A cryptic crossword is a crossword puzzle in which each clue is a word puzzle in and of itself. Cryptic crosswords are particularly popular in the United Kingdom, where they originated, Ireland, Israel, the Netherlands, and in several Commonwealth nations, including Australia, Canada, India, Kenya, Malta, New Zealand, and South Africa. In the United States, cryptics are sometimes known as "British-style" crosswords. Compilers of cryptic crosswords are commonly called "setters" in the UK.
Cryptic crossword puzzles come in two main types: the basic cryptic in which each clue answer is entered into the diagram normally, and "themed" or "variety" cryptics, in which some or all of the answers must be altered before entering, usually in accordance with a hidden pattern or rule which must be discovered by the solver.
- 1 History and development
- 2 Popularity
- 3 How cryptic clues work
- 4 Grids for cryptic crosswords
- 5 Regional variation
- 6 Types of cryptic clues
- 7 Clueing techniques
- 8 Bits and pieces
- 9 Clueing technique and difficulty
- 10 Cryptic crosswords in specific publications
- 11 Setters on more than one British national paper
- 12 Cryptic crossword research
- 13 Cryptic crosswords in fiction
- 14 See also
- 15 References
- 16 Further reading
- 17 External links
History and development
Cryptic crosswords originated in the UK. The first British crossword puzzles appeared around 1923 and were purely definitional, but from the mid-1920s they began to include cryptic material: not cryptic clues in the modern sense, but anagrams, classical allusions, incomplete quotations, and other references and wordplay. Torquemada (Edward Powys Mathers), who set for The Saturday Westminster from 1925 and for The Observer from 1926 until his death in 1939, was the first setter to use cryptic clues exclusively and is often credited as the inventor of the cryptic crossword.
The first newspaper crosswords appeared in the Sunday and Daily Express from about 1924. Crosswords were gradually taken up by other newspapers, appearing in the Daily Telegraph from 1925, The Manchester Guardian from 1929 and The Times from 1930. These newspaper puzzles were almost entirely non-cryptic at first and gradually used more cryptic clues, until the fully cryptic puzzle as known today became widespread. In some papers this took until about 1960.
Puzzles appeared in The Listener from 1930, but this was a weekly magazine rather than a newspaper, and the puzzles were much harder than the newspaper ones, though again they took a while to become entirely cryptic.
Torquemada's puzzles were extremely obscure and difficult, and later setters reacted against this tendency by developing a standard for fair clues, ones that can be solved, at least in principle, by deduction, without needing leaps of faith or insights into the setter's thought processes.
The basic principle of fairness was set out by Listener setter Afrit (Alistair Ferguson Ritchie) in his book Armchair Crosswords (1946), wherein he credits it to the fictional Book of the Crossword:
- We must expect the composer to play tricks, but we shall insist that he play fair. The Book of the Crossword lays this injunction upon him: "You need not mean what you say, but you must say what you mean." This is a superior way of saying that he can't have it both ways. He may attempt to mislead by employing a form of words which can be taken in more than one way, and it is your fault if you take it the wrong way, but it is his fault if you can't logically take it the right way.
An example of a clue which cannot logically be taken the right way:
- Hat could be dry (5)
Here the composer intends the answer to be "derby", with "hat" the definition, "could be" the anagram indicator, and "be dry" the anagram fodder. I.e., "derby" is an anagram of "be dry". But "be" is doing double duty, and this means that any attempt to read the clue cryptically in the form "[definition] [anagram indicator] [fodder]" fails: if "be" is part of the anagram indicator, then the fodder is too short, but if it is part of the fodder, there is no anagram indicator; to be a correct clue it would have to be "Hat could be be dry (5)", which is ungrammatical. A variation might read Hat turns out to be dry (5), but this also fails because the word "to", which is necessary to make the sentence grammatical, follows the indicator ("turns out") even though it is not part of the anagram indicated.
Torquemada's successor at The Observer was Ximenes (Derrick Somerset Macnutt, 1902–1971), and in his influential work, Ximenes on the Art of the Crossword Puzzle (1966), he set out more detailed guidelines for setting fair cryptic clues, now known as "Ximenean principles" and sometimes described by the word "square-dealing". The most important of them are tersely summed up by Ximenes' successor Azed (Jonathan Crowther, born 1942):
- A good cryptic clue contains three elements:
- a precise definition
- a fair subsidiary indication
- nothing else
The Ximenean principles are adhered to most strictly in the subgenre of "advanced cryptics" — difficult puzzles using barred grids and a large vocabulary. Easier puzzles often have more relaxed standards, permitting a wider array of clue types, and allowing a little flexibility. The popular Guardian setter Araucaria (John Galbraith Graham, 1921–2013) was a noted non-Ximenean, celebrated for his witty, if occasionally unorthodox, clues.
Most of the major national newspapers in the UK carry both cryptic and concise (quick) crosswords in every issue. The puzzle in The Guardian is well loved for its humour and quirkiness, and quite often includes puzzles with themes, which are extremely rare in The Times.
Cryptic crosswords do not commonly appear in U.S. publications, although they can be found in magazines such as GAMES Magazine, The Nation, Harper's, and occasionally in the Sunday New York Times. The New York Post reprints cryptic crosswords from The Times. In April 2018, The New Yorker published the first of a new weekly series of cryptic puzzles. Other sources of cryptic crosswords in the U.S. (at various difficulty levels) are puzzle books, as well as UK and Canadian newspapers distributed in the U.S. Other venues include the Enigma, the magazine of the National Puzzlers' League, and formerly, The Atlantic Monthly. The latter puzzle, after a long and distinguished run, appeared solely on The Atlantic's website for several years, and ended with the October 2009 issue. A similar puzzle by the same authors now appears monthly in The Wall Street Journal.
Cryptic crosswords are very popular in Australia. Most Australian newspapers will have at least one cryptic crossword, if not two. The Sydney Morning Herald and Melbourne's The Age carry daily cryptic crosswords, including Friday's challenging cryptic by 'DA', composed by David Astle. The Australian puzzle publishers "Lovatts" regularly puts out cryptic crossword puzzle books.
How cryptic clues work
In essence, a cryptic clue leads to its answer as long as it is read in the right way. What the clue appears to say when read normally (the surface reading) is a distraction and usually has nothing to do with the clue answer. The challenge is to find the way of reading the clue that leads to the solution.
