Welcome back! In our first installment, you solved your first cryptic clue; this time, you'll solve your first mini puzzle! First, let's jump back in to how cryptic clues work.

Wordplay and Definitions

Every cryptic clue is composed of two parts: the wordplay and the definition.

The definition is, you know, a literal definition of the answer to the clue: a synonym, elaboration, or category name. For example, in the clue Change boots just a little for morale improvement, the answer is "boost" and the definition is "morale improvement"; in the clue Aunt cooked fish, the answer is "tuna" and the definition is "fish".

The wordplay, meanwhile, is one of several different types of verbal shenanigan: things like anagrams, homophones, hidden words and so much more. In today's examples we're going to focus on anagrams, purely because they're a form of wordplay that you might well already be familiar with. But don't worry, soon we'll be bamboozling you in new and exciting ways.

Part of the trickiness of parsing cryptic clues is that the definition and wordplay can come in either order:

  1. Definition then wordplay
  2. Wordplay then definition

By convention, the definition will be either at the very start or end of the clue – you’d never see a definition in the middle of some wordplay – but already you see one way that cryptic clues are built to deceive.

Here's another anagram to try your hand at, this time with the definition at the beginning and the wordplay at the end.

Boss agitated a German (7)

Since we're still starting out, we'll tell you up front we're looking for an anagram of the letters "a-g-e-r-m-a-n" with the literal meaning "boss." (You can ignore the "agitated" for now – we'll explain that in just a minute, promise).


At this point, you're probably wondering: how the hell is an innocent cryptic solver meant to know that Boss agitated a German is an anagram, rather than a homophone or a hidden word or some other manner of beast. The answer is in the secret language of cryptics: the indicators.

Indicators are words that, by broadly-held cryptic crossword conventions, imply a particular type of wordplay in the clue. If a hulking guy in a suit tells you that failure to pay back certain debts may lead to your anatomical features becoming “rearranged”, you understand what he’s indicating without him having to come out and say it. In cryptics, there are various words and phrases which function as indicators in just this way.

In fact, “rearranged” is a good place to start. One common clue type is the anagram, which (you already know) is just the rearrangement of a set of letters. Any word or phrase like “rearranged” or “moved around” can indicate an anagram, but so can any word like "weird" or "strange". And so can any word like "exploded" or "destroyed", or "messy" or "muddled", or even "berserk" or "bananas."

Honestly there are an absurdly large number of possible indicators in the world of cryptics; over time, you simply come to be familiar with the common ones, and learn a certain intuition for figuring out which type of a clue a less-common indicator might be hinting at.

Let's now go back to our previous examples. In Aunt cooked fish, the indicator was "cooked", implying that the letters of "aunt" needed to be "cooked" to give us the answer. In the example Boss agitated a German, the indicator was "agitated" – similarly, this was the crossword setter telling us to "agitate" the letters of "a German."

The Order Of The Clue

Of course, this being a cryptic, there's many different ways that the components might be arranged.

First, in Aunt cooked fish we had the anagram fodder at the beginning and the definition at the end, while in Boss agitated a German it's the definition at the beginning and the anagram fodder at the end.

But in case you're getting complacent, it's not even true that the indicator has to come in the middle – for example, tuna could have been clued as Silly aunt fish, and manager could have been clued as Agitated a German boss.

That's before we talk about how indicators can be used to mislead – "cooked" or "agitated" might indicate an anagram, but they might also be a feint by the setter in a clue that isn't an anagram at all. And on top of that, the punctuation and phrasing of the clue might be designed to deliberately lead you astray.

There’s no one trick to figuring out what type of clue you're seeing, or if the wordplay is at the beginning or end, or if the indicator comes before or after the anagram fodder: all you can do is play with the options and see what happens. The only thing you can really do is follow your intuitions, scratch your head, and prepare your favourite expletive for when the right answer finally clicks.

Cook Your Own Fish

Again, it's time for some live examples. Try your hand at this one:

By the way, a handy tip if you're stuck on an anagram is that since you know exactly how long the answer needs to be, you can often figure out which part is the "anagram fodder" by identifying a word or phrase with exactly the right amount of letters.

Let's try another. Something to note for our next clue is that brief words like "and," "for", "at", "on" and "a" are sometimes part of a clue but sometimes just connectors – the only way to figure it out is to try.

Your First Cryptic Crossword

You know what? You're doing so well, I think you might be ready for your very first mini cryptic crossword. (Of course, since we've only learned anagrams so far, those are the only clue-type we'll use).

By convention, the Across clues come first and the Down clues come second. And at any time you can check whether a letter or letters are correct using Check Square/Line/Grid, or reveal the correct letter or letters using Reveal Square/Line/Grid.

Congratulations – you're officially a cryptic crossword solver.

Join 90,000+ curious readers who grow with us every day

No spam. No nonsense. Unsubscribe anytime.

Great! Check your inbox and click the link to confirm your subscription
Please enter a valid email address!
You've successfully subscribed to The Browser
Welcome back! You've successfully signed in
Could not sign in! Login link expired. Click here to retry
Cookies must be enabled in your browser to sign in