Monday, 30 April 2012

Lesson 3: Abbreviations & the Like

A lot of the time, cryptic setters need to find a way of clueing one or two letters (and sometimes more!) in a clue, to get it to work. It's relatively rare for a word in the grid to fall nicely into a completely perfect anagram, reversal, or other similar device. And this is where abbreviations, foreign words, and proper nouns come in ...


Abbreviations are widely used in cryptic clues of all kinds. Abbreviations often trip up new solvers; if you can get a handle on these, it will be an immense help when approaching any cryptic crossword.

Say, for example, the word to be clued is TEASE. It can nicely be broken down as:


So the clue writer has to come up with a way of telling you to "Add a T to ease". Of course, just saying "Add a T" is far too boring and obvious in the cryptic realm! So, they'll use an abbreviation. They could say "Add a tenor to ease", or "Add a ton to ease" or "Add Thailand to ease" ... these are all standard words that lead to the abbreviation "T". [NB, this wouldn't be the final clue wording, the setter would have a lot more work to do to get it to read nicely as a clue; this is just to show you how the wordplay might work!]

If you look up single letter entries in any dictionary, you will come up with all the standard abbreviations — and all of these are fair game in cryptic clues. The sorts of standard abbreviations that are covered include:

  • chemical symbols (oxygen = O, nitrogen = N etc)
  • phonetic alphabet (Charlie = C, foxtrot = F etc)
  • Roman numerals (five = V, 100 = C, etc)
  • musical symbols (soprano = S, forte or loud = F etc)
  • genealogy symbols (son = S, wife = W etc)
  • country codes (Sweden = SE, Egypt = EG etc)
  • international vehicle registrations (Sweden = S, Egypt = ET etc)
  • cricketing terminology (not out = NO, caught = C etc)
  • sol-fa scale (note = DO, RE, MI etc)
  • directions (north = N, point or direction = N, S, E or W, quarter = N, S, E, W, NE, NW, SE, SW etc)
  • cartography symbols (river = R, ocean = O etc)
  • Latin terms (that is = IE, about = C, CA (circa) etc)
But, as these clearly aren't enough, there are a whole slew of rather bizarre abbreviations that are also used. Some of these play on words sounding like other things (so tea = T), or looking like other things (so ring = O). Numbers can be translated into letters because they look the same, especially 1 (one) = I, and 0 (zero) = O. So using this sort of logic, first = IST (because it looks like 1st), and top class = AI (cos it looks like A1). And some are slightly cryptic sorts of definitions, such as at home = IN, performing = ON (on stage), and many more.

There is a list of some abbreviations on my website, if you want to see more!

There are also a whole host of rather bewildering abbreviations that have been around since the early days of cryptic crosswords (1930s and on), which are very dated, very UK-centric, and are still used now and then, and totally bewilder new solvers (not surprisingly). They are often rooted in WWI and WWII culture too. So, while nurse can be abbreviated as RN (Registered Nurse), or SRN (State Registered Nurse, a UK term), it can also lead to VAD (the Voluntary Aid Detachment, a UK organisation during WWI and WWII)! These sorts of abbreviations make the 'cryptic code' even more dense, especially for younger solvers, new solvers, and those who don't live in the UK.

Some abbreviations are deemed to be Libertarian (see this post for more discussion about Libertarian devices), such as many = pretty much any collection of Roman numerals!

The area is also modernising (s l o w l y), so you will also come across more familiar abbreviations such as artificial intelligence = AI, and integrated circuit = IC. I do my bit with my cryptics, in that I don't use very dated abbreviations at all, and occasionally use modern usages that are in everyday use.

Some abbreviations are, to my mind, frankly ridiculous, and should have been retired from use decades ago. A couple of stand out examples:

beware = CAVE (pronounced "kah-vay"), which is very dated British schoolboy slang for "beware", from the Latin word for the same

French art = ES (I am, thou art is translated as Je suis, tu es! For starters, who says "thou art" any more  in English grammar?!)

Foreign Words

This last example brings up another way that setters can add letters to clues: foreign words. In general, they are short words, 2 or 3 letters only, and very common words, such as the, and, one, if, and so on.

If you see a clue that includes wording along the lines of the German (the in German), and Spanish (and in Spanish), or one in France (the French word for one), you need to reach for a translation app, dictionary, or website ... the Google Translate app is free and does a host of languages. French is very commonly used, largely because of the range of letters found in it — they fit well into the structure of English words.

