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What are cryptic crosswords?

Cryptic crosswords are a fiendish British invention. They tend to be more wide-spread and popular in the UK and Commonwealth countries (Australia, Canada, New Zealand, South Africa, India etc). There are a few American outlets for cryptics, but only a few.

Each clue in a cryptic crossword is basically a tiny wordplay puzzle. If you don't know the rules as to how to solve them, you will be completely perplexed by these little gems. But once you know the rules … a whole world awaits you!

What I love about cryptic clues is there's two ways to get to the answer. It's so satisfying when you get both parts of the clue to equal the same thing!

A cryptic is set in a normal crossword grid, which looks something like this.Sutherland Studios: Cryptic crosswords Note that this is a British style grid, not an American one. To find out more about the difference between British and American crosswords, see this post on my blog.

Now, a normal ‘quick' crossword has definition clues. So you might find a clue that reads: SPORT (4) = POLO

That's easy enough. These sorts of clues can still be hard, especially if the answers are rare words, and the definitions may sometimes be rather oblique, or examples of something — but you're generally just looking for a straight synonym to get the answer.

In a cryptic clue, however, there are TWO ways of getting to the answer. Each clue is a little mini puzzle, with a variety of sorts of standard wordplay devices used. The wordplay is also called the subsidiary indication, or sometimes just the subsidiary, but I prefer wordplay, as that says what it is more clearly.

Every clue also contains the definition of the answer, just like a regular crossword clue. It may be rather obscure at times, but it's there! It will always be at the start or end of the clue (not sandwiched in the middle with bits of wordplay on either side).

So, the basic anatomy of a cryptic clue is:
Definition + Wordplay = Answer
Wordplay + Definition = Answer

Using the example above, a cryptic clue for the same answer could be something like: MESSY POOL SPORT (4) = POLO

In this particular clue, sport is the definition, as in the ‘straight' clue above. The wordplay section is messy pool.

So, what about this messy pool situation? Why is the pool messy in the first place?

Well, messy is what's known as an anagram indicator — a word in the clue that indicates, or tells you that an anagram is present, and you need to jumble up some of the letters in the word. And yes, you guessed it, pool is the word to jumble up (also known as the anagram fodder). And sure enough, when you jumble up the letters of POOL, you get POLO!

Indicator words play an important part in many (but not all) cryptic clues. They are pointers to you as to what to actually do with the other words in the clue, and how to get to the answer. So there are anagram indicators, and hidden word indicators, and charade indicators, and … you get the idea! I've put together a list of a few cryptic indicators, to help you get the idea.

There are about eight or so types of common cryptic devices. They are:

  • anagrams (jumbled up words)
  • charades (one bit added to another)
  • deletions (one bit removed from another)
  • reversals (one bit written backwards)
  • containers (one bit put inside another)
  • hidden words (the answer hidden inside other words)
  • homophones (words that sound like other words)
  • cryptic definitions (quasi pun clues, funny definitions)

There are also some less common devices, such as quotation clues, and &lit (and literally) clues.

Abbreviations are also used widely in cryptic crosswords. The clue setter often needs to find a way of cryptically indicating one or two letters to get a clue to work. These are done with abbreviations. So, if you see the word west in a clue, it could well be the setter saying to you: ‘Add the letter W'. The word Romeo usually means to add the letter R (from the phonetic alphabet). Carbon in a clue probably means to add the letter C (from the periodic table). And so on. I have put together a page of some cryptic abbreviations for you.

For an in-depth discussion of these different clue devices, using abbreviations, foreign words, and heaps of tips and tricks on how to solve cryptic clues, see my book Solving Cryptic Crosswords For Dummies (Wiley Australia, 2012). The book has lots of worked examples, a whole chapter on each clue device, which includes a one-clue-type-only practice crosswords, and hints on solving the clues.

Cryptic References

You may find these reference sites useful in your cryptic crossword travels:


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