How the f**k do you do a cryptic crossword?


If you want to look like a clever clogs, there’s no better way than to drop a completed cryptic crossword down on the table in front of an astonished crowd. But how on earth do you start? To a novice, cryptic crosswords look like the purest gibberish. But at the core of the crossword is a set of rules and techniques which are fundamentally very logical. To celebrate the Oxford Student’s new cryptic, here’s a guide to the basics.

We’ll start with the structure of the clue. Cryptic crossword clues almost always come in two parts: the definition and the wordplay. The definition is a literal (though sometimes rather obtuse) synonym for the solution, like that you would find in a non-cryptic crossword. It’s always found at the beginning or at the end of the clue. The wordplay is a bit more complicated; it’s a combination of indicators that, when put together in the right way, also give the solution. Every solution is therefore clued twice over.

Theoretically, you could do a cryptic without knowing what any of the solutions actually mean just by using the wordplay; equally, if you had an impossible large vocabulary you could do it just using the definitions. Most people use a combination of the two, using the wordplay to guide them towards the definition and to check their answers.

One of the first tasks in doing a clue involves finding the line between the two parts. To do that, you need to know how to spot the various different types of wordplay. One of the most basic is the anagram. Setters indicate an anagram using words like “jumbled”, “throws”, “electrified”, or anything else that suggests movement. Here’s an example:

Sudden foxtrot shakes paper (6,7)

“Shakes” is a clear anagram indicator, so you’d shuffle “sudden foxtrot” to reveal “OXFORD STUDENT”- the esteemed publication behind this article. It’s basically word-algebra: suddenfoxtrot*about = Oxford Student = paper.

Another common clue is the “double definition”. These don’t have wordplay; instead they have, as the name suggests, two definitions. The goal is to find a word which suits both. As such:

Republican fratricide (4)

would be CAIN, referring to both failed presidential candidate Herman and the biblical brother of Abel.

Other clues build up a solution from a combination of smaller words and individual letters, like the following:

City where none cross bridge (6)

“None” often stands for “o”, “cross” can be “x” and “bridge” can be synonymous for “ford”. Put it all together and you get the city you’re looking for, OXFORD.

Learning all the various tricks setters use to indicate letters is one of the hardest parts of doing cryptic crosswords. Chess notation, roman numerals, cricket terminology (“duck” for “o”) and acronyms (“spies” for “cia”) all appear frequently. Some are particularly obscure: “sailor” often means “ab”, an abbreviation of the naval term “able seaman”. There are hundreds of such clues, and the only way to learn them all is to just keep doing crosswords.

There are also many other ways of manipulating the words in order to reach an answer. “About” as well as being an anagram indicator can also mean turning the word back to front. “Beheaded” can indicate that you should remove the first letter, while words like “endless” suggest removing the last. These indicators are numerous, but generally can be worked out with a decent dose of lateral thinking.

Of course, it’s not always that simple. Several different elements of wordplay can be present inside of one clue. It’s all a matter of breaking down the clue into its constituent parts and then piecing the solution back together. Here’s one more complicated example:

Confused ad man goes left, east initially to find school bit of University (8, 7)

Here we have an anagram (from “confused”) of “ad man” with the first letters of “goes left east” (indicated by “initially”), followed by another word for school, giving us one part of the University, MAGDALEN COLLEGE.

You’ve probably noticed that the answers have very little to do with the literal or “surface” reading of the clue. This is often deliberate, as setters will use the images conjured up by the clue in order to lead the reader away from the solution. On some occasions, though, the setter can write an “& lit.” clue, where the surface meaning of the clue is the definition. In these cases, there’s frequently no distinction between definition and wordplay, making them tricky to solve. Here’s a simple example:

Some insane Roman (4)

The answer is NERO; it’s hidden inside “insaNE ROman” (indicated by “some”), while the whole clue describes the solution. These types of clues are the holy grail of the crossword enthusiast, requiring exceptional craftiness from the setter.

The key to cryptic crosswords, as with many things, is practice. With time, experienced puzzlers can spot an anagram from a mile away and will be able to tell definition from wordplay at a glance. Start with the new Oxford Student cryptic, of course, but if you want more all the major daily papers have them. The Independent and the Telegraph do a good basic one, while the Guardian’s tends to be more eccentric and witty. The ultimate is the Times, regarded as the gold standard, though their strict adherence to a set of rules can make it a bit dull. At the other end of the spectrum is the wonderfully smutty Private Eye crossword, which combines political satire with lots and lots of penis jokes. But whichever you choose, cryptic crosswords can be a challenging, entertaining and rewarding way to waste truly massive amounts of time. And with that, there’s just one last thing to say:

Doug lost with interminable Locke provides encouragement (4,4)

Which is to say, GOOD LUCK.


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