Proper Nouns

Names are sometimes used in cryptic clues, too. It's a good idea to learn the really short names of rivers (which in cryptic clues can be called flowers, because they're things that flow, groan) — PO, DEE, ORD, EXE, and so on. The same goes for short city names, and the names of people. Generally these are well-known people, such as actors, politicians, composers, novelists, and so on. Occasionally you will see a clue that just mentions girl or boy, which then leads to any short girl's or boy's name (which seems rather unfair to me!) — the word you're seeking could be JO, or SAM, or TOM, or SUE, or ANN, or ... just keep guessing!

Sometimes longer names lead to a shortened version of that name. Albert often an abbreviation for AL, Edward shortens to ED or TED, Robert can be BOB or ROB, and so on.

I won't do a bunch of examples here as we haven't covered all the clue devices yet, but these abbreviations, proper nouns, and foreign words will be included in the clues in future lessons, and I will point them out to you as we go along.

The key to spotting abbreviations in a cryptic clue? Look at each word in a clue one by one, in isolation, and see if it might lead to an abbreviation. Cryptic crossword dictionaries have lists of all the standard abbreviations, and there are lists on the internet too. If you see the word west in a clue, you're very likely to be seeing an abbreviation for W. However, it might also be a reversal indicator, so you need to keep in mind that any one word can be used in a range of ways in any given clue!

Saturday, 28 April 2012

Gemini 6235

OK, here we go!

Gemini Cryptic #6235
The Canberra Times, Friday 27 April 2012

Conventions used:

  • The definition is underlined
  • Clue words are set in italics
  • The answer is in CAPITAL letters
  • Indicators are written in brackets after the wordplay device name
  • The definitions in cryptic definition clues are not underlined, as the whole clue serves as the definition


1. Sharing out a bit of parsley, perhaps (7) = GARNISH
An anagram (out) of sharing

5. Cook beats a mixture (5) = BASTE
Eh, I suppose cook is bearable as a definition for "baste", but only just ... it's an anagram (mixture) of beats

8. A wildcat rising? (9) = REBELLION
Cryptic definition: a wildcat strike, or uprising, is a type of strike action taken by workers without trade union approval

9. A record height to climb (3) = ALP
Charade; A + LP (record)

10. But they could be even for the better (4) = ODDS
Cryptic definition, better as one who bets

12. It's held back in the race to beat one (8) = CHASTISE
Container (in) with reversal (held back) : it's reversed put in chase (race)
Don't think the definition is all that clear

14. A way to achieve a new spirit (6) = DISTIL
Cryptic definition, new spirit being alcohol, and not a psychological state!

15. Neglectful about a single one (6) = REMISS
Charade: about (RE) + a single one (MISS)

17. Mother is composing a line to the weatherman (8) = ISOTHERM
Anagram (composing) of mother is

18. Raw recruit found in ruins of Troy (4) = TYRO
Anagram (ruins) of Troy

21. First person Gregory takes to heart (3) = EGO
Hidden word (takes to heart) in Gr(ego)ry

22. Unwilling cattle run amok (9) = RELUCTANT
Anagram (amok) of cattle + run

24. It may be drawn or sucked up (5) = STRAW
Cryptic definition, alluding to drawing straws, or sucking on a straw

25. In France medic is ordered to treat such disease (7) = ENDEMIC
Charade: In, in French = EN, and an anagram (ordered) of medic


1. Actress's dress ring = GARBO
Charade: dress = GARB + ring = O

2. Cage component (3) = RIB
A cryptic definition clue, referring to rib cage

3. Lied in order to be lazy (4) = IDLE
An anagram (order) of lied

4. The full extent of the rise (6) = HEIGHT
Cryptic definition: what's the full measure of the rise?

5. Members of a musical group (8) = BANDSMEN
Sort of cryptic definition? Not frightfully cryptic, really, unless you can see some sort of cryptic device that I can't ... just reads as a straight definition to me!

6. The property of the firm (9) = STABILITY
Another cryptic definition, and firm is not a company!

7. Quick to speak (7) = EXPRESS
Double definition, quick and speak both being synonyms for the answer

11. Not to pay a cheque results in disgrace (9) = DISHONOUR
Double definition: not to pay a cheque, and disgrace

13. Recall having a tie (8) = WITHDRAW
Charade: having = WITH, tie = DRAW

14. Motoring clubs? (7) = DRIVERS
Cryptic definition (drivers being golfing clubs as well as those who drive cars)

16. Metal grating to cook eggs initially (6) = GRILLE
Charade: cook = GRILL + initial letter of eggs = E

19. Softly in the ear or in the eye (5) = OPTIC
Container: softly = P (for piano, in music) in OTIC (relating to the ear)

20. Sharp appearance of a police force (4) = ACID
Charade: a + C.I.D. (police force)

23. I am out to gain an objective (3) = AIM
Anagram (out) of I am

NB : I will be covering all the different sorts of wordplay found in cryptic clues in future tutorial posts on this blog

Friday, 27 April 2012

The Canberra Times Cryptics

Starting this week, I will be explaining the clues from one Gemini or British Cryptic Crossword, as published in The Canberra Times, per week.