A typical clue consists of two parts, the definition and the wordplay. It provides two ways of getting to the answer. The definition, which usually exactly matches the part of speech, tense, and number of the answer, is in essence the same as any 'straight' crossword clue, a synonym for the answer. It usually appears at the start or the end of a clue.
The other part (the subsidiary indication, or wordplay) provides an alternative route to the answer (this part would be a second definition in the case of double definition clues). One of the tasks of the solver is to find the boundary between definition and wordplay and insert a mental pause there when reading the clue cryptically. This wordplay gives the solver some instructions on how to get to the answer another way. (Sometimes the two parts are joined with a link word or phrase such as "from", "gives" or "could be".)
There are many sorts of wordplay, such as anagrams and double definitions, but they all conform to rules. The crossword setters do their best to stick to these rules when writing their clues, and solvers can use these rules and conventions to help them solve the clues. Noted cryptic setter Derrick Somerset Macnutt (who wrote cryptics under the pseudonym of Ximenes) discusses the importance and art of fair cluemanship in his seminal book on cryptic crosswords, Ximenes on the Art of the Crossword (1966, reprinted 2001).
Because a typical cryptic clue describes its answer in detail and often more than once, the solver can usually have a great deal of confidence in the answer once it has been determined. The clues are 'self-checking'. This is in contrast to non-cryptic crossword clues which often have several possible answers and force the solver to use the crossing letters to distinguish which was intended.
Here is an example (taken from The Guardian crossword of 6 August 2002, set by "Shed").
- 15D Very sad unfinished story about rising smoke (8)
is a clue for TRAGICAL. This breaks down as follows.
- 15D indicates the location and direction (down) of the solution in the grid
- "Very sad" is the definition
- "unfinished story" gives "tal" ("tale" with one letter missing; i.e., unfinished)
- "rising smoke" gives "ragic" (a "cigar" is a smoke and this is a down clue so "rising" indicates that "cigar" should be written up the page; i.e., backwards)
- "about" means that the letters of "tal" should be put either side of "ragic", giving "tragical"
- "(8)" says that the answer is a single word of eight letters.
There are many "code words" or "indicators" that have a special meaning in the cryptic crossword context. (In the example above, "about", "unfinished" and "rising" all fall into this category). Learning these, or being able to spot them, is a useful and necessary part of becoming a skilled cryptic crossword solver.
Compilers or setters often use slang terms and abbreviations, generally without indication, so familiarity with these is important for the solver. Abbreviations may be as simple as 'west' = W, 'New York' = NY, but may also be more difficult. Words that can mean more than one thing are commonly exploited; often the meaning the solver must use is completely different from the one it appears to have in the clue. Some examples are:
- Bloomer - often means flower (a thing that blooms).
- Flower - often means river (a thing that flows).
- Lead - could be the metal, an electric cable, or the verb.
- Nice - if capitalized as the first word, could either be "amiable" or the French city. Thus "Nice friend" often means the letters ami.
- Novel - could be a book, or a word for new, or a code-word indicating an anagram.
- Permit - could be a noun (meaning license) or a verb (meaning allow).
Of these examples, "flower" is an invented meaning by back-formation from the -er suffix, which cannot be confirmed in a standard dictionary. A similar trick is played in the old clue "A wicked thing" for CANDLE, where the -ed suffix must be understood in its "equipped with a ..." meaning. In the case of the -er suffix, this trick could be played with other meanings of the suffix, but except for river → BANKER (a river is not a 'thing that banks' but a 'thing that has banks'), this is rarely done.
Sometimes "compiler", or the name or codename of the compiler (if visible by the crossword), codes for some form of the pronoun "I, me, my, mine".
In the Daily Telegraph back page, Monday 15 March 2017, 7 down, is "Banish spirits with zero ice upsetting imbibing times (8)"; the answer is EXORCIZE: it means "banish spirits", and is "zero ice" rearranged, including 'x' (described as "times").
Grids for cryptic crosswords
A typical cryptic crossword grid is generally 15×15, with half-turn rotational symmetry. Unlike typical American crosswords, in which every square is almost always checked (that is, each square provides a letter for both an across and a down answer), only about half of the squares in a cryptic crossword are checked.
Some papers have additional grid rules. In The Times, for example, all words have at least half the letters checked, and although words can have two unchecked squares in succession, they cannot be the first two or last two letters of a word. The grid shown here breaks one Times grid rule: the 15-letter words at 9 and 24 across each have 8 letters unchecked out of 15. The Independent allows setters to use their own grid designs.
Variety (UK: "advanced") cryptic crosswords typically use a "barred grid" with no black squares and a slightly smaller size; 12×12 is typical. Word boundaries are denoted by thick lines called "bars". In these variety puzzles, one or more clues may require modification to fit into the grid, such as dropping or adding a letter, or being anagrammed to fit other, unmodified clues; unclued spaces may spell out a secret message appropriate for the puzzle theme once the puzzle is fully solved. The solver also may need to determine where answers fit into the grid.
A July 2006 "Puzzlecraft" section in Games magazine on cryptic crossword construction noted that for cryptic crosswords to be readily solvable, no fewer than half the letters for every word should be checked by another word for a standard cryptic crossword, while nearly every letter should be checked for a variety cryptic crossword. In most UK "advanced cryptics" ('variety cryptic'), at least three-quarters of the letters in each word are checked.
British and North American differences
There are notable differences between British and North American (including Canadian) cryptics. American cryptics are thought of as holding to a more rigid set of construction rules than British ones. American cryptics usually require all words in a clue to be used in service of the wordplay or definition, whereas British ones allow for more extraneous or supporting words. In American cryptics, a clue is only allowed to have one subsidiary indication, but in British cryptics the occasional clue may have more than one; e.g., a triple definition clue would be considered an amusing variation in the UK but unsound in the US.
For the most part, cryptic crosswords are an English-language phenomenon, although similar puzzles are popular in a Hebrew form in Israel (where they are called tashbetsey higayon (תשבצי הגיון) "Logic crosswords") and (as Cryptogram) in Dutch. In Poland similar crosswords are called "Hetman crosswords". 'Hetman', a senior commander, and also the name for a queen in Chess, emphasises their importance over other crosswords. In Finnish, this type of crossword puzzle is known as piilosana (literally "hidden word"), while krypto refers to a crossword puzzle where the letters have been coded as numbers. The German ZEITmagazin has a weekly cryptic crossword called Um die Ecke gedacht and the SZ Magazin features das Kreuz mit den Worten.
