CTS #22: The Cryptic Crossword

Man, I hate these @#$% things.

Cryptic crosswords are not considered “mutants” in their natural habitat. In fact, often enough, they’re simply called “crosswords.” Strange as this may seem to American sensibilities, there are some British solvers who treat them as the default setting. When I was in Oxford, I even met some who didn’t seem to be aware there was any other kind!

That’s purely anecdotal, though. If this were a Wikipedia article, somebody’s probably be dropping a “[citation needed]” on that last paragraph like a judge’s gavel. Had I but known I’d be writing about such things today, five years after my six-month citizenship in Britain, I would’ve saved the publications that my impoverished self usually grabbed from a public tea room or a train seat, instead of doing my best to put them out of mind.

What puts cryptics in the mutant category is the way their structure differs from the American standard. Uncrossed squares are not only permitted but encouraged: they make up about half the puzzle’s total structure. In their defense, their constructors take advantage of that more open structure to use fewer uncommon words than their American counterparts. “Crosswordese” is almost unknown, and even “frequent repeaters” like OREO don’t see a lot of play. Cryptics’ answers tend to be longer and more interesting, on the average, than their counterparts in the States. So there’s that.

Further compensating for the frequency of uncrossed squares, cryptics give solvers two separate clues per answer—one of them literal, one of them wordplay-related. Isn’t that nice of them?

Oh, but they don’t tell you which clue is which, or where one clue begins and the other ends.

For the life of me, this scrambles all my solving circuits. I’m no speed solver, but my dad and I can generally handle the Sunday Shortz in an hour or so, but I’ll stare and stare and stare at a fistful of clues in a cryptic for the same amount of time and rarely get anywhere. It– they just– RRRRRRRRRR

(Accompanying image attributed to “milkybutt,” and yes, I’m as surprised to be typing that as you are to be reading it.)

But they do tell you how many letters each word of the answer is, as if that’s supposed to be helpful. In a way, it has helped me, actually. I’ve learned to read those little numbers in parentheses– (8), (3), (5,7)– as victims trapped within a cryptic’s spiderweb, shouting at me to “RUN, RUN! IT’S TOO LATE FOR US, BUT YOU CAN SAVE YOURSELF! RUN!”

This series isn’t meant to be “my guide to myself, crosswords, and me.” But given my difficulties, and my limited experience with this type, I hope you’ll forgive my leaning on Wikipedia for this one. Fortunately, although some of their crossword coverage is sadly lacking, their cryptic crossword article only needs a few more citations and updated links to be pretty much awesome. It does run long even by “Callin’ Them Squares” standards, though, so I’ll summarize as best I can here.

Cryptic clues break down into the following categories. Throughout this section, all the bolding and italics are mine, not to be found in actual cryptic crosswords. (I’ve even left out some italics where they would normally go, in the titles of books and TV shows and such.)

Cryptic definitions. These are basically the clues with question marks that you see in American puzzles, denoting Burns and Allen-style puns. Yet you won’t find these in American cryptics, oddly enough, which like their non-cryptic counterparts follow the lead of the New York Times, as established by Emily Cox and Henry Rathvon. A peculiar mercy, but I’ll take it.

A word of praise? (8): ALLELUIA
The flower of London? (6): THAMES
That guy’s going to land far, far below? (4): HELL

Note that punctuation is irrelevant in the answers: HE’LL=HELL.

Double definitions. Two or more literal definitions at once. Often short.

Not seeing window covering (5): BLIND [not seeing / window covering]
Eastern European buff (6): POLISH [Eastern European / buff]
Let in or let on (5): ADMIT [Let in / let on]

Hidden words. The letter string of the answer is hidden in the clue, alongside a synonym and a clue-type “indicator” like “in part”, “partially”, “in”, “within”, “hides”, “conceals”, “some of”, and “held by,” or (if the concealment is at the beginning or end of a string) “start of,” “beginning of” “starts,” “begins,” “ends,” “finishes,” “end of” or dozens of other possibilities.

“Indicator words,” coy little references to what kind of clue the puzzle is, are thus a third type of clue not clearly distinguished or separated from the other two. This makes the clues even more misleading. And yet, British people seem to think this is enjoyable. And some Americans, too, judging from the form’s occasional appearances over here. Bizarre.

