This site is intended to help you to understand what cryptic crosswords are, how the clues work, and what you can do to start enjoying the puzzles in newspapers like the Times, Guardian, Independent or Daily Telegraph.
All cryptic clues consist of a definition of the answer, and separate wordplay which provides a set of instructions for constructing the answer.Some kinds of cryptic clue don't have this division into two parts, and this structural description fails to mention a feature which most good cryptic clues have, so this definition is a bit like saying that a cathedral is "a large building, lacking bedrooms, usually with large coloured windows and at least one dome, spire or tower". Here's an alternative:
A cryptic clue is a sentence or phrase, appearing to make some kind of sense and putting ideas into the solver's head. These often have little or nothing to do with the answer, which can be derived by interpreting all or part of the clue in ways which are less obvious.In other words, bluffing or deception is the whole point of a good cryptic clue. By the way, the apparent significance of the clue is often referred to as its "surface meaning", or just "surface" for short.
Two examples of this kind of deception: Old chestnut clue: "A wicked thing (6)" is a CANDLE - a candle has a wick, and this clue uses an invented instance of the -ed suffix, meaning "having with a wick". One from the Times (16/4/2009): "Island hunterís pessimistic expectation (6)" is TOBAGO = to bag 0 = nothing.
Although cryptic crosswords are published in the USA, cryptic crosswords largely belong to the British-influenced part of the English-speaking world. The cryptic element in clues was invented by 'Torquemada' in 1925 or 26, but spread gradually in newspaper puzzles. For instance, although the first (London) Times puzzle, published in 1930, contains some clues which would pass muster in a cryptic crossword today, it also uses ones which would now be considered unfair, and some which would be more at home in a straight puzzle. If you don't count quotation clues as cryptic, you could argue that the Times puzzle wasn't fully cryptic until Brian Greer banned them when he started his term as crossword editor in 1995.
In its 70-odd years of history, the cryptic crossword in Britain has changed quite a lot. Older puzzles placed a lot of emphasis on literature, using "fill the blank" quotation clues and oblique references to particular works, as well as literary knowledge. Since about 1950, there has been a loose alliance of setters who are concerned about ensuring that their clues are fair to the solver. Although there is no universally agreed set of rules about fairness, this concern has improved cryptic crosswords in general.
'Regular' means daily if possible. If you attempt less than one puzzle a week, progress will be slow. I quite often hear from less experienced solvers that they only look at a newspaper's Saturday puzzle, and keep returning to it until the solution appears. Although I admire the determination, this is actually a terrible way to learn. Frequent exposure to sets of clues and answers helps much more, even if you only solve a few of the clues (or even none) at first. The other thing to do these days is read the solving blogs which are linked on my main puzzles page. Reports from many other people who have done the same indicate that by reading the explanations of the answers and the various tips in the reports and comments, you can make progress much faster than solvers like me did when we could only look at a set of unexplained answers and often think "Yes, but why?".
You're not intended to read this glossary in full right now. Have a quick look, especially if you're new to this game, and refer to it if the cryptic crossword jargon baffles you later on.My intention in this glossary is to define the crossword terminology using words you can find in a fairly small dictionary. Where I've used a term also defined in this glossary, I've tried to link the term to its own definition. There are also links to the page defining the various Clue types.
