Newspaper crossword editors worldwide seem to have unanimously adopted the Breakfast Table Test when vetting puzzles for publication. The idea goes that the conversational boundaries of a typical morning meal in polite company provides a useful analogy as to what’s suitable content in the puzzles pages. There’s always been room for the odd nudge and/or wink in cryptic crosswords, but for the most part, newspapers prefer to play it safe.
Although no topic is off the table when I myself eat breakfast, I do respect the rule as it applies to the general populace and I do my best to rein in all urges to be politically incorrect and bawdy. And our crossword editor does a great job keeping us in line, while letting the odd mildly cheeky clue through the gate.
So, you might ask, if I’m supposedly careful and respectful of the breakfast table rule, why do I have such an impressive list of clues banned by the editor?
Well, sometimes I put an inappropriate clue in as a placeholder for my own amusement and accidentally forget to remove before submitting. Sometimes the editor has a slightly different line of inappropriateness. Sometimes it’s just my childish innocence, and I just didn’t realise something was a touchy subject!
But most of the time it’s just that I sketched out the wordplay and put the clue together like a jigsaw - and then didn’t properly read the context of the clue as a sentence. In my head, it remained an abstract riddle, not a sequence of words that had meaning. By my count I’ve had around 10,000 clues published - there was always going to be a few strays in there.
So here are a selection of clues that I had rejected by the crossword editor, and the shocking reasons behind the ban.
Proctologist gets into rectum with instrument from kit? (4,4) BASS DRUM
I expected to encounter some resistance to this clue, but I couldn’t help seeing what the editor thought. She thought it was hilarious, as did I, but still unfortunately suggested it should be changed. I ended up watering it down to: Fish doctor has hesitation with instrument from kit (8)
Child gets currency in return for bodily organ (6) KIDNEY
I must have been so happy that KID and YEN returned resulted in KIDNEY… that I never actually read the clue as being about the evil trade of child organ trafficking. Tip to constructors, always try to read your clues as if you’re seeing them for the first time. New version was: Organ makes terrible din inside locker? (6)
Relate ISIS violence to biblical tribe (10) ISRAELITES
As usual, this rejection caught me unawares. I only mentioned ISIS because I like to be topical, so I worked it into the anagram. But the editor said readers might think I was suggesting a conspiracy that the Jews were financing ISIS. At first I thought “are people really that crazy to read hidden meaning into the crossword clues?” but then I realised, yes they are. And I’m sort of one of them to be honest, when I do other people’s puzzles. I would never be passionate enough to write into the paper about it though, I keep those thoughts to myself. Changed to: Ancient tribe tries ales I brewed (10)
Barbie with detailed buttocks for cash (7) DOLLARS
Oh dear, and this was less than one week after my ISIS clue too. I have to laugh when I re-read this clue, and can clearly see why it was rejected. A child’s toy and detailed buttocks… well done LR! The silver lining was that I was able to compose a new clue which retained some acceptable ribaldry: Bucks party: two large topless bars (7)
Sinful dance with blind animal in club (8,3) BASEBALL BAT
So… this one got rejected because it apparently sounded like I was depicting bestiality. Hmmm, I guess when I read it back it does sort of give that vibe. I believe I meant “blind” as in drunk and “animal” as in party animal. You know? Anyway, the editor said it had an “ick factor” so it ended up being: Immoral dance with bachelor at club (8,3) still a bit off maybe...
They can't recall a nice mass murder (9) AMNESIACS
What? Don’t people sit around the breakfast table trying to recall any nice massacres they’ve witnessed? Ok, fair enough - how about: They forget sea mist can disorientate, wasting time (9)
Fantasy author of "100 killed Islamic State" (1,1,5) CS LEWIS
This is the second time ISIS has got me in trouble. But this time the clue was about ISIS getting slain… that’s a good thing, right? As it turns out, the editor thinks people would probably rather do the puzzles page without reading about slaughter in general. She may have a point. Fantasy author's captain killed skinning fish (1,1,5)
Sheep almost poisoned, is abandoned and mocked? (9) LAMPOONED
RSPCA regularly took sheep and beat it? (5) SCRAM
Strangely, these two clues above were submitted to the same puzzle as 1 and 2-across. This was when I was just starting out and I had no idea my editor was so passionate about animal welfare and couldn’t tolerate clues which alluded to cruelty. Her compassion has certainly rubbed off on me, and these days I couldn’t see myself writing a clue like this. Interestingly 1-across survived but I was coerced into changing 2-across to: Get lost sheep to follow barrister (5). Much kinder.
Sometimes the clues just write themselves, and you don’t realise they make you look like a bit of a weirdo.
And lastly, from one of my quick crosswords:
“Liam, do you think you could use a different word to “dumbass”? It’s not very appropriate (or even listed in the Macquarie Dictionary)!”
Changed it to:
Dill; dipstick (5)