I won't hold myself down to doing a set day every week, cos life and work can be a little chaotic at times, and the last thing I need is yet another deadline on a set day every week, and this is meant to be fun after all  ;)  But I will do my best to pick apart at least one cryptic a week.

I will publish the post on a day or two after the crossword is published, to give everyone (including me!) time to have a go for themselves ...

A little about the Gemini Cryptic. While there are two cryptics in The Canberra Times, the English Cryptic, and the Gemini, I'm pretty sure that both puzzles are English. From my sneaky interweb researches, I think it's produced by Gemini Crosswords, a UK puzzle syndication business.

The British, and possibly the Gemini, Cryptics are also published in The Guardian newspaper. Their crosswords do tend towards what's called Libertarian, or non-Ximenean, clues. This obviously requires a bit of explanation.

Ximenes was a cryptic setter from way back, and one of the many things he did was to set up the standards of fair play in cryptic crosswords. In 1966 he wrote the seminal book Ximenes on the Art of the Crossword (which resides on my bookshelf!).

Basically, while a cryptic clue can deceive, of course, in the end it has to actually say what it means (in terms of the wordplay) and be fair to the solver. Clues that follow his standards are said to be Ximenean (and this is what I do my best to write). The Times cryptic is the bastion of a pure Ximenean cryptic crossword.

There is a new camp, though, where these rules are seen more as guidelines, boundaries are stretched, and rules are broken ... these are said to be non-Ximenean or Libertarian clues. Many cryptic crosswords tend to have a smattering of Libertarian clues in them, some more than others, so it's good to have some idea of what Libertarian devices look like.

For starters, the most commonly noticed thing is the way they indicate letters and abbreviations, and some forms of wordplay. Some are certainly clever and cute, and other are less fair, in my opinion. Here are just a few examples of Libertarian 'abbreviations' :

midday = A (the middle letter of day)
Gateshead = G (the head of Gates)
firstborn = B (the first letter of born)
infer = put something in the letters fer
finally = Y (final-ly, so the final letter of ly)
not = no T (delete T from another word)
exploits = PISTOL (an anagram indicated by ex- of the fodder -ploits)

I don't mind the first three of these examples, but do feel that indeed, finally, not, and exploits are pushing the limits of fairness to the solver.

Libertarian clues can also be more wordy than Ximenean clues, with more linking words and even 'padding' to make the clue's surface meaning read better. This sort of padding is frowned upon in Ximenean circles.

Some abbreviations are deemed to be Libertarian, such as note = A, B, C, D, E, F or G (as in the notes of the musical scale) ... while note = DO, DOH, RE, MI, FA, SO, SOH, LA, LAH, TI is Ximenean. I don't mind either, really.

However, the word many in a Libertarian clue can abbreviate any combination of Roman numerals that adds up to a big number, so CL (150), MMI (2,001), CM (900), MD (1,500), and a large number of other possibilities (which I do think is unfair to the solver, as there are too many possibilities).

Proper names may not have a capital letter, which may cause extra confusion when a famous person is being referred to. A clue may read as "put Word A into Word B", but in fact you have to put Word B into Word A. And so on ... so, in general, the rules are rather stretched and dodged at times.

So, it's good to keep an eye out for these Libertarian devices when solving cryptics. I will do my best to point them out in the crosswords that I analyse here, so you can start to get a handle on them too!

If you're interested in reading more about Ximenean and non-Ximenean clues, check out this link, and this one, and this one ...

Tomorrow I will post a clue-by-clue breakdown of Gemini Cryptic Crossword # 6235, as published in The Canberra Times on Friday 27 April 2012.

Thursday, 26 April 2012

Lesson 2: Anagrams

One thing it's important to do with cryptic clues is to ignore the surface reading! The surface is the sense you get when reading a clue for the first time, the mental image it brings up. Apart from some very rare clue types, this is only going to lead you astray. What's vitally important to do is to read each clue, word by word, looking for the hidden meaning.