In India the Telugu publication Sakshi carries a "Tenglish" (Telugu-English, bilingual) cryptic crossword; the Prajavani crossword (Kannada) also employs cryptic wordplay. Enthusiasts have also created cryptic crosswords in Hindi. Since 1994, enigmista Ennio Peres has challenged Italians annually with Il cruciverba più difficile del mondo (The World's Most Difficult Crossword), which has many features in common with English-style cryptics.
In Chinese something similar is the riddle of Chinese characters, where partial characters instead of substrings are clued and combined.
Types of cryptic clues
Clues given to the solver are based on various forms of wordplay. Nearly every clue has two non-overlapping parts to it: one part that provides an unmodified but often indirect definition for the word or phrase, and a second part that includes the wordplay involved. In a few cases, the two definitions are one and the same, as often in the case of "& lit." clues. Most cryptic crosswords provide the number of letters in the answer, or in the case of phrases, a series of numbers to denote the letters in each word: "cryptic crossword" would be clued with "(7,9)" following the clue. More advanced puzzles may drop this portion of the clue.
An anagram is a rearrangement of a certain section of the clue to form the answer. This is usually indicated by words such as "strange", "bizarre", "muddled", "wild", "drunk", or any other term indicating change. One example:
- Chaperone shredded corset (6)
gives ESCORT, which means chaperone and is an anagram of corset, indicated by the word shredded.
Anagram clues are characterized by an indicator word adjacent to a phrase that has the same number of letters as the answer. The indicator tells the solver that there is an anagram they need to solve to work out the answer. Indicators come either before or after the letters to be anagrammed. In an American cryptic, only the words given in the clue may be anagrammed; in some older puzzles, the words to be anagrammed may be clued and then anagrammed. So in this clue:
- Chew honeydew fruit (5)
Chew is the anagram indicator; honeydew clues melon, which is to be anagrammed; and fruit is the definition for the answer, LEMON. This kind of clue is called an indirect anagram, which in the vast majority of cryptic crosswords are not used, ever since they were criticised by 'Ximenes' in his 1966 book On the Art of the Crossword. Minor exception: simple abbreviations may be used to spice up the process; e.g., "Husband, a most eccentric fellow" (6) for THOMAS, where the anagram is made from A, MOST, and H = husband.
Anagram indicators, among the thousands possible, include: about, abstract, absurd, adapted, adjusted, again, alien, alternative, anew, another, around, arranged, assembled, assorted, at sea, awful, awkward, bad, barmy, becomes, blend, blow, break, brew, build, careless, changed, chaotic, characters, clumsy, composed, confused, contrived, convert, cooked, corrupt, could be, crazy, damaged, dancing, designed, develop, different, disorderly, disturbed, doctor, eccentric, edited, engineer, fabricate, fake, fancy, faulty, fiddled, fix, foolish, form, free, fudge, gives, ground, hammer, haywire, hybrid, improper, in a tizzy, involved, irregular, jostle, jumbled, jumping, kind of, knead, letters, loose, made, managed, maybe, messy, mistaken, mix, modified, moving, muddled, mutant, new, novel, odd, off, order, organised, otherwise, out, outrageous, peculiar, perhaps, playing, poor, possible, prepared, produced, queer, questionable, random, reform, remodel, repair, resort, rough, shaken, shifting, silly, sloppy, smashed, somehow, sort, spoilt, strange, style, switch, tangled, treated, tricky, troubled, turning, twist, unconventional, undone, unsettled, unsound, untidy, unusual, upset, used, vary, version, warped, wayward, weird, wild, working, wrecked, wrong.
It is common for the setter to use a juxtaposition of anagram indicator and anagram that form a common phrase to make the clue appear as much like a 'normal' sentence or phrase as possible. For example:
- Lap dancing friend (3)
uses dancing as the indicator as it fits cohesively with lap to give the solution, PAL.
Here the answer is formed by joining individually clued words to make a larger word (namely, the answer).
- Outlaw leader managing money (7)
The answer is BANKING formed by BAN for "outlaw" and KING for "leader". The definition is "managing money". With this example, the words appear in the same order in the clue as they do in the answer, and no special words are needed to indicate this. However, the order of the parts is sometimes indicated with words such as "against", "after", "on", "with" or "above" (in a down clue).
A container clue puts one set of letters inside another. So:
- Apostle's friend outside of university (4)
gives PAUL ("apostle"), by placing "pal" ("friend") outside of "U" ("university"); the "'s" could be treated as the genitive case suffix or as short for "is".
Other container indicators are "inside", "over", "around", "about", "clutching", "enters", and the like.
Deletions consist of beheadments, curtailments, and internal deletions. In beheadments, a word loses its first letter. In curtailments, it loses its last letter, and internal deletions remove an inner letter, such as the middle one.
An example of a beheadment:
- Beheaded celebrity is sailor (3)
The answer would be TAR, another word for "sailor", which is a "celebrity", or star, without the first letter.
Other indicator words of beheadment include "don't start", "topless", and "after the first".
An example of curtailment:
- Shout, "Read!" endlessly (3)
The answer is BOO. If you ignore the punctuation, a book is a "read", and book "endlessly" is boo, a "shout".
Other indicators include "nearly" and "unfinished".
An example of internal deletion:
- Challenging sweetheart heartlessly (6)
The answer is DARING, which means "challenging", and is darling without its middle letter, or "heartlessly".
Note that "sweetheart" could also be simply "wee" or the letter "E", that is, the "heart" (middle) of "sweet".
A clue may, rather than having a definition part and a wordplay part, have two definition parts. Thus:
- Not seeing window covering (5)
would have the answer BLIND, because blind can mean both "not seeing" and "window covering". Note that since these definitions come from the same root word, an American magazine might not allow this clue. American double definitions tend to require both parts to come from different roots, as in this clue:
- Eastern European buff (6)
This takes advantage of the two very different meanings (and pronunciations) of POLISH, the one with the long "o" sound meaning "someone from Poland" and the one with the short "o" sound meaning "make shiny".
These clues tend to be short; in particular, two-word clues are almost always double-definition clues.