Found ermine, deer hides damaged (10): UNDERMINED
Introduction to do-gooder canine (3): DOG
Crossword essayist skulking in boot camp, Bellevue (1, 8): T CAMPBELL

Reversals. These contain a synonym, an indicator and the synonym of a word which, when spelled backward, makes the answer. I think it’s only fair to put the indicators at the beginning or end of the clue, next to the synonym of the reversed word. Otherwise, how could the solver tell which way the answer would go?

Returned beer fit for a king (5): REGAL [LAGER]
Italian isle is strong coming up (4): ELBA [ABLE]
Returning sweet things emphasized (8) STRESSED [DESSERTS]


Beer returning fit for a king (5): REGAL or LAGER?

That would be cruel, even by cryptic standards.

“Charade” clues. Individually clued words join together into the final answer. Indicator words can be used but aren’t required.

Outlaw leader managing money (7): BANKING [BAN + KING]
Spotted and unfrozen (7): NOTICED [NOT + ICED]
Big-name actor’s walk becomes sci-fi blockbuster (4,4): STAR TREK [STAR + TREK]

Containers. One set of letters goes inside another.

Apostle’s friend outside of university (4): PAUL
Sharp-witted ruler seizes the present (7): KNOWING
King Lear, for example: elder consumed in attempt (7): TRAGEDY

Anagrams. Yeah, you know these.

Chaperone shredded corset (6): ESCORT
Doctor Who sequel is Doctor Who done wrong (9): TORCHWOOD
Lap dancing friend (3): PAL

Homophones. Zzzzzz. If the two homophones are of equal length, the indicator should only be adjacent to one of them.

We hear twins shave (4): PARE [PAIR]
Ruler seems to say “Grab that woman!” (5, 3): SEIZE HER [CAESAR]
Sound nice helping each other (13): COMPLEMENTARY [COMPLIMENTARY]

Initialisms. You know what? I’m pretty sure you can pick these up. I gotta say, tooth-gnashing as these are to solve, they’re kind of fun to make…

Initially amiable person eats some primates (3): APES
At first, actress needing new identity emulates orphan in musical theatre (5): ANNIE
I‘m thinking somebody told Oliver or Lonnie about their Ecdysiasm For Beginners– Their time’s up (3, 3, 4): IT’S TOO LATE

Odd or even clues. Just look at every other letter. Heh heh. I’m starting to see how the British papers were seduced.

Odd stuff of Mr. Waugh is set for someone wanting women to vote (10): SUFFRAGIST
Cars film, you’ve even made psychohistory: ASIMOV

You could probably manage a “second of all” or “third of all” cryptic clue for second and third letters of each word, once a year, if you skipped town and changed your name immediately afterward.

Deletions. These break down further into beheadments, curtailments, and internal deletions.

Beheaded celebrity is sailor (3): [S]TAR
Shout “Read!” endlessly (3): BOO[K]
Challenging sweetheart heartlessly (6): DAR[L]ING

Wikipedia also cites visual clues, where “spectacles” becomes “OO” because those two letters together kind of look like spectacles. You could make “infinity” into “OO” too, or “jumping jack” into “X.” But it’s virtually impossible to build a whole word out of such visual resemblances. You pretty much have to use them in combination with other techniques if you want any results. Which brings us right to…

Combination clues. This is where they mash all those previous techniques together, for people who don’t feel like the original stuff is challenging enough.

Illustrious baron returns in pit (9): HONORABLE (BARON reversed in HOLE)
Cruel to turn part of Internet torrid (6): ROTTEN (NETTOR reversed)
Bored question sounds like gym entanglement (3, 3): WHY NOT? (Y KNOT)

Finally, you’ve got the “& lit.” clue, short for “and literally so,” or the literal clue if you want to be literal about it. This clue fits one of the types cited above, but it doubles as a real clue– er, sorry, I mean an American-style clue. Some publications have used exclamation points to announce them– but in most, they simply have to content themselves with their accomplishment without shouting it out to the heavens. In fact, American cryptics’ clues usually only use punctuation to make themselves look more like real phrases, not to indicate anything about the type of clues they are.

