Learning To Juggle Cryptic Crosswords

Cryptic crosswords are like a kid's view of kissing – they're absolutely disgusting, till you get into them, and then you find you can think of nothing else.

The problem with cryptics is the learning curve. It’s like trying to learn to juggle while riding a unicycle and spinning a plate on top of your head, when you don't yet know how to do any of those things.

Cryptics are a truly twisted challenge – as some wag said, "the gift of one warped mind to another" – and the whole fun is in the way a good clue subverts your expectations. But as a beginner you don’t have any expectations to subvert, so rather than a clever gymnastical balancing act you end up with a sad mangled pile of plates/juggling balls/unicycles/you.

In order to get around this problem, we’re going to break cryptics down into each of their components. In the next three minutes, you'll be solving your first clues with our in-built clue game: this will not be quite as fun as a real cryptic crossword, but it should come close.

Once you’ve learned each of the components of the cryptic separately, you'll be able to put them all together, and the joy you get from juggling unicycles while riding a plate will last you the rest of your life.

Surface Sense

Cryptic clues are designed to have a misleading “surface sense” which hides a different, trickier meaning. Maybe you know a joke like:

The problem with kleptomaniacs is that they always take things literally.

Or

Why does no one like Matryoshka dolls?
Because they're full of themselves.

Or

How do you turn a duck into a soul singer?
Put it in the microwave until its bill withers.

Sorry, where were we? Oh yes. Cryptic clues work on a similar principle: the ordinary meaning of the sentence, which we call the "surface sense", masks a different parsing hidden underneath.

A Little Different

Ok, let’s practice. Take the clue:

✏️
Change boots just a little for morale improvement (5)

On the surface, this is an odd but comprehensible sentence, and surely no earthly tongue has a word for this specifically. (Even though we all know the feeling, there is nothing better than switching into your Confident Boots).

The surface sense for a cryptic clue is always comprehensible and yet nonsensical. If you stumbled on this in a crossword and didn't understand the laws of cryptics, you would just think this was an impossibly hard and not-fun regular crossword clue, then give up.

Under the surface, though, there’s something else. Can you change around the literal word BOOTS – just a little! – and create a new word that means “morale improvement”?

Try it in the boxes below – if you have trouble, just use the "hint letters" toggle to get a couple of fresh letter; click "Check Answer" to be told which of your letters are right or wrong; or click "Reveal Answer" to reveal the full word.

Did you groan? Welcome to cryptics.

Aunt Cooked Fish

Here's another clue to try:

✏️
Aunt cooked fish (4)

The surface sense – your mother's sister making seafood – is not what we're looking for here. For reasons we'll explain soon, an experienced cryptic solver would be able to guess that what's actually needed is an anagram of AUNT, that is also (incidentally) a type of fish – see if you can figure it out below

Look at you, already a cryptic crossword solver.



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).

Indicators

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.


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