In the UK, multiple definitions are occasionally used; e.g.:
- Blue swallow feathers fell from above (4)
is a quintuple definition of DOWN ("blue" (sad), "swallow" (drink), "feathers" (plumage), "fell" (cut down) and "from above"), but in the US this would be considered unsound.
Some British newspapers have an affection for quirky clues of this kind where the two definitions are similar:
- Let in or let on (5) – ADMIT
Note that these clues do not have clear indicator words.
When the answer appears in the clue but is contained within one or more words, it is hidden. For example:
- Found ermine, deer hides damaged (10)
gives UNDERMINED, which means (cryptically at least) "damaged" and can be found as part of "Found ermine deer". The word "hides" is used to mean "contains," but in the surface sense suggests "pelts". A complication is that "damaged" often (but not in this clue) means "rearrange the letters".
Possible indicators of a hidden clue are "in part", "partially", "in", "within", "hides", "conceals", "some", and "held by".
- Introduction to do-gooder canine (3)
gives DOG, which is the first part of, or "introduction to", the word "do-gooder", and means "canine". Hidden words clues are sometimes called "Embedded words" or "Telescopic clues". The opposite of a hidden word clue, where letters missing from a sentence have to be found, is known as a Printer's Devilry, and appears in some advanced cryptics.
There are several common techniques used in Hidden Word clues.
The first letters of part of the clue are put together to give the answer.
An example of an initialism:
- Initially amiable person eats primate (3)
The answer would be APE, which is a type of primate. "Initially" signals that you must take the first letters of "amiable person eats" – "ape".
Another example would be:
- At first, actor needing new identity emulates orphan in musical theatre (5)
The answer would be ANNIE, the name of a famous orphan in musical theatre. This is obtained from the first letters of "actor needing new identity emulates".
Words that indicate initialisms also include "firstly" and "to start".
It is possible to have initialisms just for certain parts of the clue. It is also possible to employ the same technique to the end of words. For example:
- Old country lady went round Head Office initially before end of day (7)
The answer would be DAHOMEY, which used to be a kingdom in Africa (an "old country"). Here, we take the first letters of only the words "Head Office" (ho) and we take the "end" of the word "day" (y). The letters of the word "dame", meaning "lady", are then made to go around the letters "ho" to form Dahomey.
Either the odd or even letters of words in the clue give the answer. An example is:
- Odd stuff of Mr. Waugh is set for someone wanting women to vote (10)
The answer would be SUFFRAGIST, which is "someone wanting women to vote". The word "odd" indicates that we must take every other letter of the rest of the clue, starting with the first: StUfF oF mR wAuGh Is SeT.
Homophones are words that sound the same but have different meanings, such as "night" and "knight". Homophone clues always have an indicator word or phrase that has to do with phonetics, such as "reportedly", "they say", "utterly" (here treated as "utter(ing)-ly" and not with its usual meaning), "vocal", "to the audience", "auditioned", "by the sound of it", "is heard", "in conversation" and "on the radio". "Broadcast" is a particularly devious indicator as it could indicate either a homophone or an anagram.
An example of a homophone clue is
- We hear twins shave (4)
which is a clue for PARE, which means "shave" and is a homophone of pair, or "twins". The homophone is indicated by "we hear".
If the two words are the same length, the clue should be phrased in such a way that only one of them can be the answer. This is usually done by having the homophone indicator adjacent to the word that is not the definition; therefore, in the previous example, "we hear" was adjacent to "twins" and the answer was pare rather than pair. The indicator could come between the words if they were of different lengths and the enumeration was given, such as in the case of "right" and "rite".
The letter bank form of cluing consists of a shorter word (or words) containing no repeated letters (an "isogram"), and a longer word or phrase built by using each of these letters (but no others) at least once but repeating them as often as necessary. This type of clue has been described by American constructors Joshua Kosman and Henry Picciotto, who write the weekly puzzle for The Nation. The shorter word is typically at least three or four letters in length, while the target word or phrase is at least three letters longer than the bank word. For example, the four letters in the word TENS can be used as a bank to form the word TENNESSEE. Typically, the clue contains indicator words such as "use," "take," or "implement" to signal that a letter bank is being employed.
A more complicated example of a letter bank is:
- Composer taking and retaking ingredients of Advil? Not! (7,7)
In this case, "ingredients" signals that the letters of both "Advil" and "Not" form the bank. Those letters yield the answer, ANTONIO VIVALDI.
Kosman and Picciotto consider this to be a newer and more complicated form of cluing that offers another way, besides the anagram, of mixing and recombining letters.
A word that gets turned around to make another is a reversal. For example:
- Returned beer fit for a king (5)
The answer is REGAL. "Lager" (i.e., "beer") is "returned" to make regal, i.e. fit for a king.
Other indicator words include "receding", "in the mirror", "going the wrong way", "returns", "reverses" "to the left" or "left" (for across clues), and "rising", "overturned" or "mounted" or "comes up" (for down clues).
Here the clue appears to say one thing, but with a slight shift of viewpoint it says another. For example:
- Flower of London? (6)
gives THAMES, a flow-er of London. Here, the surface reading suggests a blossom, which disguises the fact that the name of a river is required. Notice the question mark: this is often (though by no means always) used by compilers to indicate this sort of clue is one where you need to interpret the words in a different fashion. The way that a clue reads as an ordinary sentence is called its surface reading and is often used to disguise the need for a different interpretation of the clue's component words.
This type of clue is common in British and Canadian cryptics but is a bit less common in American cryptics; in American-style crosswords, a clue like this is generally called a punny clue. It's almost certainly the oldest kind of cryptic clue: cryptic definitions appeared in the UK newspaper puzzles in the late 1920s and early 1930s that mixed cryptic and plain definition clues and evolved into fully cryptic crosswords.
A relatively uncommon clue type, a Spoonerism is a play on words where corresponding consonant clusters are switched between two words in a phrase (or syllables in a word) and the switch forms another pair of proper sounding words. For example: "butterfly" = "flutter by".
Both the solution word or phrase and its corresponding Spoonerism are clued for, and the clue type is almost always indicated by reference to Spooner himself – with some regions/publications insisting his religious title "Rev." or "Reverend" be included. In contrast to all other clue types, this makes them almost impossible to disguise. But that doesn't necessarily make them easy.