Also, there are a few important things to note with the definition part of clues.

Firstly — they will always be at the start or the end of the clue, but never in the middle (ie with bits of wordplay around them).

Secondly — pinning down the definition is a major part of getting success in solving cryptic clues. And of course, once you've figured out which part is the definition, the remainder of the clue has to be the wordplay!


So, on to the first of the cryptic devices that you'll find in every cryptic crossword: Anagrams!

Anagrams are a very popular cryptic device, and every cryptic crossword has at least several of them, if not many. Easier cryptic crosswords tend to have a higher number of them, too. Anagrams are often seen in the clues for the longest words in the crossword. They are also used in combination with other devices, but don't worry about that now, we'll deal with those later.

 So, what is an anagram anyway, and how are they used in cryptic clues?

Well, an anagram is one word formed from the same set of letters in another word. CIDER is an anagram of CRIED, for example. You'll see anagrams in all sorts of other word puzzles throughout the ages, but they are a very nifty device when used in cryptic clues.

Anagram Indicators

As I showed you in Lesson 1, anagram clues include an anagram indicator. This is a word, or sometimes a brief phrase, that tells you that some of the letters of words in the clue need to be jumbled up and rearranged, to find the answer.

So, an anagram indicator can be pretty much any word that gives a sense of things being broken, muddled, jumbled, built, confused, insane, cooked, mixed, damaged, upset, or even drunk! There are hundreds of them — so clearly, it's best to learn to spot them from the context of the clue, rather than trying to memorise the list! There is a much longer list on my website if you want to check it out.

Here's just a few anagram indicators, to give you an idea. But basically, if you see a word in a clue that gives some sense of things being wrong, or mixed up, or confused, then it might be an anagram indicator (or it could be serving a different function, but more on that later!).

  • abandoned
  • abnormal
  • absurd
  • accident
  • active
  • affected
  • all over the place
  • agitated
  • amazing
  • anarchic
  • animated
  • arrangement
  • askew
  • assembled
  • assorted
  • astray
  • atrocious
  • at sea
  • awful
  • awkward
  • awry

... and that's just some of the ones starting with A!

The letters to be jumbled up to get to the answer actually appear in clear view in the clue. They may be contained in more than one word, and sometimes an abbreviation may be included (more on abbreviations later!). These letters are called the fodder.

 So, the anatomy of an anagram clue is:

Definition + Indicator + Fodder = Answer

These elements may come in a different order, of course, so it might be:

Fodder + Indicator + Definition = Answer


Indicator + Fodder + Definition = Answer

or even 

Definition + Fodder + Indicator + Some More Fodder = Answer 

or ...

Now, how about some real cryptic examples that use anagrams? Don't be scared, remember the surface meaning is there to be ignored, the definition is contained in a word or two at the start or end of the clue, and the rest of the clue is the wordplay!

1. Insane damn yeti is explosive (8)

2. Badly pare the fruit (4)

3. He cooked planet's animal (8)

4. Flustered, I forget rarer chilly compartment (12)

5. Perilous sea dog? Run all over the place! (9)

You'll find those little letter count numbers at the ends of the clues especially handy with anagram clues ... as the fodder has to have the same number of letters as the answer. So in the first clue, for example, the answer has 8 letters ... and, look, damn yeti adds up to 8 letters too! Coincidence? I think not!

So, see if you can get these clues out first, but if you scroll past the photo of my puppy Griff, Guardian of the Clues, you'll see the explanations, if you need a few hints, and further down, the answers.


1. Insane damn yeti is explosive (8)
Insane is the anagram indicator here. Damn yeti is the fodder, and explosive is the definition (and it means a noun, not an adjective!).

2. Badly pare the fruit (4)
Did you spot the anagram indicator here? Yes, it's badly. What's written badly? Pare. And what's the definition? Fruit.

3. He cooked planet's animal (8)
This clue gives examples of a couple of cryptic tricks. Firstly, the anagram indicator (cooked) is in the middle of the fodder, not at one end. And secondly, the apostrophe s at the end of planet is not a possessive apostrophe, showing ownership (ie the animal belonging to the planet), but is a contraction of is = it's effectively saying "A cooked version of he + planet is a word for a type of animal".

4. Flustered, I forget rarer chilly compartment (12)
As the definition has to be at the start or end of the clue, that means it's probably flustered or chilly compartment, or just compartment. However, that flustered does look a bit like an anagram indicator, so let's see if some of the other words in the clue add up to 12 letters. How about I forget rarer?

