Clued In (Blogs)

Clued In #45 | Horseplay with cryptic crosswords

Mihir Balantrapu  |  08 May 2020

Hey there, and welcome back to Clued In!

Many of us feel cryptic crosswords are not for us because they use words that are ancient or obscure. But there are occasions where we learn that cryptic puzzles can be as dynamic and fresh as ever, deploying novel cryptic methods and, in the bargain, breathing new life into old words.

Take this clue by Incognito, whose clues are popularly regarded as a walk in the park, for example:


The Hindu Cryptic #12,928 | Incognito| 16 Across

Clue surface: Hippo — campus’s main mount (8)

Definition: Hippocampus


Explanation: This is a simple charade clue. It has two words we need to find synonyms for. First, we get SEA as a synonym for ‘main’, to which we add HORSE, which is a common example of a ‘mount’, as in a ‘vehicle’.


Now, here is how the simplest of setters can challenge you with an easy-looking 4-word clue. You’re tackling two unusual challenges here — a rather obscure bookish word, a scientific taxonomical term, and an altogether inventive cryptic technique.



sounds like: hip-puh-camp-us


— [Classical Mythology] a sea horse with two forefeet, and a body ending in the tail of a dolphin or fish.

— [Anatomy] an enfolding of cerebral cortex into the lateral fissure of a cerebral hemisphere, having the shape in cross section of a sea horse.


Etymology: 1600–10; (Greek) hippókampos, formed from hippo (horse) + kámpos (sea monster)


If you’re wondering about how the word ‘main’ is a synonym of ‘SEA’, it’s actually a really old usage, mostly seen only in literary works. Incognito admits that he himself hasn’t seen the usage in recent times (other than in crosswords).


sounds like: main


obsolete: of or relating to a broad expanse (as of sea) [Webster’s dictionary]


old use: the open sea [Chamber’s dictionary]

eg: the English main or the Spanish main



Check out how Rudyard Kipling refers to the open sea in his poem, The Land:


Then did robbers enter Britain from across the Northern main

And our Lower River-field was won by Ogier the Dane.


Now, if you’re a regular solver of cryptic crosswords, you expect to run into whimsical word charades only in the wordplay section of the clue. And if this clue left you wondering how the setter expects you to conjoin two separate words (‘hippo’ and ‘campus’) to get the definition, you’re not alone. We were taken aback as well. So, we asked Incognito. And here’s the deal, straight from the horse’s mouth...


I think “Reverse elision” describes it well.  My thoughts on this clue which attempted something new:


Hippocampus comes from two Greek words Hippo (meaning horse) and campos (meaning monster).  However, the conjoined word has a ‘u’ in place of the second ‘o’.  This renders the word amenable to this treatment where both parts Hippo and Campus have distinct meaning in English (the former as the diminutive of the animal Hippopotamus and the latter as university premises).


This allows the surface to mean Hippo is the campus’s main (primary) mount (animal used for riding), which conjures up a comical mental image of university staff and students going around on hippos.

Note that an em dash and not a hyphen has been used to cause the separation of parts, without which the comic result would not be possible. Punctuation, however, is ignored during the solving process.


Elision is a technique that cryptic setters use where the solver is expected to treat a word (eg. ‘network’) as two separate words (‘net’ and ‘work’) and use them as separate charade components. In the above case, Incognito has deployed a sort of ‘reverse elision’, asking us to conjoin two separate words as one and treat it as the definition!

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