Cryptic Crossword Puzzles: a primer of sorts

January 31, 2012 | Alyson

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I recently learned that The Guardian has a blog for lovers of cryptic crossword puzzles.  

At last I have found some help solving English cryptic crosswords!  I've loved cryptic crossword puzzles for years, but often find the English puzzles too difficult. And by difficult, I mean impossible.  Of course there is the language barrier - their English just isn't the same as ours. Besides the idiomatic differences, so many of the clues and codes refer to cricket, a sport about which I know nothing.  But, there's also a cultural difference.  I think love of wordplay is an ancient English tradition.  You can hear it in their literature. Was there ever a better punster than Shakespeare?  Wasn't Lewis Carroll king of the spoonerism? Didn't Sheridan invent Mrs. Malaprop?  Okay, he was Irish, but you see what I mean.  Oh sure, we have our Rickyisms ("Let's get two birds stoned a once") courtesy of The Trailer Park Boys, but we just haven't been playing with language as long as they have.  In fact, the same Guardian blog includes a fascinating post on the differences between American and UK puzzles.

There are many on-line guides to solving cryptic crossword clues, some of which have been covered in posts on other blogs.  but they aren't what I want to focus on here. The library has excellent print sources for the newcomer.

I recommend the Random House Guide to Cryptic Crosswords to anyone  Random house guide to cryptic crosswordswanting to try this kind of wordplay.  It's an excellent book to ease you into the twisted world of cryptic clues - anagrams, double definitions, reversals, initialisms etc. - and it's easy enough to follow that you'll be rewarded quickly with your ability to solve basic puzzles. 

Cryptic clues look almost like regular sentences, but something is a bit off. Part of the clue is the definition: this comes either at the beginning or the end of the sentence or phrase (that's a rule).  The other words are a set of coded instructions on how to find the solution.

Here's a sample:

Nothing to hold a spike (4)

The definition is either nothing or spike. To make  it easier for new solvers, let's say the definition is spike. So, the words "nothing to hold a" are the instructions we use to find a four-letter word for spike. Nil is another word for nothing (and a common crossword answer). "To hold a" is literal, that is, Nil holds a to make Nail.

Here's another rule: there should be no extraneous words in a cryptic crossword clue. So, it's just that simple and confounding.


From square one If you're still reading and if you like words, wordplay and the oddities of the imagination, you  might also like From Square One: a meditation, with digressions, on crosswords.   Among the odd facts in the book is the story that mystery writer Colin Dexter named Inspector Morse and his sidekick, Sergeant Lewis, after a pair of top crossword puzzle solvers whose names kept appearing in The Observer

I am also intrigued by Dean Olsher's theory about why people are drawn to solving cryptics. "They force you to treat words, and therefore the world, with skepticism. The underlying message of the cryptic crossword is that yes, you were right, the world is out to deceive you."   Could be true. Could be baloney.  I just like unraveling a cleverly written clue.   I read somewhere  that according to crossword puzzle setters, the point of creating a puzzle is to lose gracefully.  Nicely put.

                                                                                                                                                                                                          Pretty girl in crimson rose

Pretty Girl in Crimson Rose(8): a memoir of love, exile and crosswords by Sandy Balfour is one of the library's hidden gems.  It's a quirky and original story of how cryptic crossword puzzles work - the rules, the etiquette, the devilishly clever setters. But peppered throughout are anecdotes describing how cryptic clues have reflected and commented on the major events in the author's life.  Funny, sweet and informative.

It occurs to me that two of the three books I've mentioned have a sort of non-linear approach to teaching the ins and outs of cryptic crossword puzzles. Maybe that's because you hardly ever solve a crossword puzzle by starting at the beginning.  You have scan the clues to find a way in. 

In the documentary Wordplay, crossword enthusiast and former POTUS (now there's a cryptic crossword clue - American politician pouts crookedly), Bill Clinton describes how crosswords hone problem-solving skills.

"Sometimes you have to go at a problem the way I go at a complicated crossword puzzle.  Sometimes, ...I'd go through way over half the clues before I'll know the answer to one. You start with what you know the answer to and you just build on it. I think a lot of difficult, complex problems are like that.  You have to find some aspect of it that you understand and build on it until you can unravel the mystery." 

Of course, the title of the Sandy Balfour book is a crossword puzzle clue. For the curious and impatient, here's the solution. If you hate spoilers, stop reading here:

Pretty girl in crimson rose (8)

pretty girl = belle

crimson = red

answer = re(belle)ed

Confused? Unimpressed? Unconvinced of the lure of the cryptic crossword?  You could always turn to the Sudoku, instead. But where's the fun in that?