Many of us know someone who solves cryptic crosswords with some degree of success. But if we look at the cryptic crossword in our daily newspaper, the clues may seem like snippets of overheard conversations in some strange form of English. If we look at the solution published the next day, we may be able to understand a few of the answers. We can make a connection between some of the other answers and parts of their clues, but can't understand what the rest of the clue is about. At this point we may give up, convinced that we're too stupid to solve this kind of puzzle, or that solving them is a black art.

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.

What Makes a crossword Cryptic?

There's nothing special about the grids used for cryptic crosswords. All of the grids used for cryptic crosswords could be used for "straight" puzzles, and vice versa. Any use of different grids for cryptic and other puzzles is just a tradition. What makes a crossword cryptic is the use of cryptic clues. So, ...

What is a cryptic clue?

The usual explanation goes like this:
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.

An instant history

Although those with the time to spare in Victorian England enjoyed acrostics and similar puzzles, the puzzle generally recognised as the world's first crossword appeared in the 1913 Christmas edition of an American newspaper's Sunday magazine section. This puzzle had quite a lot in common with those still published in American newspapers. In 1924 books of puzzles were the first books published by Simon and Schuster (under a different name), and started a serious crossword craze, which soon spread to Britain. By the early 1930s, most British newspapers had a crossword puzzle.

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.

A hard fact to chew on

When I say 'solving', I should say 'attempting to solve'. You can't learn to solve cryptic crosswords just by reading web sites or books. Real progress requires regular practice. This practice will inevitably include making mistakes, and not getting very far with some puzzles. It may take you several years to reach the point where you can be confident of finishing most broadsheet newspaper puzzles, but persistence and determination will pay off in the end.

'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?".

Crossword terminology

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.
Term Definition
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 
checking  See unch 
compiler  See setter
concise  what the Independent calls its definition puzzle. The Times used this name for a while too.
constructor  See setter 
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: 
  • amending clues before solving them - e.g. by removing a surplus word, or changing a letter in one word of the clue
  • encoding or amending some answers before writing them in the grid
  • working out all or part of the structure of the grid
  • identifying a theme or quotation which enables you to complete unclued or apparently impossible parts of the grid. 
Sometimes you're told what the gimmick is, sometimes discovering it is part of solving the puzzle.
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

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Editor: Peter Biddlecombe
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