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 “” 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?
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
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 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.
Why should I be the only one to suffer?