The famous clue ‘Gesg? (9,4)’ for SCRAMBLED EGGS is frequently quoted on crossword forums. There are those who believe that it’s the finest clue ever written, while there are others who feel that it isn’t a crossword clue at all. Here I offer my thoughts on its credentials for inclusion in the hall of fame.
There are three specific aspects of a candidate clue to consider – originality, literary merit and accuracy.
Is there something uniquely clever about this clue? Not as far as I’m concerned – there’s a formula that will enable anyone to quickly produce a similar clue:
1. Choose an anagram indicator from the many available, say ‘mobile’
2. Think of a short phrase which includes the chosen indicator, eg ‘mobile phone’
3. Rearrange the letters of the other words in random fashion, so ‘henpo’
4. Add a question mark, just to tell the solver that something a bit unusual’s going on
And there we are. ‘Henpo? (6,5). Or ‘Tiruf?’ for FRUIT BATS, ‘Merac?’ for CREAM CRACKERS, ‘Cma?’ for PLASTIC MAC, etc.
Azed once wrote that clues “are small pieces of English prose, and as such they should convey something with a reasonable degree of ‘surface meaning’…I really do not like clues which concentrate so much on the cryptic treatment that they lose touch with reality and end up as gobbledegook.” Well, I think we can assume that it isn’t one of Azed’s favourite clues, then. But in reality Azed is as partial as the next person to a super-succinct clue – otherwise he wouldn’t have given first prizes to competition entries such as ‘Ire-lander?’ for PADDY-WHACK and ‘B-r-ag?’ for CROW. That said, a clue which contains not a single English word can surely lay no claim to being even a very ‘small piece of English prose’.
To rectify that issue, we simply have to change step 3 above to ‘Rearrange the letters of the other words so that they form another word or words‘. So we can have ‘And?’ for DESPERATE DAN, ‘Stapler?’ for PLASTER CAST, and ‘Gin trap?’ for PARTING SHOT.
This is surely the real sticking-point. While there may be a measure of debate about whether some form of subsidiary indication (aka wordplay) is required in a clue, with the ‘cryptic definition only’ clue being acceptable in many blocked puzzles, the lack of a definition runs contrary to the fundamental principles of clueing. If we are to get around this issue, we have to use the letter mixture in step 3 to provide at least some sort of definition, even if (in normal ‘&lit’ style) it’s a little looser than the definition in a conventional ‘definition + wordplay’ clue. So how about:
A despair? (8,4)
I think that these are both close to being acceptable: Chambers gives ‘despair’ as ‘anything that causes despair’, and ‘artist’ as ‘a performer, esp in music’.
The only thing that ‘Gesg?’ has in its favour is that ‘scrambled’ is a word that someone even unfamiliar with crosswords will recognize as meaning ‘jumbled up’, which would certainly not be true of ‘bats’ or ‘cast’. So the mechanics of the clue (such as they are) are readily understood by anyone. However, I think it should be clear from the analysis above that it isn’t a crossword clue in any accepted sense. But is it ‘a word puzzle from which a well-known phrase or saying has to be identified’? Indeed it is – so it’s a dingbat.
The foregoing discussion doesn’t leave much room for manoeuvre in my final judgement. Is ‘Gesg?’ a memorable crossword clue? Indisputably, yes. Is it a great crossword clue? In my opinion, no. Should it be considered as a crossword clue at all? As with any clue, that is something which each individual solver must decide for themselves.