Thursday, 30 December 2010


“Be obscure clearly.” - E.B. White

I mentioned a couple of days ago that I enjoy solving cryptic crosswords and Julia asked what they were. A fair enough question from an American as cryptics are a particularly British type of crossword that is also popular in Ireland, Australia, New Zealand, Canada, though not often seen in the USA. There, I believe, they are called “British Crosswords”. A cryptic crossword is widely considered to be the ultimate challenge for lovers of word-play, pun and word puzzles. They are entertaining, highly addictive and quite amusing if set well. They can be devilishly hard to solve (depending on the setter and assumed depth of knowledge of the solver), but so satisfying to crack!

Firstly let’s have our word of the day, this being Thesaurus Thursday:

cryptic |ˈkriptik| adjective
1 Having a meaning that is mysterious or obscure: He found his boss's utterances too cryptic.
• (Of a crossword) having difficult clues that indicate the solutions indirectly.
2 Zoology (of coloration or markings) serving to camouflage an animal in its natural environment.
cryptically |-ik(ə)lē| adverb
ORIGIN early 17th century: From late Latin crypticus, from Greek kruptikos, from kruptos ‘hidden.’ Sense 2 dates from the late 19th century.

The clues in cryptic crossword puzzles are just like that: Mysterious, hidden, obscure and camouflaged! To understand what the clue asks for one has to read them in a very devious way. What the clue appears to be defining on the surface is designed as a distraction and is almost never what it really means – quite often in fact the clue appears extremely strange, funny or preposterous. However, the clue will always tell you what the answer is (usually more than once!), even if you have to wring your brain to read the clue in the way that it tells you to.

All cryptic clues have a definition and this definition is almost always at one end or another of the clue. Finding where it starts and finishes is part of the challenge. A cryptic clue usually has another part as well, called the subsidiary indication. This also leads you to the word but it does so using wordplay or some sort of puzzle, anagram or pun. When reading the subsidiary indication words may mean the letters that make them up, other words that mean the same thing or they may refer to an operation (word surgery!) that you do on the other words to spell out the answer.

Here are some examples of cryptic clues arranged in the various classes they fall in:

1. Anagram Clues
This is a fairly straightforward device where the subsidiary clue contains the letters of the answer and an indication that the letters should be rearranged or are not presently in the right order. A correct rearrangement gives the solution, for example:
Dress suiting a saint (8)

Answer: IGNATIUS. “Dress” (as a verb) indicates an anagram. Letters of “a suiting” provide IGNATIUS (a saint = the clue proper).

There are many possible anagram indicators: e.g. Change, confuse, arrange, disturb, crazy, unwell, mad, scrambled, unusual, designed, shaken, etc.

2. Straight Cryptic Clues
This is an unusual clue that doesn’t have a subsidiary indication and it’s compete in itself. Its strangeness comes from reading the definition in a peculiar way. For example:
Accommodation that’s barred for flappers (4-4)

The intended answer is BIRD-CAGE. Here “barred” doesn’t mean prohibited but having bars and flappers refers to things that flap i.e. birds with wings.

Look for unconventional ways of using words in this type of clue. For example the word “flower” in a cryptic clue can mean a “river” (that flows, hence a flower), as well as the more conventional meaning of a “bloom”.

A late bloomer? (7, 8)
Answer: EVENING PRIMROSE. The answer here is a pun with an obscure meaning for Bloom-er (one that blooms - a flower).

3. Double Definition Clues
In these, the subsidiary indication is replaced by a second definition. Often these clues are short, perhaps two or three words. Here is an example:
Horse pistol (4)

Answer: COLT

Another example:
Put up with a wild animal (4)

Answer: BEAR

4. Charade Clues
In charade clues, two or more words run together to form the solution. Indicators are often not necessary but joining words like “with”, “follows”, “behind”, “after” are likely. E.g.
The French shelter is hidden (6)

Answer: LATENT (= La, which “the” in French; and tent = shelter; Latent, being hidden)

Another example:
So motivated, 500 torn apart (6)

Answer: DRIVEN (= D is Roman numeral 500 + “riven” = torn apart, all forming “driven” = motivated)

5. Container Clues
In these clues the letters of one word are inserted into another. Letters or words are placed inside other words. Indicators: “within”, “in”, “around”, “about”, “contained”, “held”, “inside”, “retain”, “keeps”, “into”, “outside”, “around”, “without”, “crossing”, “sheltering”, “is eaten by”. For Example:
Shrink from phone in church (6)

Answer: CRINGE. (CE = Church [of England]. RING = phone. RING into CE gives CRINGE).

