ in place, I still wasn't wholly convinced I was right.

Things would have been different if this clue had appeared the TLS crossword: standards there are generally laxer, and the literary context would have led me straight to the right Wesley; but I wasn't expecting it in a Sunday Times puzzle. Judging from the howls of indignation in the Times for the Times blog whenever anything beyond the most basic literary knowledge is called for, I guessed - rightly as it turns out - that some solvers would not have heard of the author in question. (If you came here wanting to find out whether I'd had my bypass op and are wondering how people indulging in a word-based pastime could conceivably not have heard of her, then I have to say that I find it surprising as well, but I've just about got used to it by now.) And "a religious icon" strikes me as a rather weak definition, which could even, if you were more familiar with disc jockeys than authors and so knew all about Mark Wesley, perhaps also have led to MARK.

However, what really surprised me was the particularly blatant use of DBE, or "definition by example", in the clue. This is something that strict Ximeneans are constantly railing against, as it was one of the many things their hero objected to. In Ximenes on the Art of the Crossword he shows how to use a question mark to avoid this particular sin:
"Insincere sympathy, swelling the Nile?" - CROCODILE TEARS. Without the query, this statement would imply that crocodiles are found nowhere but in the Nile and cry there. Or: "Sticking out for the potato insect?" - PROTUBERANT (pro-tuber-ant). Again, there are other tubers besides potatoes. The point here is that it is not true of words that because A = B, B = A. "Tuber" is a definition of "potato"; "potato" is not a definition of "tuber" but merely an example. This is an important point which clue-writers sometimes forget.
Well, I take Ximenes's point, and if I was judging a clue-writing competition I might well penalise people for disobeying this particular rule. But in general I can't get too worked up about it. I think I'm right in saying that it's only in the last 10 years are so (or could it my 20? - time just whizzes past these days) that DBE has emerged - or, more probably, re-emerged - in the daily Times cryptic, but I've become so used to it by now that I barely notice it. In fact it's often only when one of the usual suspects bleats about it in Times for the Times that I notice it at all. There were a couple in last Tuesday's puzzle (No. 25,277): "Scottish players supplied cover for outlaw (4,4)" [PIPE BAND] and "Turn-up for Jeeves - beginning to inveigh against city? (3,4)" [TEL AVIV]. So not all pipe bands are Scottish and Jeeves isn't the only valet - but they're both such obvious examples that frankly, my dears, I don't give a damn.

However, "Wesley" isn't nearly such an obvious example of "Mary". I haven't read Tim Moorey's book How to Master the Times Crossword (never really felt the need to :-), so I don't know if it gives his views on DBE, but I'm surprised he included it in one of his clues, and perhaps even more surprised that Peter Biddlecombe, the Sunday Times crossword editor, allowed it through. After all, it would have been easy enough to make the clue more Ximenean by simply recasting it as either "A religious icon: Wesley?" or "A religious icon: Wesley, perhaps". I suspect this might still not have satisfied the diehards (or fans of Mark Wesley), but it would have left me in no doubt that I had the right answer.

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