An example of a Spoonerism clue is:
- He will casually put down Spooner's angry bear (9)
The answer is LITTERBUG (He will casually put down). The Spoonerism is "bitter" (angry) and "lug" (bear, as in carry).
The vast majority of Spoonerism clues swap the first consonants of words or syllables, but Spoonerisms are not strictly restricted to that form and some setters will take advantage of this. John Henderson (Enigmatist in the Guardian) once clued for the Spoonerism "light crick" from "right click", which didn't sit well with many solvers.
An "&lit." or "Literal" clue is not a clue type, but, rather a variant on an existing clue. "&lit" stands for "and literally so". In this case, the entire clue is both a definition and a cryptic clue. In some publications &lit clues are indicated by an exclamation mark at the end of the clue. For example:
- God incarnate, essentially! (4)
The answer is ODIN. The Norse god Odin is hidden in "god incarnate", as clued by "essentially", but the definition of Odin is also the whole clue, as Odin is essentially a God incarnate.
This satisfies the "& lit." clue definition but as read is clearly a cryptic clue. Another example:
- Spoil vote! (4)
would give the answer VETO; in the cryptic sense, spoil works as an anagram indicator for vote, while the whole clue is, with a certain amount of licence allowed to crossword setters, a definition.
- e.g., Origin of goose (3)
gives the answer EGG. Geese find their origins in eggs, so the whole clue gives "egg", but the clue can also be broken down: e.g., loses its full stops to give eg, followed by the first letter (i.e., the "origin") of the word goose—g—to make egg.
It is very common for a clue to employ more than one method of wordplay. For example:
- Illustrious baron returns in pit (9)
The answer is HONORABLE. "Baron" "returns", or is reversed, and put inside "pit" or hole, to make honorable, or "illustrious".
In this example, the clue uses a combination of Reversal and Hidden clue types:
- Cruel to turn part of Internet torrid (6)
The answer to this clue is ROTTEN. The phrase "to turn" indicates "to reverse," and "part of" suggests a piece of "Internet torrid".
To make clues more difficult, cryptic constructors will frequently use traditional indicator words in a misleading manner.
- A cryptic crossword on the back page of the Daily Telegraph on 14 March 2012 included the answer ANALYSIS, whose clue was "Close study of broken nails, say (8)": "say" in cryptic crossword clues normally means "a word pronounced the same as" or "for example", but here it is part of an anagram.
- Daily Telegraph back page, 8 November 2012: "Drunk compiler's admitted boob (5)" means "Means 'drunk', MY contains ERR, has 5 letters", = MERRY. ("Drunk" often mean "rearrange the letters", but not this time.)
- In a crossword by Araucaria, "Araucaria is" coded for IAM (= "I am") as part of an answer.
- Daily Telegraph page 30, 25 February 2014: "French place in island beset by cold sadly": "sadly" usually means "damaged", "with the letters rearranged", but here it codes for "alas"; I inside C ALAS makes CALAIS, which is a French place.
- Daily Telegraph page 32, 3 April 2014: "Bug starts to move in dark, glowing endlessly (5)": usually "endlessly" and similar mean "remove the last letter", but here it is one of five consecutive words to form an acronym from, as the word "starts" shows; the answer is MIDGE.
- Sunday Telegraph on Easter Sunday 2014 had an anagram clue whose answer was EASTER SUNDAY, and its definition part was "today".
- Daily Telegraph on 8 April 2019, page 30: 5 down: "Parade one month ago (5,4)": its answer was MARCH PAST; that clue would be valid only in April each year.
- Daily Telegraph page 18, 1 September 2015: 4 down: "How one may find Etna to increase danger? (2,3,4)": the answer (UP THE ANTE) describes how to make the clue word ETNA, which is the reverse of usual.
- Daily Telegraph page 30, 27 March 2017: 10 down: "One might see flow in this game (8)": the answer (WILDFOWL) describes how to make the clue word FLOW, which is the reverse of usual; "game" is as in sport shooting.
- Daily Telegraph page 16, 2 May 2017: 1 across: "Schoolchild's punishment, devising a cryptic clue for 'crows'? (7,5)": the answer is HUNDRED LINES: reverse of the usual way to use a Roman number.
- Daily Telegraph page 32, 14 November 2017: 28 across: "Very old diamonds, say (5): V O ICE: "say" in cryptic crossword clues normally means "a word pronounced the same as" or "for example", but here it is the definition; the word "voice" can be used as a verb.
- Daily Telegraph page 34, 22 March 2018: 3 down: "Trouble from wind is turbulent": answer is DISTURB; the word "turbulent" suggests forming an anagram, which does not happen here.
- A clue in the Daily Telegraph September 2018 started "Communist leader", which would be expected to mean the letter C; but this time it was the definition, and the answer was CHE GUEVARA.
Bits and pieces
Abbreviations are popular with crossword compilers for cluing individual letters or short sections of the answer. Consider this clue:
About to come between little Desmond and worker for discourse (7)
- There are two abbreviations used here. "About" is abbreviated "c" (for "circa"), and "little Desmond" indicates that the diminutive of Desmond (namely, DES) is required. The "c" is "to come between" DES and ANT (a worker; note that compilers also use "worker" to stand for BEE or HAND), giving DESCANT, which means "discourse".
Compilers use many of these crossword abbreviations.
Another type of abbreviation in clues might be words that refer to letters. For example, 'you' refers to the letter U, 'why' refers to the letter Y, etc. A clue for instance:
- For example, why didn't you put the country? (5)
- The answer is "EGYPT". Three abbreviations are used here. "For example" is abbreviated to the letters E and G (for "e.g."), "why" indicates the letter Y. The phrase "didn't you put" is the letters P and T (the word "you" refers to U, and word "didn't" means that the letter U in "put" should be left out, making it PT). Adding those letters together gets "the country" - EGYPT.
There are many ways in which constructors can clue a part of a clue. In this clue:
Exclamation of surprise about spectacles, from the top (3)
- The word "spectacles" clues OO because these letters look like a pair of spectacles "from the top". The answer is thus COO, which is an "exclamation of surprise" with C coming from "circa", clued by "about".
Often, Roman numerals are used to break down words into their component letter groups. E.g. In this clue:
A team's first supporter is pivotal (4)
- The answer is AXIS, and the direct meaning is conveyed by the words "is pivotal". The first A is followed by "XI" which is Roman for 11 (refers to the number of players on the field in a cricket or soccer team). "First supporter" refers to the letter "S" which is the first letter of the word "supporter".
