Foul Play? Butters and Flowers

I read with interest a recent post on the Crossword Centre’s message board questioning the decision to allow ‘butter’ as an indication for ‘cashmere’ in a (successful) clue submitted to a clue writing competition. Since ‘cashmere’ is hair from the Cashmere goat, or a fabric made from that hair, but not the goat itself, then there is an unacceptable level of indirection here (‘butter’ -> ‘Cashmere goat’ -> ‘cashmere’), equivalent to ‘spinner’ being used to indicate ‘harvest’ (‘spinner’ -> ‘harvest spider’ -> ‘harvest’), and the clue is surely unfair to solvers.

However, one reply to the Crossword Centre post mentioned the frequent use of ‘flower’ in cryptic clues to refer to a river, which got me thinking…

Chambers gives butter2 as ‘an animal that butts’, and butt1 as ‘to strike with the head, as a goat, etc does’, so the clue

Vigorously attack butter (4)

for GOAT [GO AT] is rock solid (as the butter may have been, perhaps, to justify the vigour of the attack).

But what about

Flower stem has nearly broken (6)

for THAMES [{STEM HA(s)}*]?

Similarly straightforward? Well, no. Firstly, Chambers does not give the agent noun ‘flower’, so the use of the word to mean ‘something that flows’ is fanciful, and must surely be indicated by a ‘perhaps’ or a question mark. If ‘flower’ were the solution to a clue it could not legitimately be defined as ‘something that runs’. So let’s change our clue slightly:

Perhaps flower stem has nearly broken (6)

For me, this still has a problem. I can accept ‘lower, perhaps’ indicating ‘cow’, since Chambers defines low2 as ‘to make the noise of cattle’, which like ‘butt’ is pretty specific. ‘Flow’, however, Chambers simply gives as ‘(of water, etc) to run’. It seems to me that there are far too many things that flow for this to be an adequate indication of a named river – that represents another indirection that could be considered unfair (‘flower’ -> ‘river’ -> ‘Thames’); it is akin to ‘pet’ being used to indicate ‘yorkie’ (via the unstated ‘dog’). It seems to me that words like ‘water’ or ‘river’ are at the limit of what ‘flower, perhaps’ could lead to.

The referee’s initial view of this incident? Without a ‘creative’ indicator attached, an agent noun such as ‘flower’ or ‘lower’ not given in dictionaries warrants a straight red.

Where such an indicator is included (or the agent noun exists), the use of, say, ‘butter’ to indicate ‘goat’, ‘lower’ to indicate ‘cow’ or ‘flower’ to indicate ‘river’ is acceptable. However, using these three agent nouns to indicate respectively ‘Angora’, ‘Jersey’ or ‘Severn’ is expecting too much of the solver and earns a yellow card.

But perhaps having watched the TV replays you feel differently…?






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2 Responses

  1. Barrie Graham says:

    Too harsh on Flower. Puns are great in cryptics, and a flower as one that flows is no more than that. I once clued ‘Comic caper’ for ‘Superhero’ and it was well received. Similarly ‘Flower of Scotland’ I think fairly clues ‘Burn’.

  2. Doctor Clue says:

    Barrie, thanks for your comment. I think this is one of those areas where the difference between barred and blocked puzzles becomes most evident. I agree with you about puns (although ‘flower’ is surely now something of a cliché), but there is also the question of fairness to the solver. Both ‘Flower of Scotland’ and ‘Comic caper’ would be rejected by every barred puzzle in the UK because they break the fundamental Ximenean rule of having no subsidiary indication of the solution; however, most UK blocked puzzles will accept a ‘cryptic definition alone’ clue if it is reasonably fair, in particular if is leads to a solution which the solver can enter with confidence. Personally, I think your ‘Comic caper’ is a neat clue – I would like to see a question mark at the end in order to give a clear indication to the solver that something unusual is going on, but there aren’t too many nine-letter (fanciful) ‘comic capers’ that I can think of. SUPERGIRL is an alternative, but the crossing words would rule that out (another reason I’d like to see the question mark at the end of the clue is that not all superheroes have capes). For me, ‘Flower of Scotland’ on its own (with or without a question mark) is unacceptable as a clue – if the solution is four letters and you have B?R? from the crossing words, how do you know whether the solution is BARR or BURN?

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