A Guide to Solving Cryptic Crosswords

A Cryptic Crossword

A little challenge I’ve given myself over the past couple days is trying to solve a cryptic crossword puzzle. What is a cryptic crossword puzzle? It is a type of crossword puzzle where each clue is a puzzle in itself. The real challenge of cryptics is actually figuring out what the question is asking you. Once you do this the answer becomes very quickly apparent.

Its been a fair challenge to figure out but I thought I would share with you what I’ve learned so far.

There is a steep learning curve to cryptics. It often requires recognizing certain words in the clue that direct you to solve the clue in a specific manner. These various manners are relatively consistent and include double definitions, hidden words, reversals, cryptic answers, anagrams, and more that I don’t totally understand yet. The best way to learn is to jump right in, so here is our first example clue (from Wikipedia):

Found ermine, deer hides damaged (10)

You’ll notice that when read as a sentence the clue makes almost no sense. This is the case for almost all cryptic clues. Remember that this isn’t the Jeopardy style crosswords that you are used to. The clue itself won’t direct you to the answer, it is a puzzle within itself.

I have found that the best way to start solving a clue it to do two things: look for a ‘style’ clue and trying to split the clue into two parts. Almost every clue can be split into one part that gives a rough synonym of the word (sometimes they are very misleading) and another half that gives you the tools to solve the clue. The split between these parts is often in an unexpected spot. So in this clue, you might assume that it is the comma, which is wrong. A good way to find the split is to look for the ‘style’ clue. These are often verbs. hides is the ‘style’ clue in this cryptic and it tells us that this is a hidden word style, meaning that the word is actually hidden within the other words of the clue. If you had read the clue as a sentence you would have read hides as skins, but again, nothing is as it seems.

You’ll be happy to know that the hard part is finished. Next, we have to find where the answer is hiding. The (10) at the back tells us how many letters are in the answer was two words it would read (4,6) or something of the sort. Because hides is our divide between the two sections we can look at damaged and see that it has only 7 letters in it, which isn’t enough for our solution. We then move to Foundermine, deer and, looking within it we find

Found ermine deer,

The solution to this clue is undermined, a ten letter word contained within the first half of the cryptic and is somewhat synonymous with damaged, the second half of the cryptic. The nice thing about cryptics is that when you get the answer you are 100% sure you are right unlike regular crosswords that can sometimes have several ‘correct’ answers to a question.

Okay, on to another clue. This one is a bit tougher (which seems impossible, I know).

Returned beer fit for a king (5)

Again, we start by looking for a ‘style’ clue or cutting the cryptic in half. Like last time, the ‘style’ word is a verb, but unlike last time it doesn’t sit in the break between the halves. Returned is the ‘style’ word and it indicates a reversal. Other clues for a reversal can be ‘receding’, ‘in the mirror’, ‘going the wrong way’, or ‘rising up’ (for vertical solutions), and ‘going left’ for horizontal ones. This ‘style’ involves reading a word backward to get the solution.

Our next step is to figure out where the break in the cryptic is. Because Returned comes immediately before beer it would be a good assumption that they want you to read beer backwards, spliting the cryptic into beer and fit for a king, where fit for a king is our rough definition or synonym. The only problem is that the solution contains 5 letters (as indicated in the parentheses) and beer only has 4 letters. Here is where a scrap piece of paper comes in handy. If you think (and write down) all of the synonyms for beer with 5 letters in them you will eventually come up with lager. Reading lager backwards (as indicated by returned) we ret regal, something that is fit for a king. It sounds like a huge leap of thinking, but it is incredibly satisfying when you get an answer.

Here’s a fun one (maybe its just me who thinks its fun). Its also a pretty straightforward one.

I’m a leader of Muslims!

Before we start this one, an important point should be made. You should always ignore capitals and any punctuation in a cryptic, they are only there to mislead you. The only exceptions to this rule is when the cryptic ends in a ! or ?. A ! indicates that the cryptic can’t be broken into two discreet parts or that the whole word is a definition. A ? indicates a need for a dramatically different interpretation of the words.

This clue could actually be one that you would see in a traditional crossword and you might be able to guess the answer right away: Imam. Further inspection will confirm this. In this case the ‘style’ clue is the ! and leader of. When you see words like leader, follower or something that seems like a sort of hierarchy, it usually is. In this case we look at the leader of the word Muslims to get M (the first letter). When you put this letter after I’m a you get I’maM and ignoring punctuation and captials makes the solution even clearer. It is truly genius to be able to hide a solution in a question and that makes seeing it even cooler.

One more really hard one (I couldn’t get it):

Bishop turned on the gas light (6)

So initially I thought that turned was the ‘style’ clue and directed me to do a reversal (it being turned). I was way off however. Turns out that the break in the cryptic is between gas and light. Light is the definition/synonym and the rest is the tools to get there.

Now they throw a rather obscure reference at you. On a chess score sheet, the bishop is referred to as B. Chess is an unfortunately overly referenced part of cryptics. A synonym for turned on is ‘lit’ and a elemental symbol for a gas (helium) is ‘HE’. Put these all together and you ge B+LIT+HE= Blithe. Blithe is a rather unused word now. It dates to before the 12th century and means being joyous and happy or light-hearted. (I guess its the opposite of dreary). Hence the second half of the cryptic, light. How you would ever make those jumps blows me away.

Search around the internets and you’ll find some free cryptics. A good site by GP Tucker has them here.

There is also a some places to learn about other styles that come up (there are quite a few more than are mentioned here). This is a good one.

I’ll post 3 more and see if any Terry readers can get them.

Equilibrium shown by graduate with weapon (7)

Gold metal of the mouth (4)

Counts on parts of swimming pools lacking extra opening (7)

Remember, getting the answer means nothing. To prove you got it you have to explain how you would get the answer.

Good luck!!

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Geoff is a 5th year student who studying a double major in Integrated Science (Evolutionary ecology, virology) and Political Science. He was the 'Wish' speaker at the 2008 Terry Talks and is passionate about university education, especially when it comes to interdisciplinary experiences. After graduation Geoff wants to find a job that allows him to meet people from all sorts of backgrounds and share stories. If your savvy enough you can follow Geoff on Twitter - user: gcosteloe.