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Cryptic crossword

Cryptic crosswords are a particular type of crossword which have become widely popular in the UK and the Netherlands. (where they are known as cryptograms), though in the US they are less popular. Each individual clue is a word puzzle in and of itself (often involving anagrams). In the UK, The Times is particularly noted for the difficulty of its cryptic crossword; however, almost all the main broadsheet newspapers in the UK carry both cryptic and normal crosswords on a daily basis.

For example (taken from the Guardian crossword of Aug 6 2002, set by "Shed"):

Very sad unfinished story about rising smoke

is a clue for TRAGICAL. This breaks down as follows:

  • "Very sad" is a clue to the overall meaning - something which can be found in most clues.
  • "Unfinished story" gives "Tal" ("tale" with one letter missing, ie "unfinished")
  • "rising smoke" gives "ragic" (a "cigar" is a smoke, this is a downwards clue and so "rising" indicates it should be inserted backwards)
  • "about" means that the letters of "tal" should be put either side of "ragic", giving "tragical"

There are many "code words" which have special meaning within the cryptic crossword context (in the example above, "about", "unfinished" and "rising" all fall into this category) and learning these, or being able to spot them, is a useful and necessary part of becoming a skilled cryptic crossword solver.

Compilers or setters (or cruciverbalists as many term themselves) often use slang terms and abbreviations, generally without indication, so familiarity with these can be useful. Also words that can mean more than one thing are common, often the meaning the solver must use is completely different to the one it appears to have in the clue. Some examples of ambiguous words are:

  • Bloomer - often means flower (a thing that blooms),
  • Flower - often means river (a thing that flows),
  • Lead - could be the metal, or the verb, or the past tense of that verb,
  • Novel - could be a book, or a word for new, or a code-word indicating an anagram,
  • Permit - could be a noun (meaning licence) or a verb (meaning allow),

Table of contents

Types of clue

Pure cryptic

The original cryptic clue, more commonly known as a double entendre. Clues of this sort appeared in "straight" crosswords before cryptic crosswords existed. Here the clue appears to say one thing, but with a slight shift of viewpoint it says another. For example:

A word of praise? (8)

would give the answer ALLELUIA, a word used by Christians to praise God, but not what first springs to mind on reading the clue. Notice the question mark - this is often (though by no means always) used by compilers to indicate this sort of clue-that is one where you need to interpret the words in a different fashion. Another one might be:

The flower of London? (6)

which gives THAMES, a flow-er of London.

Other clues, of the types listed below, may be partially cryptic, that is the "definition" part is cryptic.

Double definition

A clue may have two definition parts, especially if it is short. Thus

Digs track. (5)

would have the answer HOME, because "home" can mean "house", or "digs" in slang, but it can also mean "search", hence "track".

Carriage ambush (4)

would give the answer TRAP


This is where the answer appears in the clue, but hidden somehow. For example:

Betrayed in part, she found ermine down there. (10)

gives UNDERMINED, which means (or could mean - sometimes definitions are a little shaky) "betrayed" and can be found as part of "she found ermine down there". Possible indicators of a hidden clue are:

  • in part / partially
  • in / within
  • hides / conceals / etc.
  • some (indicating some of the letters of the following)

Canine, partially a dogooder-DOG.

Note: this should be confused with beginning, middle or end of word clues.

Hidden backwards

Sometimes a word may not just be hidden but hidden backwards such in the clue:

Net torrid? Its completely backward. Answer: ROTTEN.

If it was down clue it might say: "Net torrid? Look up something." These works just as well because you need to write the hidden clue upwards, not downwards.


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', or any other term indicating change. One example might be:

Rudely decline a copy of information resource. (12)

gives ENCYCLOPEDIA, which is an information resource and an anagram of 'decline a copy', indicated by the word 'rudely'.

Specialist vocubalary clues

Sometimes the answer to clues is quite straight-forward but needs to know dialects or language for example:

Glaswegian snacks (6) is PIECES which is the Glaswegian dialect for snack.

Another example is Cockney hat (6) which is TITFER.

Using languages a Roman cat (6) is FELINE.

Cryptic puzzle solvers need to know about Greek and Celtic myth, science, geography, world history, maths, etc.

Sometimes such a clue can mislead. For instance Danish foodstuff (6) is PASTRY.

Specialist Vocubalary Jigsaw clues

In fact there doesn't appear to be a commonly agreed term for this, perhaps the most common form of clue. Here the clue is in "pieces". The "tragical" clue near the beginning of the article is an example of such.

These clues are the main ones for using slang and abbreviations together with a great many other tricks. Consider the following:

Tribunal causes company 'arm. (5)

The answer is COURT, that is CO for company and URT, which is "hurt" with the h dropped, just as it was from "harm" in the clue. The word "causes" makes no contribution and is merely put in to make a sentence of the clue. Some compilers would look down on this construction, but such things are very common. The THAMES above would be another version of that.

Abbreviation clues

In order to solve these, you need to know certain abbreviation clues. Take this clue:

Worker of Germany around the middle confesses (7)

Worker is ANT, of Germany is DES, around is C (or circa), the middle bit says put the C between DES and ANT making DESCANT. There are a number of crossword abbreviations[?].

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