In a cryptic crossword in the British newspaper Daily Telegraph (20 April 2017), the clue "Irritating proverb we're told (4) (SORE = "saw") depends on a homophony which only happens in arhotic pronunciation such as in British English.
Clueing technique and difficulty
Cryptic clue styles across newspapers are ostensibly similar, but there are technical differences which result in the work of setters being regarded as either Ximenean or Libertarian (and often a combination of both).
Ximenean rules are very precise in terms of grammar and syntax, especially as regards the indicators used for various methods of wordplay. Libertarian setters may use devices which "more or less" get the message across. For example, when treating the answer BEER the setter may decide to split the word into BEE and R and, after finding suitable ways to define the answer and BEE, now looks to give the solver a clue to the letter R. Ximenean rules would not allow something like "reach first" to indicate that R is the first letter of "reach" because, grammatically, that is not what "reach first" implies. Instead, a phrase along the lines of "first to reach" would be needed as this conforms to rules of grammar. Many Libertarian crossword editors would, however, accept "reach first" as it would be considered to reasonably get the idea across. For instance, a clue following Ximenian rules for BEER (BEE + R) may look as such:
- Stinger first to reach drink (4)
While a clue following Libertarian rules may look as follows:
- Stinger reaches first drink (4)
The Guardian is perhaps the most Libertarian of cryptic crosswords, while The Times is mostly Ximenean. The others tend to be somewhere in between; the Financial Times and Independent tend towards Ximenean, the Daily Telegraph also – although its Toughie crossword can take a very Libertarian approach depending on the setter. None of the major daily cryptics in the UK is "strictly Ximenean"; all allow clues which are just cryptic definitions, and strict Ximenean rules exclude such clues. There are other differences like nounal anagram indicators and in current Times crosswords, unindicated definition by example: "bay" in the clue indicating HORSE in the answer, without a qualification like "bay, perhaps".
In terms of difficulty, Libertarian clues can seem impenetrable to inexperienced solvers. However, more significant is the setter him/herself. Crosswords in the Times and Daily Telegraph are published anonymously, so the crossword editor ensures that clues adhere to a consistent house style. Inevitably each setter has an individual (and often very recognisable) approach to clue-writing, but the way in which wordplay devices are used and indicated is kept within a defined set of rules.
In the Guardian, Independent, Financial Times and Telegraph Toughie series the setters' pseudonyms are published, so solvers become familiar with the styles of individual setters rather than house rules. Thus the level of difficulty is associated with the setter rather than the newspaper, though puzzles by individual setters can actually vary in difficulty considerably.
It is effectively impossible, then, to describe one newspaper's crosswords as the toughest or easiest. For newcomers to cryptic puzzles the Daily Telegraph is often regarded as an ideal starting point, but this is contentious. Since all of the newspapers have different styles, concentrating on one of them is likely to lead to proficiency in only one style of clue-writing; moving to a different series, after perhaps years spent with just one, can leave the solver feeling as if they have gone back to square one. The better technique is to simply attempt as many different crosswords as possible, perhaps to find a "comfort zone" but, more importantly, to experience the widest possible range of Ximenean/Libertarian styles.
Cryptic crosswords in specific publications
In Britain it is traditional — dating from the cryptic crossword pioneer Edward (Bill) Powys Mathers (1892–1939), who called himself "Torquemada" after the Spanish Inquisitor — for compilers to use evocative pseudonyms. "Crispa", named from the Latin for "curly-headed", who set crosswords for the Guardian from 1954 until her retirement in 2004, legally changed her surname to "Crisp" after divorcing in the 1970s. Some pseudonyms have obvious connotations: for example, Torquemada as already described, or "Mephisto" with fairly obvious devilish overtones. Others are chosen for logical but less obvious reasons, though "Dinmutz" (the late Bert Danher in the Financial Times) was produced by random selection of Scrabble tiles.
- The Daily Telegraph/Sunday Telegraph
- The Telegraph, like the Times, does not identify the setter of each puzzle but, unlike the Times, has a regular setter for each day of the week, plus a few occasional setters to cover holidays or sickness. Regular setters include John Halpern, Ray Terrell, Jeremy Mutch, Don Manley, Allan Smith, Steve Bartlett and Richard Palmer. The regular setters as of 1 November 2006 are shown in a photograph here. The crossword editor is Chris Lancaster, who took over from Phil McNeill in early 2018. There is an advanced cryptic called Enigmatic Variations in the Sunday Telegraph, and also a 15×15 blocked-grid puzzle.
- In September 2008 the Telegraph started printing a 'Toughie' crossword as well as the daily puzzle, from Tuesday to Friday. This is described by the paper as "the toughest crossword in Fleet Street" or similar and does include the setter's pseudonym. Comments from some solvers on these puzzles don't always agree with this assessment, rating maybe half of them as close to average broadsheet cryptic difficulty.
- The Guardian
- Notable compilers of The Guardian's cryptic crosswords include Enigmatist, Pasquale, Paul (John Halpern again), Rufus (now retired), and the late Bob Smithies (Bunthorne) and Araucaria. The puzzle is edited by Hugh Stephenson.
- The Independent
- The Independent went online only in 2016, but still has a cryptic crossword. Setters include Virgilius, Dac, Phi, Quixote, Nimrod, Monk, Nestor, Bannsider, Anax, Merlin, Mass, Math, Morph, Scorpion, Tees and Punk (John Halpern). The daily puzzle is edited by Eimi (Mike Hutchinson).
- The i newspaper was launched in 2010 as a sister paper to The Independent, but was bought by Johnston Press in February 2016 when The Independent moved to digital-only publication. The fiendish Inquisitor puzzle is edited by John Henderson whose predecessor was the late former Times crossword editor Mike Laws. The crosswords are often themed and may contain a Nina: a hidden feature.
- The National
- Launched in Scotland as "The Newspaper that supports an independent Scotland" on 24 November 2014 after the independence referendum on 18 September. The National has a daily cryptic crossword after a request from readers to include one. The National is the only daily pro-independence newspaper in Scotland and is edited by Sunday Herald editor Richard Walker.
