Saturday, 12 November 2011

What Makes a Cryptic Clue?

So — how do you define a cryptic crossword clue?

Well, they have two parts, typically. Every cryptic clue contains :

1) The base clue / definition. This is like a regular crossword clue. Yup. It may not be obvious (in fact, it almost definitely won't be), but the straight definition of the answer is really in there, in plain view. The base clue is usually at the start or end of a clue (but not in the middle).

2) Word play of some sort. This is where the fun (or aggravating) bit comes in! The word play is basically coded instructions on how to create the answer word, maybe using anagrams, or adding and subtracting letters, or a whole host of other tricks.

The thing I really like about cryptic clues is that they're sort of 'self-checking' — so when you think you've got the answer, the 'base clue' part of the clue should suddenly make sense, and you'll get that 'Ahh haaaaa!' moment. So the clue should 'confirm' itself.

Here's a couple of examples (not written by me) :

Top off tumbler for young lady (4)


This clue 'reads' as: If you take the top off a word that means tumbler, you'll find another word that means young lady.

The answer is LASS ... another word for young lady. Another word for a tumbler is a GLASS. If you take the top off it (the first letter), you get LASS.

And another one:

Herb's terribly arrogant (8)


This clue 'reads' as: If the letters of the word arrogant are muddled up (ie seen terribly), they make a word for a herb. Can you see it? Yes, the answer is TARRAGON (an anagram of arrogant). Which is a herb.

Now, of course, learning to 'read' the clues is the biggest challenge. In the above clue, you might be misled into thinking that herb's is the word to turn into an anagram, to make a word that means arrogant ... and that might have been the case, the clue could certainly work that way.

But the letter number indicator is your saviour here - that (8) means that the answer is 8 letters long, and therefore the letters you're muddling up to make the anagram must be 8 letters long too. Herb's is only 5 ... while arrogant is 8 — bingo!

Next time we'll start on the first of the cryptic clue types: double definitions!


  1. Ow - my brain has been twisted. YOu could think through a corkscrew in a tornado!

  2. I am not terribly good at cryptic crosswords, but I do like them. Our crossword in the paper every day has cryptic and normal clues and I use both. Is that cheating??? I don;t care. Sometimes I can solve it in 4 minutes!!!I heard DA on the radio and he likes words the same way I like numbers!!


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