How to solve cryptic crosswords

Once you know the basics, cryptics are actually easier than regular crosswords.

Wordplay is all around us – in advertising, newspaper headlines, the nicknames we give each other, even the lame jokes our dads make. Cryptic crossword compilers use all of these familiar lingual tricks in their puzzles – the key to solving a clue is identifying which type of wordplay is being used.

A standard cryptic clue is made up of two elements: wordplay + definition. So, if you’re good at spotting the definition, which always appears at the beginning or end of a clue, then you’re well on you’re way to breezing through cryptic life.

So, let’s have a look at some of the most common varieties of clues.

Anagrams

Everyone who’s ever drawn letters out of the Scrabble bag understands the challenge of anagrammatical unraveling, and this is probably the most common type of cryptic clue.

As we’ve discussed, clues are made up of definition + wordplay (not necessarily in that order, of course). The wordplay section will often contain a hint to explain what type of wordplay is being used. We call this hint word a signpost or indicator.

Imagine you draw the letters I R A N P E T in Scrabble. If you’re good, you might realise you can make the word PAINTER, using all your letters, which will give you a great score! (You could also make REPAINT or PERTAIN!)

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This scenario also could give birth to a cryptic clue. For example: Artist from Iran pet organisation (7)

Artist is the definition

Iran pet organisation is the wordplay

And, you see that organisation is used as a signpost which gives us a hint to “organise” the letters of IRANPET

Anagram signposts come in all shapes and sizes! Any word that suggests chaos, reform, change, damage, disaster or strangeness can act as an anagram indicator. Your challenge is to spot it.

Charades

If you can hold your own at the well-known party game Charades, you probably have good cryptic crossword aptitude. Imagine you had to act out a clue for the movie Top Gun.

First word: *points at woollen jumper* = TOP

Second word: *makes shooting gesture* = GUN

“Charade” cryptic clues work in basically the same way. For example:

Jumper and shooter in action movie (3,3)

“Action movie” is the definition

Jumper and shooter is the wordplay (charade)

Homophones

Another wordplay device commonly used in cryptics is the homophone - a word that sounds exactly like another word, but with different spelling. For example: calmer, karma; steal, steel; Rex, wrecks.

So, again, if we were playing Charades, and you wanted to act out the classic horror movie Saw, you might gesture to your ear (meaning “sounds like”) and then act out being in pain or “sore”.

We could translate this riddle into cryptic clue form:

Horror movie sounds painful (3)

Horror movie is the definition

Sounds painful is the wordplay

Sounds is used here as an indicator which hints that there is homophonic wordplay being used. There are many words that can act as homophone indicators - depending on how inventive or cruel the compiler is. Some common ones are: heard, listened, eavesdropped, broadcast, reportedly, said, outspoken. See the pattern?

Containers

Most seasoned cryptic solvers will look at the following clue and immediately guess that it is a container clue, because the word “holds” is a very common indicator for that type of wordplay.

Coach holds on for more money (5)

The answer is BONUS!

Coach holds on is the wordplay

more money is the definition

Coach = BUS, and it holds ON.

BONUS

Notice how the clue makes it seem like the clue is about a sports coach? We call this trick "misdirection" and crossword compilers revel in throwing these red herrings to poor old solvers.

So, now you now a little bit about the basic structure of a cryptic clue. This next section is an introduction to possibly the most alienating but important element of mastering cryptic crosswords…..

Abbreviations/symbols

Let’s look at an alternative clue for BONUS.

More money for bishop duty (5)

This is a simple charade clue: bishop = B and duty = ONUS.

Bishop = B? Yep, this is one of thousands of abbreviations or symbols that might pop up in a crossword. Usually they have some logical reasoning behind them. For example, b is a common abbreviation for Bishop in the world of chess.

However, sometimes these abbreviations have obscure or archaic origins, and cryptic crossword solvers just have to suck it up and accept their presence.

You might also find that B could be represented by: beta (Greek alphabet), bachelor (university), bee (the insect), black (chess again), bowled (cricket), bravo (phonetic alphabet).

If you don’t know much about cricket you might be at a slight disadvantage.

Another common trick to represent the letter B might be “Urban centre”, “top bunk”, “first base”. Likewise, “second base” could be A, “third base” could be S and so on.

Some of my most hated common abbreviations are Model = T (as in Model-T Ford), Sailor = ab (short for able seaman), son = s, daughter = d, and many more.

The reason I dislike these is because they aren’t really in common usage and tend to make new solvers befuddled and ask “why?”.

Of course, it’s very subjective. Some of my favourite abbreviations have resulted in a few scoffs and complaints: I = line, ewe = u, nerd department = IT