6. Hidden Word Clues
In these clues, the answer is staring at you, with correct spelling, directly within the clue. e.g.
Delia's pickle contains jelly (5)

Answer: ASPIC (DeliA’S PICkle = contains jelly!)

Occasionally the answer is hidden backwards in amongst the letters, with an indicator like “back” or “up” or “flipped” or “returned” or something similar. E.g.
Sketcher went up to get reward (6)
Answer: DRAWER. (“reward” went up [reversed] gives DRAWER; note that in this case a drawer is someone who sketches, not something that you keep your underwear in!).

7. Homophone Clues
Here the subsidiary indication tells you about a word that sounds the same as the answer. E.g.
Not even one sister heard (4)

Answer: NONE (“None” [not even one] is a homophone of NUN [“sister”])

Location of vision we hear (4)

Answer: SITE (“SITE” is a homophone of “SIGHT [vision]).

Homophone indicators include “say”, “it’s said”, “reportedly”, “one hears”, “on the radio” etc.

8. Reversals
The reverse of part of the clue provides the definition. Indicators for this are the words “back”, “reflected”, “turned”, “going up” or “uprising” (down clue), “west” or “left” (across clue). For example:
Show contempt perhaps - gratuities sent back (4)

Answer: SPIT (To SPIT may show contempt [hence, “perhaps”]; and TIPS backward spells the answer)

Mistake that puts school children back (4-2)

Answer: SLIP-UP. (Definition is “mistake” and when “PUPILS” is substituted for “school children” and the letters reversed get the answer).

9. Deletions
Here letters are removed from a longer word, to give the answer. E.g.
Swimmer in underwear abandoning the lake (4)

Answer is: LING (a type of fish defined by “swimmer”). To solve the subsidiary indication you need to substitute LINGERIE for “underwear” and remove (“abandon”) the letters ERIE, the name of one the great lakes.

Other forms of deletion include removing the first, last or middle letters. Indicators include words like “short”, “topless”, “headless”, “endless”, “hollow”, “heartless” etc.
Senior is more daring, losing head (5)

Answer: OLDER (BOLDER = more daring, losing head “B”).

10. Initial, Final, Alternating and other letter clues
First letter or letters provide the solution. Indicated by “first”, “prime”, “lead”, “head”, “top”. Note similiarly “last”, “ultimate”, “final” can refer to the last letter. For example:
A number flew in. Very entertaining, initially (4).

Answer: FIVE (which is “a number”, given by the initial letters of Flew In Very Entertaining)

In the next example, we take the odd letters to form the solution:
Observe odd characters in scene (3)

Answer: SEE (Odd letters of ScEnE)

11. Word Play and Literal Meaning clue
An unusual type of clue where the whole clue is both the definition and the word play. It is often indicated (but not always) by an exclamation mark. For example:
Field entered by sportsmen ultimately! (5)
Answer: ARENA (AREA = field. N = sportsmeN ultimately [last letter]. AREA “entered by” N = ARENA [definition is whole clue]).

12. Combinations of types
Cryptic crosswords would be fairly straightforward if setters made cryptic crosswords so simple that all clues correspond to one of the above types. More often than not, more than one of the above techniques are combined in a single clue to make the subsidiary indication even more challenging. The clue solver can deal with these just as easily with a bit of experience. E.g.
Laugh at round ends? It’s tough (4)

Answer: HARD (This is a combination of a charade and a deletion of the middle letters. HARD, is defined by ‘tough’. “Laugh” is substituted for HA, “ends” says one should take the end letters of “RounD”’ and throw the rest away and ‘at’ says the two should go together to spell HARD).
It’s indecent to let little Albert roam around inside (6)

Answer: AMORAL (This is a combination of an anagram and a container. AMORAL defined, as ‘indecent’) is a combination of AL and ROAM, anagrammed.

13. Miscellaneous Clues
There are numerous other rare things that setters sometimes do. In these cases extra imagination is needed to find the answer.
Rookie wears glasses to the toilet (3)

Answer: LOO. (L = rookie (Learner) with OO, which looks like glasses. L + OO = LOO = toilet).

Bird with the French name (5)
Answer: TITLE (TIT = bird with LE = “the” in French. TIT + LE = TITLE = “Name”).

Advance in either direction (3, 2)

Answer: PUT UP (A palindrome meaning “advance”).
Palindromes may be indicated by phases such as “either way”, “going side to side”, “up and down”, “both ways”.

kcul? (8,2,7)

Answer: REVERSAL OF FORTUNE (“kcul” is “LUCK” spelt backwards!).

tew? (6,4)

Answer: RISING DAMP (“tew” is “WET” spelt backwards!).

Here are some Cryptic Crosswords you can find online:

Have fun solving these!

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