God incarnate, essentially! (4): ODIN
Spoil vote! (4): VETO [Anagram, like you haven't already noticed that]
e.g., Origin of goose (3): EGG

Depending on their audience, cryptic crossword constructors might make liberal or conservative use of the list of commonly-practiced crossword abbreviations. I think some of these are the cryptics’ equivalent of crosswordese– really, how many non-regular cryptic solvers look at “engineer” and think “me” for “mechanical engineer?” Others, though, like F for Fahrenheit and L for fifty, seem perfectly reasonable. Constructors– or “compilers,” as the Brits call them– should use them, albeit with caution.

I expect I will. Because now, at the end of it all, I have to admit there is a certain rococo beauty to so much wordplay packed into such a small space.

Have I been converted? Not completely. I doubt that putting this chapter together has given me an expert-level ability to solve cryptics, but I have ended up with a little bit of an urge to make a few.

And besides…

Why should I be the only one to suffer?

About T Campbell

T Campbell is a crossword constructor and comics scriptwriter. Among his cruciverbal accomplishments are the Ubercross C-Spot (the largest puzzle to follow New York Times standard rules), Crossworlds, a collection of 50 science-fiction-themed puzzles, and the forthcoming On Crosswords: Callin' Out Them Squares.
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14 Responses to CTS #22: The Cryptic Crossword

  1. donald says:

    Well, of course you do, there’s no competition!

  2. bob stigger says:

    This is sort of like having my father-in-law (who believes dinner means a plate bearing something brown, something green and something white) write a review of Alinea.

  3. Tuning Spork says:

    Well, it’s a nice primer. All I knew about cryptics was that they’re one part straight definition and one part incomprehensible. (And I can definately see how cryptic clues are a lot more fun to write than to solve. )

    Looking at the examples — and even knowing what type of clue it is — it’s still a challenge to see the answer. Not knowing which type a given clue is, for me, makes it too much effort to put into a decryption that doesn’t involve national security.

    The only cryptic I ever made any meaningful headway in was one that BEQ posted about two years ago. I got half-way through it. I was satisfied with that and haven’t seriously attempted one since. :-) (Although, I do eat up the “Puns and Anagrams” second Sunday puzzles when they appear.)

  4. sps says:

    Great intro and summary of cryptics, tho there is one key point you didn’t mention, something which throws a lot of people: you have to ignore all punctuation. That’s what makes a clue like (That guy’s going to land far, far below? (4): HELL) possible, as the answer can either be read as HE’LL or HELL. Of course, the punctuation in the clue is often misleading or at least intentionally distracting…

  5. John Haber says:

    I don’t care for the dismissive tone. If you don’t like them, don’t do them and don’t write about them. As I learned as a child, if you don’t have anything constructive to say, don’t say anything.

    But a correction anyhow. American cryptics don’t allow what you call “cryptic definitions.” When you do see a question mark, it’s to flag that the clue (usually the definition half alone) is a bit of a stretcher, whereas an exclamation point flags something I don’t believe you mention, an “&lit.” clue, in which the entire clue functions both as definition and as wordplay. However, Cox/Rathvon proposed using punctuation in whatever way best supports “suface sense,” or how the clue reads (deceptively) apart from how you break it apart to solve it.

  6. Noam D. Elkies says:

    A few further notes: misleading surface readings are a plus (“ermine, deer hides” suggests animal pelts, not playground games); a charade that just breaks up “star trek” into its component words is not as interesting as say “start re K” [the clue for "re K" could be "about a King", which also incorporates the blind alley of using "about" as an containment indicator"]; and STRESSED has 8 letters, not 7.

  7. Dan Chall says:

    I’m glad to see that this post seems a bit more balanced than the shorter one that briefly appeared yesterday. That one seemed overloaded with the hating. I’ll also point out that the apparently pejorative term “mutant” is meaningful only relative to the arbitrary conventions of the US version. (One might even argue that it’s over-permissive to let a solver declare a correct solution without providing an explicit answer for each of the clues.)

