Solving cryptic clues

Picture of glasses and pencil on a crossword
Image by Steve Buissinne from Pixabay

The classic cryptic clue comes in two parts: the definition of the answer word, and wordplay of some sort. On this page we’re really just exploring the wordplay.

Be aware that the clue creators are trying to mislead you – setters and solvers often talk about ‘surfaces’ – what the clue SEEMS to say on the surface isn’t anything to do with the answer. It’s a kind of pun. You have to find a new way of reading what the clue is actually telling you.

For instance: My word! Move quietly… (4) might seem like good advice in a scary situation. But a seasoned cryptic solver would quickly see that ‘move’ is a synonym of ‘go’ and ‘sh’ is what you say when somebody wants you to be quiet. Add them together and you get ‘gosh’ – which means ‘My word!’. The ellipsis (…) at the end is just to put you off.

That clue would be an example of concatenation, sometimes known as ‘charades’

Concatenations or charades

Adding two or three (or more) elements together is a firm favourite. Operatic vehicle personnel (6) could be Carmen, for instance (car = vehicle, men = personnel [forgive the implied gender imbalance, which we try to avoid where possible!]). These often use abbreviations: Six say thanks with a pound – that’s important (5) would be ‘vital’ – VI is Roman numerals for six; Ta is abbreviation for ‘thank you’; ‘L’ is the abbreviation for ‘pound’ (the £ is a fancy ‘L’).

(They’re known as charades, by the way, following the pattern of the parlour game where you build up words from mimed actions.)

Anagrams

These are possibly the most common type of cryptic clue. Just to make sure – an anagram is a re-ordering of letters to make a new word (or phrase). A cryptic clue will tell you that an anagram is expected, but it won’t tell you explicitly. It will also tell you which letters to anagramatise (is that a word?), but again, not explicitly.

For instance: A gun makes a mess of a filer (5). It could be that someone arranging a filing cabinet has been shot in a gruesome manner, but that’s not what this is about. ‘Make a mess of’ means making a jumble of – that’s the anagram indicator. And ‘filer’ is the word to be re-arranged. And that means ‘a gun’ – in this case, a rifle.

The object to be arranged could easily be two words – Thy ore shakes an idea (6) would be ‘theory’ – or made up of abbreviations, or shortened words, or all of them. And the anagram might only be part of the answer…

Inside jobs, extractions

Some clues include the answer within them, but hidden.

A cunning act in stricken situation (5), for instance: ‘stricken’ contains the word ‘trick’ (which is a ‘cunning act’). The words ‘in … situation’ indicate that it’s situated there. Sometimes – maybe more often – the answer is split between words: I find an account in sitrep or the like (6). Can you see the word ‘report’ (= an account) hidden in there? Sometimes, punctuation is added to put you off even more.

Sometimes the words are hidden in reverse. Vicar hiding in garrets in immediate reversal (8) would be minister – it’s hidden, in a reversal of garrets in immediate (and a vicar is a minister – not of the government sort, of course!).

Occasionally you might be asked to find a word in (for instance) alternate letters. Odd means as a celebration (4) would be ‘Mass’ – a church celebration, and made up of the odd letters of ‘means as’.

You can see how you have to read the double-meanings of the clues!

Homophones and similar things

Allowed? Sounds like it, but not quietly (5). ‘Aloud’ (which is the answer) sounds like ‘Allowed’.

Sometimes a setter will refer to the Rev Spooner, who often interchanged the first sounds of consecutive words: Rev Spooner said a nosy follower was a kitchen utensil! (5,3) A prying fan might be a ‘nosey follower’; a frying pan (swap those first sounds!) is a kitchen utensil. Sometimes it’s difficult to know which of the two alternatives is the correct answer, but in this case what Spooner said was, of course, wrong!

Words with many meanings

Clue setters love to explore the richness of the English language. In particular, they love to exploit the different meanings that just a single word can have. A loon, for instance, isn’t just a politically incorrect word for a person who’s lost it; it’s also a diving seabird. Speaking of which, a shag is also a seabird (and we don’t want to thing about the alternative meaning of that. Unless it’s the texture of a carpet. Which could also be its pile (another word with several meanings, and again we don’t want to explore piles here, do we?) [how many brackets am I closing?])

The point being – the definition part of a clue could lead to an answer which you weren’t expecting. Keep and eye out for multi-meanings.

The Knowledge

In many cryptic crosswords, a certain level of background learning is expected – General knowledge, cultural knowledge, a wide vocabulary and so on. (Don’t worry, we don’t expect that on Cryptanasia – we just use everyday words.) Don’t regard this as elitist. Regard it as Google-fodder (I’ve always said that when the setters stop using dictionaries and word lists, I’ll stop using them too. Now I say that when setters stop using Google…).

Use Google, use sites like onelook.com, use Wikipedia (other wikis are available) and all the rest of the web to reach your ends. And when you’ve found what you’re looking for – research around it. Because something similar is bound to come up again…

Enjoy

As we said somewhere at the top of this page, cryptic clues are essentially puns. Puns are supposed to be funny, even if they require a bit of work to rumble them. ENJOY!