How to solve a cryptic crossword

Teachers need to be good lateral thinkers – how else to handle Year 9 on a Friday afternoon? So, says Rob Jacques, they should try their hand at the Tes cryptic crossword

Rob Jacques

Crossword puzzle, with pencil

As with some other puzzle types, such as sudoku or kakuro, there is a requirement to understand how cryptic crossword puzzles work before being able to tackle them successfully. 

In the case of “quick” or “coffee-break” puzzles, this isn’t necessary. A sample clue might be Overcast (6) which fairly obviously gives CLOUDY.

Similarly, general-knowledge puzzles usually contain clues to which the solver either knows the answer, or does not: for example, 1973 FA Cup winners (10).

Cryptic-crossword clues are written in code, and solvers need to understand how to recognise which type of code has been used, in order to unscramble them. 

There are rules, but these are much more malleable than in mathematics or physics. The setter – or compiler – of the puzzle will often attempt to use misdirection to encourage the solver to look in the wrong place. Each clue is a miniature piece of creative writing, which contains some sort of cryptic wordplay and a definition of the answer. The challenge for the solver is to figure out which is which, and why.

The main categories of cryptic-clue types are as follows:

1. Anagrams

A cryptic clue using an anagram – a rearrangement of letters – is a very common device. For some solvers, it’s the easiest type to solve. However, some are easier than others to spot. For example: 

The port of New Orleans (7) = SALERNO

Dicing with communism turned out to be Corbyn’s worst nightmare (7,8) = DOMINIC CUMMINGS

In both these clues, there is a definition (the port) or (Corbyn’s worst nightmare), some coded letters (Orleans, dicing + communism) and an indication that they are jumbled, or an instruction to decode them (new, turned out). There is an extensive and ever-expanding list of anagram indicators, which runs to a few hundred.

2. Charades

A charade type of clue is one where the answer is broken down into consecutive parts, which are hinted at independently in the wordplay.

English poet’s humourless study (6) = DRYDEN (dry=humourless + den=study. The definition is “English poet [is]”.)

3. Spoonerisms

The Rev Spooner, the Oxford cleric who famously transposed the beginnings of words or their vowel sounds, is celebrated in crosswordland:

Top actor Rhames under pressure, according to Spooner (6,4) = STRING VEST

The definition is “top” and Spooner might have said VING (Rhames) STRESSED (under pressure).

4. Homophones

This type of clue – a soundalike – can often fall foul of regional pronunciation variations, but can be quite fun:

Fruit rock from England hawked in a Sydney market? (11) = POMEGRANATE

The definition is “fruit” and someone “hawking” at a market in Australia might shout out something sounding like POMMIE GRANITE (a rock from England).

5. Double definition

Many solvers – me included – find these quite difficult. Generally speaking, the clues consist of two words which can both define the answer:

Season well (6) = SPRING

Head teachers (3) = NUT

6. Cryptic definition

A cryptic definition is a phrase in which the definition is cryptically described in the wordplay:

It helps writer to come to the point (6,9) = PENCIL SHARPENER

7. Container

This very common type of clue generally has an instruction to insert something from one part of the wordplay into another:

Liberal politician getting stuck into the beer (5) = AMPLE

The definition is “Liberal” and the wordplay suggests putting MP (politician) “into” ALE (beer).

8. Hidden words/embeds/lurkers

This type of clue is rather like a wordsearch puzzle:

Chancellor Angela adopting vulnerable Indonesian resident (5) = ORANG

The definition is “vulnerable Indonesian resident” hidden in Chancellor Angela with “adopting” suggesting the inclusion.

Aussie hunk turned up in Wicksteed nude lido…cor! Crikey! (9,6) = CROCODILE DUNDEE

The definition is “Aussie hunk” and the letters of CROCODILE DUNDEE “turned up” ie reversed, can be seen “in(side)” the clue. 

Other common clue types include acrostics (first letters of words, often clued by “heads of”), alternate letter clues (often clued by “regularly” or “ignoring the odds”) and removal of letters from the wordplay (quite often the first letter, perhaps clued by “headless” or “topless” in a down clue). 

It’s also important to be able to recognise single-letter abbreviations, of which there are many listed in the dictionary, including those in the Nato phonetic alphabet (J=Juliet etc), and to be able to spot other indicators used for single letters (Head of Russians=R, Trump finally=P, etc).

'Like understanding rules of algebra'

Understanding how these clue types work is essential to solving cryptic crosswords, in exactly the same way as learning the ground rules of algebra is essential to advanced mathematics.

There are numerous academic studies which show that the brain age can be extended by solving a cryptic puzzle every day.

Using crosswords as a teaching aid, or solving puzzles in a small groups – whether in the staffroom, the office canteen or the pub – can be a fun and rewarding experience.

Rob Jacques compiles the Tes crossword, available exclusively in Tes magazine. Subscribe here

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