    You seem to say “this scrambles all my solving circuits” as if that’s a bad thing! No diversion would be worthy of the name “puzzle” if it didn’t. I’m not looking for a vocabulary (or geography or general knowledge) exam for fun. My favorite type of US-style clues are the ones with the most misdirection, and that’s the soul of the cryptic crossword.

    Come hang out at the cryptics forum attached to Amy’s blog: http://www.crosswordfiend.com/forum/viewforum.php?f=3&sid=4ef8b7522611ace66332ddaa6862ce3f. The participants post, solve, and critique their own clues, and discuss published puzzles.

  8. pannonica says:

    Just wanted to second what John Haber said about “cryptic definitions.” American-style cryptics are much more rigid in hewing to standards than the British style, and I appreciate that clues such as those have no place on this side of the Atlantic, save true oddities like “Puns & Anagrams” puzzles.

  9. T Campbell says:

    Dan, I’m sorry to hear that it sounds like an early draft of the chapter was released briefly before this one. I wasn’t done with it until fairly late yesterday. Still fighting deadlines a bit, but I’m determined to wrap this series up by the end of August. The term “mutant” isn’t especially pejorative, it just means that the grid defies Shortzian law with its (usual) inclusion of uncrossed squares.

    John, sorry the comedy didn’t do it for you this time out, but I think you’re confusing “aggravated” with “dismissive.” If I were truly dismissive of cryptics, this chapter would be one sentence long. I think the last few paragraphs sum up my feelings fairly neatly, and I’m interested in the full emotional range of the solving experience.

    On the other hand, I am happy to stir up a little defense of cryptics in this comment section, especially when they’re as eloquent as Dan’s.

    Dan, John, pannonica, Noam: good corrections and additions, and I’ve incorporated them into the revisions.

  10. Peter Biddlecombe says:

    I quote:

    “Man, I hate these @#$% things.” (your first sentence)

    “And yet, British people seem to think this is enjoyable. And some Americans, too, judging from the form’s occasional appearances over here. Bizarre.”

    No wonder people were “confused” about your view of cryptics.

    Cryptics are harder work than US-style puzzles for beginners, but there are people who think the effort is worth it.

    And you’re still way off-beam about our awareness of other types of crossword. If you counted up the number of non-cryptic and cryptic crosswords available in a newsagents in the UK, the non-cryptics would win hands down. Most newspapers have both, and most crossword magazines are entirely or almost entirely non-cryptic.

    One reversal answer is the wrong way round, or at best ambiguous: “Italian isle is strong coming up” leads most naturally to ELBA, with the reversal indicator “coming up” (presumably this was a down clue) applying to ABLE = strong.

  11. T Campbell says:

    Peter, you’re absolutely right about ELBA/ABLE and I’m embarrassed I missed that. Fixed.

    With regard to my opinions, hey, I’m complex. I’m allowed to enjoy things while wearing one hat and find them incredibly frustrating while wearing another. This whole series has maintained a personal and irreverent flavor, and I’m not going to stop now: I think that keeping a somewhat dry subject lively is worth the risk of occasional offense.

    With regard to the familiarity with Western-style puzzles, I quote:

    “(Granted, some British publications do distinguish between cryptic and Americanesque crosswords. But I didn’t see that distinction made in any of the publications I picked up during my half-year in Oxford.)”

    This is why I made the relatively gentle assertion that there were some solvers who didn’t know about the American type, not that it was universally unknown in London. There are also some American solvers who think Will Shortz writes every crossword in the New York Times, or every crossword in every paper.

  12. Peter Biddlecombe says:

    I’m still puzzled as to when those six months were, and what publications you read.

    You’re got mixed up about exclamation points in &lits: they have never been a requirement in British cryptics. Some US editors of cryptics have insisted on them in the past, but many now seem to have realised that making them compulsory is pretty much the same as putting “This is an &lit.” after the clue, and spoils the fun of realising what’s going on.

  13. T Campbell says:

    Made some further adjustments to the “& lit” section and to the first few paragraphs. I do quite clearly remember this feeling of being a solver in a strange land, and of asking my closest British friends about it, in 2006.

    But I can’t name source literature: it’s been too long, and at the time I didn’t have the keen interest in the crossword form that I have now.

  14. Tuning Spork says:

    Peter, as one fellow dork to another, you’re a Dork.


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