|acronym||= initial letters - q.v. in Clue Types|
|advanced cryptics||A term sometimes used to describe the barred-grid puzzles in the Observer, Sunday Times, Sunday Independent, Sunday Telegraph, Spectator, Independent Magazine (Saturdays) and the Listener puzzle in the Saturday edition of the Times. The vocabulary used in these puzzles is much larger than in standard cryptics (anything in Chambers Dictionary is usually regarded as fair game), and the puzzles are often specials.|
|anagram||See Clue Types|
|barred grid||A grid with divisions between words indicated by thicker lines than those between letters in the same word (instead of solid black squares). Barred grids are traditionally associated with advanced cryptics, and normally have more checking than blocked grids. This is supposed to reduce the extra difficulty caused by the use of unusual words and gimmicks.|
|blocked grid||The kind of grid used in most daily newspaper puzzles. Squares which don't contain a letter are black or shaded.|
|build-up||= charade - q.v. in Clue Types|
|charade||See Clue Types|
|concise||what the Independent calls its definition puzzle. The Times used this name for a while too.|
|container||See Clue Types|
|cryptic definition||See Clue Types|
|definition puzzle||The opposite of a cryptic crossword - one where clues are usually definitions of the answers.|
|double definition||see Clue Types|
|enumeration||The most popular term for the word length(s) shown at end of a clue in parentheses, such as (4-8,5) for SEMI-DETACHED HOUSE. The methods used for multi-word answers vary. In some puzzles you would just get (17, 2 words), and apostrophes are now usually disregarded so that L'ELISIR D'AMORE is counted as (7,6). Hyphenations may be ignored, and you should not rely on your own impression of whether an entry should be hyphenated, or two separate words. Dictionaries often vary on this point, so there's often no "right answer".|
|fodder||A term for the words or letters on which some operation like anagramming is performed. It's most common in the phrase 'anagram fodder' - if a clue used a notorious anagram to clue ORCHESTRA, then 'CART HORSE' would be the anagram fodder. If that explanation sounded rather mathematical, that's no coincidence - it's often quite useful to think of clues as 'word-equations' when solving, complete with algebra-style sets of brackets to show which operations are done first.|
|gimmick||The extra element involved in a special
puzzle. This might be one or more of: |
|hidden word||See Clue Types|
|homophone||See Clue Types|
|jumbo||The title used by the Times for standard cryptics using a 23x23 grid (formerly 27x27). These used to be published only on public holidays and other special occasions, but now appear weekly too. 'Standard' is approximate here - like many other puzzles printed on a Saturday, they can be rather harder than those printed on weekdays. Similar puzzles also appear in other papers from time to time, especially on Bank Holiday weekends.|
|light||One of the most confusing terms used in cryptic crosswords. It seems to mean 'a word entered in the grid', but is sometimes used to describe clues too. The preambles for old-fashioned specials will often speak of things like 'unclued lights'. Modern ones will usually talk explicitly about 'clues' and 'grid entries' instead.|
|preamble||The instructions which often accompany specials. Sometimes you need to read them as carefully as any cryptic clue.|
|quick crossword||The title used by the Guardian and Daily Telegraph for their definition puzzles|
|reversal||See Clue Types|
|setter||What many British authors of cryptic crosswords like to be called. The more common term in the UK is 'compiler', but this implies that the clues have been acquired or edited rather than written afresh. In the US, the standard term (regardless of the type of puzzle) is 'constructor'.|
|special||This term is used to describe puzzles where you need to do more than solve cryptic clues and write the answers in the numbered position in the grid. You might be required to construct the grid or identify some theme linking otherwise unclued answers. Most specials are a subset of advanced cryptics, but the Guardian puzzle sometimes uses some of their gimmicks in a standard cryptic environment.|
|standard cryptic||This is the term I use in these pages to mean a cryptic puzzle of the type normally printed in British daily newspapers. The clues are cryptic, the diagram is blocked, and vocabulary is not supposed to require much use of a dictionary.|
|straight||a name for definition puzzles used in some UK puzzle magazines, with the implication that cryptic crosswords are somehow warped, crooked or bent.|
|subsidiary indication||An alternative name for wordplay|
|subtraction||See Clue Types|
|surface meaning||The apparent meaning of a cryptic clue. Often intentionally different from the real meaning. Frequently shortened to 'surface'.|
|unch||An unchecked letter in an answer in the grid. Checked letters are those which appear in both an Across and a Down answer. The other letters are unchecked, or unches for short. Some setters and crossword editors have standards about unches. Common ones for standard cryptics are: 'unches should not exceed half the letters in the answer', and 'triple unches are not allowed'.|
|Ximenean||Adjective for setters who follow the
standards set out by 'Ximenes' in his book 'Ximenes on the Art of the Crossword'.
Ximenes was the predecessor of Azed as the setter
of the Observer's barred grid puzzle. He was also
the successor of 'Torquemada', the strongest contender for the title 'inventor
of cryptic crosswords'. Most of Torquemada's puzzles would nowadays be
considered unfair, as well as extremely difficult. After a few years of
setting puzzles in the same style, Ximenes decided he needed to make things
fairer. The book sets out the principles he came up with. Some apply specifically
to barred grid puzzles, but many apply to cryptic clues in general.
This book was reprinted recently and is recommended if you want one of the key books in crossword history. But if you just want to understand the rules used in many current puzzles, Don Manley's Chambers Crossword Manual is probably a better source - the rules have not stood still for the 40-plus years since X's book.
|wordplay||The part of a cryptic clue that isn't the definition. In most types of clue, this gives you an alternative way of reaching the answer, such as a charade or anagram. This part of the clue has often been called the "subsidiary indication" in the past, but "wordplay" is now the most common name.|
|& lit.||See Clue Types|
|YAGCC Contents Page|
|Other material about cryptic crosswords on this site|