A Puffin asked in the comments recently if someone could do a post on this, as he had always been interested in having a go at them but didn’t know where to start. So here goes! (Btw, I hope the many competent and experienced crossworders on here, including setters who are much better at this than I am, will forgive me for taking up their time in what, to them will be pointing out the bleedin’ obvious).
I should say at the start that I am not a natural crossword solver – I had to teach myself. At the start, I could do one or two clues, but that was it – my brain then seemed to shut off, however hard I stared at the clues. Once you get the hang of it, though, clues fall into various categories that you can recognise a bit more easily, and then you stand a better chance of a good rate of success. I used to keep two consecutive days’ copies of the newspaper, look at the solutions and then try to work the previous day’s clues out backwards from them, trying to understand how the clues were constructed. You will find eventually that you can even begin to tell one setter from another, as the setter’s personality will often come across in the types of clue preferred (some are more musical, some set lots of anagrams, etc).
First of all, always remember that these clues are cryptic. That means one or more meanings will be hidden in each clue, in a sort of code form. Easy to say ‘Yes, I know that’, but the setter will be trying to trick your mind into reading the clue in a literal manner. The best way to do this in my experience is to read each word in the clue separately. Your brain will naturally try to group words into meanings, so by treating each word individually you may get round this tendency and unlock hidden meanings.
Take an example from a recent DT crossword: ‘Bird is egg-producer with irregular brood (5)’. Now, first off, you probably think ‘But all birds are egg-producers. Which one has something funny about its brood?’ and try to think along those lines. That’s the wrong way to think. This is not asking you to think about what you know, as a general knowledge crossword would. A cryptic clue usually has the word you are looking for as the first or last part of the clue – in this case, ‘bird’ or ‘brood’. Now we have the word ‘irregular’ next to brood, and this is code for ‘take some of the letters out’. So we know we are looking (whole thing) for the other option – a ‘bird’. Now of course bird itself can have more than one meaning (female, avian creature, flipping someone the bird, etc), but let’s assume at the start that we are looking for one of our feathered friends. Let’s call the unknown x. So x = an egg-producer with irregular brood. An egg-producer is most likely a hen, and we know our answer needs 5 letters, and we are looking for a bird. So if we take two letters (following the ‘irregular’ code command), say, ‘ro’ out of ‘brood’, we have ‘henro’ to work with as an anagram, and we can get to ‘heron’ as a result.
This is just to introduce the concept of the cryptic clue. It will be designed to throw you off. Very little is linear, and there may be many layers of meaning to be negotiated.
Some types of clue you may encounter:
The fairly straightforward – this is the type, for example, which may contain an element where two things are spelt the same, but have different meanings, eg desert (as in leave) and desert (as in an arid wasteland). Perch (fish) and perch (sit lightly on something) is another example. It may help to read the clue out loud. A fairly straightforward clue can also just be asking you to think in a slightly different way from the obvious, eg Woolly jumper (5) might be ‘Sheep’. It’s woolly and it jumps. ‘Strains in the kitchen (8) might be ‘colander’ (it is used to strain things while cooking). Once you have cracked the double meaning, there is nothing more to it.
Insiders – these ask you to put a letter or letters in another word. ‘Planet where Len lives in promise’ (5) gives you ‘world’ (the whole thing we’re looking for is a planet, L stands for Len and if you give your promise you give your word, so put an L in it and you have your answer).
Going backwards – these need to be read the other way round, ie ‘put’ for ‘tup’ etc. The clue will generally include a code instruction like ‘returned’ or ‘reverse’. ‘Pat is hit backwards’ (3), for instance, gives ‘Tap’.
Some words in the clue may be asking you to substitute a short form, ie ‘good man’ can be ‘st’ and ‘doctor’ can be ‘GP, MO, DR, or MD’. A clue containing the phrase ‘in hospital’ may be an invitation to include the letters ‘ENT’ in your answer (that being shorthand for one type of hospital department). So ‘A good man and the rest’ (5) might be ‘stand’ (‘st’ plus ‘and’ gives us the word we are looking for, as ‘stand’ also means something you rest things on).
It will be useful to know a few Roman numerals, as a clue may contain five (tells you there is a V somewhere in the answer), ten (substitute X), a hundred (C), five hundred (D), a thousand (M) or fifty (L), for example.
The end of one … and the beginning of another
This is one of my favourite types of clue – they can be very sneaky but are sooo satisfying when you spot one! The answer is contained between two adjacent words. ‘Whisper ‘Tim is jaunty inside’ (4), for instance, would be ‘pert’. Notice the capital letter of T and the quotation marks are there to throw you off. As emphasised above, each word needs to be treated individually as you read it. The ‘inside’ is the nudge here to tell us where to look for the whole word (remember, the main clue to the word you are looking for should either be the beginning or the end of the clue, so either whisper or jaunty: in this case, jaunty).
These are often flagged up by a code instruction like ‘mix up’, ‘rearrange’ or a descriptor like ‘jumbled’, etc. It is aways helpful to write them out – some people prefer to do this in a line, some a circle, etc. Once you have identified your anagram, it is simply a question of working it out. So ‘Sit Sue, confused, in box’ (6) would tell us to ‘confuse’ the preceding letters sitsue to give ‘tissue’.
These are just a few of the many and varied things to look out for when you start trying to solve cryptic crossword clues. Much like politics (or life!), very little is as it seems on the surface. Good luck!
© Foxoles 2018