- The Observer
- Home of the famous Azed crossword, which employs a barred grid and a wider vocabulary than standard cryptics, and in conjunction with its predecessors 'Torquemada' and 'Ximenes' is the longest-running series of barred-grid puzzles. On the first Sunday of every month and at Christmas, Azed runs a clue-writing competition, via which many of today's top compilers have learnt their trade. The Observer also features a standard cryptic crossword, the Everyman, compiled by Allan Scott.
- Private Eye
- In the early 1970s the satirical magazine Private Eye had a crossword set by the Labour MP Tom Driberg, under the pseudonym of "Tiresias" (supposedly "a distinguished academic churchman"). It is currently set by Eddie James under the name "Cyclops". This crossword is usually topical, and contains material varying from risqué to rude, in clues, answers and the solver's head; much of the rudeness is by innuendo. It also often includes references to the content of the rest of the magazine, or its jargon in which, for example, the current monarch of the UK is "Brenda" and the likely next one "Prince Brian". The £100 prize for the first correct solution opened is unusually high for a crossword and attracts many entrants.
- The Radio Times
- Roger Prebble has compiled the cryptic crossword since 1999.
- Significance is a joint publication between the American Statistical Association and the Royal Statistical Society; it contains a cryptic crossword in its puzzle section. The magazine offers a randomly awarded $150 or £100 to spend on Wiley books for those that submit a correct entry.
- The Spectator
- Cryptics in the weekly Spectator often have a specific theme, such as a tribute to a public figure who has died recently or a historic event that has its anniversary this week. As in most British periodicals, the cryptic in the Spectator is numbered: in the Spectator's case, a puzzle's theme may be related to its specific number (such as a historic event that occurred in the year corresponding to the four-digit number of the puzzle for that week). Compilers include Doc (the puzzle editor as well as chief setter), Dumpynose (an anagram for 'Pseudonym') and Columba.
- The Sunday Times
- The Sunday Times cryptic crossword is compiled in rotation by three setters: Jeff Pearce, Dean Mayer and David McLean, the latter taking over from Tim Moorey in January 2016. (Mr Moorey's final puzzle included the hidden message 'Farewell from Tim'; he continues to set Mephisto puzzles.) The position of puzzles editor is now held by Peter Biddlecombe. Until her retirement in December 2010, Barbara Hall was puzzles editor for 32 years, and wrote about half the paper's cryptic crosswords. The Sunday Times is also home to the difficult barred-grid Mephisto puzzle, currently set in rotation by Don Manley, Paul McKenna and Tim Moorey. Previous Mephisto setters were Richard Kilner (only setter, 1959 to 1973), Richard Whitelegg (only setter, 1973 to 1995), Chris Feetenby (1995-2008) and Mike Laws (1995-2011).
- The Times
- Adrian Bell was the first to set The Times crossword from 1930 and was one of those responsible for establishing its distinctive cryptic style. (The Times was a relatively late adopter: the Telegraph crossword started in 1925, and the Guardian in 1929.) The Times has a team of about 15 setters, many of whom set puzzles for other papers. The setter of each puzzle is not identified. The Times also has "jumbo" (23×23) puzzles in the Saturday edition and since 1991 has provided a home for the famously difficult advanced cryptic puzzle which used to appear in the BBC's The Listener.
- The daily Times puzzle is syndicated in the New York Post (US) and The Australian (Aus) papers. In both cases, the puzzle appears some weeks after it appeared in The Times.
- In October 2007, The Bugle—a TimesOnline podcast by John Oliver and Andy Zaltzman—introduced the first, revolutionary "Audio Cryptic Crossword."
- Viz magazine
- Since 2009 the adult comic magazine Viz has incorporated a cryptic crossword credited to Anus. This is a collaboration of two setters, one of whom has a minor role in supplying some pre-written clues. In keeping with the comic's "top shelf" status the puzzle content is an amalgam of humour and obscenity, although the clueing style retains both Libertarian and Ximenean disciplines.
- The Age (Australia)
- (see Sydney Morning Herald)
- The Atlantic (US)
- The Atlantic magazine had a long-running variety cryptic crossword, known as the Puzzler, created by Emily Cox and Henry Rathvon beginning in 1977, available only online since March 2006. The final original Puzzler was published in August 2009 for the September issue. An online archive of Puzzlers going back to 1997 is still available.
- Games World of Puzzles (US)
- Originally two separate publications, "GAMES" and "World of Puzzles", the two were merged in 2014 to become "GAMES WORLD OF PUZZLES," published nine times a year. The publication currently features two basic cryptics and two variety cryptics in each issue. Some other puzzles in the publication include cryptic elements, such as double definition puzzles or hidden word puzzles.
- The Globe and Mail (Canada)
- "Canada's national newspaper" includes a daily cryptic somewhat less difficult than its British cousins. The crossword also comes with another set of "Quick Clues" (American-style) which provide a completely different set of answers. Fraser Simpson compiles the Saturday cryptic; he also used to compile an advanced cryptic in The Walrus. Once a year on Canada Day, The Globe published a large 24×24 bar-diagram cryptic, but as of 2015 it no longer does.
The Geraldine News (New Zealand)
This weekly local paper carries a cryptic once a month. It is compiled by Geraldine resident Jim Walton and titled JW Cryptic Crossword. As at April 2019, Jim had provided 244 cryptic crosswords for the paper.
- Harper's (US)
- This magazine features a monthly variety cryptic by Richard Maltby, Jr., aimed at advanced solvers.
- The Hindu (India)
- The Hindu newspaper carries cryptic crosswords in the main paper from Monday to Saturday, and a much tougher Sunday Crossword in the Sunday Magazine supplement. The weekday crosswords are set by setters with the pseudonyms Gridman, Arden, Incognito, Afterdark, Buzzer, Neyartha, Scintillator, xChequer, Lightning, Sunnet, Spinner, Aspartame, Mac, Dr. X, KrisKross among others. In every cycle, a setter publishes a certain number of crosswords allotted to him or her, unlike British papers where things are mostly random. The Sunday Crossword is a syndicated crossword from the UK newspaper The Observer.
- The first setter of the Monday-Saturday cryptic crosswords was Retired Admiral Ram Dass Katari of the Indian Navy, who took up the task in 1971 at the request of Gopalan Kasturi, then editor of The Hindu. The crossword has a regular following, and while The Hindu publishes the solutions on the following day, the annotated solution is put up on the same day at the website 'The Hindu Crossword Corner' by a group of solvers on the same day.
