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Get a Clue? CrossSoc’s cryptic explainer

Get down with Tournesol and get across cryptic crosswords

A graphic depicting a crossword

Most people—i.e. probably you—when reading the newspaper will glance at the cryptic crossword and then almost immediately glance away, preferring to complete the Sudoku, or read about how the world’s gone to the dogs, or even put down the newspaper entirely and do something else because you’re not fifty-three. And this is a tremendous shame. Because not only are cryptic crosswords a rewarding mental work-out, they are also incredibly fun. Presently, you probably look at a cryptic clue and think it’s utter tosh. Go on, have a look at one. Now, think how satisfying it would be to take that seemingly nonsensical phrase and extract from it a word, fresh and firm and glistening with lexical dew, and then place that newborn word into a pristine interlocking set of its little friends, held together harmoniously in black and white.

All you need to be able to complete cryptics is an ounce of knowledge and a ton of practice. So here’s your ounce of knowledge to get you started.

A cryptic crossword clue contains two things. First, a definition, just like in a quick crossword, at either end of the clue. In the crossword opposite, the definitions are underlined, so if you’re not feeling up to the challenge you can pretend it’s only a quickie and get on with your day. Otherwise, take a gander at the second part of each clue: the worldplay. The clue’s wordplay is a tricksy verbal suggestion of the answer, equivalent to the definition. The wordplay also has two parts: the fodder is the words we’ll end up putting in our answer, and the indicator tell us how to do so. Each clue is an equation; the fodder is the numbers, the indicator the operation.

There are many different types of cryptic clue. Here we go, one by one.

Charade clues are very common, and can incorporate lots of other types of clues. A charade clue breaks a word into parts and gives a clue for each. For 11-Across, Skinny monarch is pensive, think of one word meaning skinny and one meaning monarch; put them together and get another meaning pensive. THIN + KING = THINKING. Quick maths.

Anagram clues also abound. An anagram is a word or phrase made by rearranging the letters in another, such as LEMON for MELON, or I AM LORD VOLDEMORT for TOM MARVOLO RIDDLE. The way to spot an anagram lurking in your clue is to look for the anagram indicator (or anagrind, if you like), a word that denotes organisation, strangeness or frailty. Have a look at 17-Down: A steward struggled toward Bondi. The word struggled is the anagrind and is next to our fodder, a steward, eight letters long and ripe for rearrangement. All you have to do is mix it up so it becomes synonymous with toward Bondi. ASTEWARD ≈ EASTWARD.

Hidden clues are easiest of all, but frustrating if not spotted. Peruse clues for indicators like containing, concealing, or holding as in 29-Across. Read closely through the fodder to find a word equal to the definition. Hiddens can also be combined with reversal clues, in which part of the clue has to be put backward to reveal the answer. Take 23-Down: Very perverse lump of stalwart lube. Very is the definition; perverse the reversal indicator; lump of the hidden indicator. So, a word meaning very is hidden within the phrase stalwart lube written backward: EBULTRAWLATS. Can you spot it?

Double definitions are punchy and pleasing. Rather than wordplay, the clue contains two definitions for the same word, like in 30-Across and 19-Down. If you find them difficult, just focus on finding an answer for one of the words then see if it fits the other.

Homophone clues are based on what a clue sounds like when read aloud. Indicators are words related to speaking or listening like says or hears. In 14-Down, the indicator is reportedly, and abandoned Doctor Who actor is the fodder. All you have to do is find the right synonyms for the fodder, in this case LEFT TENNANT. (Yes, there are over a dozen Doctors, but it’s not meant to be easy.) What does that sound like but the commanding officer LIEUTENANT? (Note that this does not work with the American pronunciation.)

A whacky variant of homophones involves spoonerisms, wordplay in which the starting sounds of two words or syllables are swapped, such as ‘tasting a worm’ for ‘wasting a term’. Though tricky to figure out they’re easily recognisable, ‘Reverend’ and ‘Spooner’ their only indicators (The Reverend Spooner their progenitor). In 16-Down, ditch is MOAT, moray EEL. Swap around their initial sounds to get porridge. Simple as that.

Words in clues will often stand for their abbreviations. Gold may manifest as AU or Germany as DE. Queen could be Q (as in a deck of cards) or ER (the initials of Elizabeth Regina, our current Queen), such as in 17-Across. The internet helpfully yields long lists of common crossword abbreviations. Additionally, letters are often cherry-picked from fodder by indicators like head, heart, or tail, meaning a word’s first, middle, and final letter respectively. Primary character in 7-Across is the letter C, never-ending in 28-Across the letter R. Seldom, yet more excitingly in their rarity, a visual clue gives you a hint as to what some of the letters actually look like. Egg or ring stands for O, glasses might be used for OO. Bear this in mind when solving Twin Peaks in 7-Across. The fodder’s odd or even letters can be indicated simply by the words odd and even, such as in 12-Down: Giant sees odd doors. Take the odd letters of GIANTSEES to get a word for doors. In ways such as this, specific letters can be inserted or deleted from words. Sometimes a word will be a container that goes around another part of the clue. For example, in 20-Across, Sister, SIS, goes around the smallest state, TAS, to make staying the same, STASIS.
Lastly, we have &lit. clues, customarily signalled with an exclamation mark. These both provide wordplay and literally define the answer. For instance, in 27-Across, Particular tone!, particular is the anagrind, tone the fodder. And, on top of this, the answer NOTE is literally a particular tone. These types of clues are delightfully devilish, as well as rare, but are often the most fun to solve.

Well, that’s a start. Even knowing all the different types of clues does not fully decode them; they aren’t called cryptic for nothing. The setter always says what they mean, but they mayn’t always mean what they say. If the bear in 22-Down makes you think of ursine mammalia, and the PMS in 1-Down makes you think of menses, then think again. Clue formatting, including punctuation and capitalisation will often lead you astray.

Give cryptic crosswords a go. You’ve gotten your ounce of knowledge so now all you need’s the ton of practice; it’s worth it. And if you feel like practising with a gang of the grandest peeps about, and having fun with other puzzles and games too, then join the shamelessly self-spruiking Crossword Society. Find us in Welcome Week, attend our Friday solving session, and get clued in.