- Irish Times
- The Irish Times originally provided a daily puzzle by "Crosaire" (Derek Crozier), which featured a fairly unorthodox style of clue-writing. The paper continued to run his puzzles after his death in April 2010. The last of Crozier's crosswords was published in the Irish Times on 22 October 2011. The Irish Times' cryptic crossword is currently set by Crosaire's successor Crosheir.
- The Listener (New Zealand)
- This weekly magazine includes a cryptic by David Tossman, who took over from RWH (Ruth Hendry) in 1997. RWH had been providing a mixed (some cryptic clues) puzzle since 1940.
- Lovatts Crosswords
- Lovatts Crosswords are a range of magazines sold throughout the UK, Ireland, Australia and New Zealand. Christine Lovatt is the main cryptic compiler, and she has been so for 30 years.
- The Nation (US)
- This liberal American political weekly has featured a weekly cryptic puzzle since 1947. Frank W. Lewis wrote the puzzle from late 1947 until his retirement in late 2009. Lewis developed one of the most recognizably personal styles of cryptic setting, and The Nation published book collections of his puzzles. Since December 2011, the weekly puzzle has been written by Joshua Kosman and Henri Picciotto.
- New York Magazine
- Stephen Sondheim's puzzles for New York Magazine have been collected in book form. Sondheim is himself a collector of old-time puzzles and board games.
- New Yorker
- For some of the time that this magazine was edited by Tina Brown (1997–1999), it included a small (8×10) barred-grid cryptic crossword, set by a range of American and Canadian setters. These puzzles are also available in a book collection.
- New York Times
- Two weeks in every 18, the "variety puzzle" in the Sunday edition is a cryptic crossword, usually by Emily Cox and Henry Rathvon, Richard Silvestri, or Fraser Simpson. One week in 18, it's a "Puns and Anagrams" puzzle, a relic of a 1940s attempt to introduce cryptic puzzles to the US.
- The New Zealand Herald (Auckland New Zealand)
- The weekend edition features a cryptic crossword by "Kropotkin" (Rex Benson) in addition to syndicated crosswords from the UK and Australia.
- Ottawa Citizen
- The Ottawa Citizen has carried a weekly puzzle by Susannah Sears since 2001.
- Sydney Daily Telegraph
- Prints the "Stickler" puzzle, set by David Stickley.
- Sydney Morning Herald and The Age (Australia)
- Fairfax Media papers, The Sydney Morning Herald and The Age, print a daily puzzle, which was also available free on-line until 31 August 2009. Various compilers (setters) compose the puzzles, each being indicated by their initials. As of November 2013, compilers from Monday to Saturday include LR (Liam Runnalls), RM (Rose McGinley), DP (David Plomley), DH (Donald Harrison), NS (Nancy Sibtain), DA (David Astle), and DS (David Sutton).
- The Toronto Star (Canada)
- Includes a cryptic crossword in the Saturday edition in the Puzzles section from the Sunday Times. Friday and Sunday papers each have a different cryptic by Caroline Andrews.
Setters on more than one British national paper
Several setters appear in more than one paper. Some of these are:
|Guardian||Times||Independent||Financial Times||Daily/Sunday Telegraph||Telegraph Toughie||Private Eye||Observer|
|John Galbraith Graham||Araucaria||Cinephile|
|Sarah Hayes||Arachne||x||Anarche||Rosa Klebb|
x - Denotes a compiler operating without a pseudonym in this publication.
Cryptic crossword research
Research into cryptic crossword solving has been comparatively sparse. Several discrete areas have been explored: the cognitive or linguistic challenges posed by cryptic clues,; the mechanisms by which the "Aha!" moment is triggered by solving cryptic crossword clues ; the use of cryptic crosswords to preserve cognitive flexibility ("use-it-or-lose-it") in aging populations,; and expertise studies into the drivers of high performance and ability in solving cryptics..
Recent expertise studies by Friedlander and Fine, based on a large-scale survey of 805 solvers of all ability (mainly UK-based), suggest that cryptic crossword solvers are generally highly academically able adults whose education and occupations lie predominantly in the area of scientific, mathematical or IT-related fields. This STEM connection increases significantly with level of expertise, particularly for mathematics and IT. The authors suggest that cryptic crossword skill is bound up with code-cracking and problem-solving skills of a logical and quasi-algebraic nature.
Friedlander and Fine also note that solvers are motivated predominantly by "Aha!" moments, and intrinsic rewards such as mental challenge. Solvers voluntarily choose to engage with intellectually and culturally stimulating activities like music, theatre, reading, and the arts in their leisure time, and pursue active musical participation such as singing or playing an instrument at noticeably higher levels than the UK national average. Solving cryptic crossword clues can lead to a succession of 'Aha!' or 'Penny-Dropping' Moments which is highly rewarding; Friedlander and Fine suggest that research could take advantage of the range of cryptic crossword devices to explore the mechanics of insight in more depth. Looking at expert cryptic crossword solvers – who speedily overcome the clue misdirection – and comparing them with typical, everyday solvers of equal experience may provide a better understanding of the kind of person who can overcome a solving ‘hitch’ more easily, and how they go about it.
Cryptic crosswords in fiction
Cryptic crosswords often appear in British literature, and are particularly popular in murder mysteries, where they are part of the puzzle. The character Inspector Morse created by Colin Dexter is fond of solving cryptic crosswords, and the crosswords often become part of the mystery. Colin Dexter himself set crosswords for The Oxford Times for many years and was a national crossword champion. In the short story "The Fascinating Problem of Uncle Meleager's Will", by Dorothy L Sayers, Lord Peter Wimsey solves a crossword in order to solve the mystery, while the solution to Agatha Christie's Curtain hinges on an Othello themed crossword. Ruth Rendell has used the device in her novel One Across and Two Down. Among non-crime writers, crosswords often feature in the works of P. G. Wodehouse, and are an important part of the book The Truth About George. Alan Plater's 1994 novel Oliver's Travels (turned into a BBC television serial of the same name in 1995) centres round crossword solving and the hunt for a missing compiler.
Crosswords have also featured in TV series like The Simpsons and The West Wing. They feature prominently in the 1945 British romantic drama film Brief Encounter, scripted by playwright Noël Coward, which is number two in the British Film Institute's Top 100 British films.
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