5. Perilous sea dog? Run all over the place! (9)
When first looking at the this clue, see if you can spot the anagram indicator ... it's all over the place. Now, the answer is 9 letters long. What collection of words in the clue add up to 9 letters? Sea dog run works. Now make them go all over the place! Perilous is the definition. This clue highlights another point about cryptics — in general, you should ignore the punctuation!



How did you go? Let me know!

For a more in-depth discussion about anagram clues, keep an eye out for my forthcoming book Solving Cryptic Crosswords For Dummies (out in August 2012)!

Wednesday, 25 April 2012

Lesson 1: Cryptic Clue Anatomy

So, seeing as I'm even more au fait with cryptic crosswords now, than I was before, LOL, I'll start a little series of tutorials on this blog, and will post clues and explanations as I go. I'm also planning on doing a weekly analysis of The Gemini Cryptic Crossword, which is published in The Canberra Times, and many other places.

SO. What ARE cryptic crosswords (apart from utterly infuriating?!).

A cryptic crossword is a British invention, and as such tends to be more wide-spread and popular in the UK and Commonwealth countries (Australia, Canada, New Zealand, South Africa, India etc). There are a few American outlets for cryptics, but only a few.

A cryptic is set in a normal crossword grid, which looks something like this:

Note that this is a British style grid, not an American one (main difference is the pattern of and number of black squares, much higher in a British style grid, while in an American grid every single letter is crossed by both an across and a down word, and there are very few black squares).

Now, a normal 'quick' crossword has definition clues. So you might find a clue that reads:

Betrayal (7) = TREASON

That's easy enough. They can still be hard, especially if the answers are rare words, and the definitions may sometimes be rather oblique, or examples of something, but you're generally just looking for a straight synonym to get the answer.

In a cryptic clue, however, there are TWO ways of getting to the answer. Each clue is a little mini puzzle, with a variety of sorts of standard wordplay devices used. The wordplay is also called the subsidiary indication, or sometimes just the subsidiary, but I prefer wordplay, cos that says what it is more clearly.

So, the basic anatomy of a cryptic clue is:

Definition + Wordplay = Answer

Using the example above, a cryptic clue for the same answer could be something like:

Betrayal from unstable senator (7) = TREASON

In this particular clue, betrayal is the definition, as in the 'straight' clue above. The wordplay section is unstable senator, and from is a linking word, joining the two halves of the clue (these are sometimes present in a clue, but not always).

So, what about this unstable senator malarkey? Who is this perfidious senator, and why is he unstable?!

Well, unstable is what's known as an anagram indicator — this is a word in the clue that tells you that an anagram is present, and you need to jumble up some of the letters in the word. And yes, you guessed it, senator is the word to jumble up (also known as the anagram fodder). And sure enough, when you jumble up the letters of senator, you get TREASON!

Indicator words play an important part in many (but not all) cryptic clues. They are pointers to you as to what to actually do with the other words in the clue, and how to get to the answer. So there are anagram indicators, and hidden word indicators, and charade indicators, and ...  you get the idea!

There are about 8 or so types of common cryptic devices. Over the coming weeks I'll explain each one with examples, so you can really get the hang of them. I'll also post new clues, and see if I can get some interactive cryptic crosswords happening here too.

What I love about cryptic clues is there's two ways to get to the answer, and it's very satisfying when you get both parts of the clue to equal the same thing! I've even learnt new words from solving cryptics ... I figure out the wordplay and think: "Huh, I think that's right, but is that even a word?" I look it up, and sure enough, there it is, with its definition, that matches the definition in the clue! Score!

Next time ... Anagrams!

Tuesday, 24 April 2012

Pens down!

Pens down! All the writing AND all the editing and proofreading are finished! \o/
Solving Cryptic Crosswords For Dummies (the in-depth 'how to' book, with 16 full crosswords) and Cryptic Crosswords For Dummies (a companion volume, with 56 crosswords) are FINALLY DONE! The books will be out in Australia, the UK, and the USA in August this year.

My god, what an effort ... I started work in the middle of last December, so both books were written in just over 4 months. In the past 6 days I've solved and edited every single one of the clues in the second book (about 1,500 of the little toads).

My red pen for editing literally ran out of ink on the last page, too! LOL

I don't have to work on weekends or evenings now ... it'll take a bit of getting used to!

Wednesday, 18 April 2012

Nearly there!

The writing of both books is DONE, thank heavens. All that remains now is to proofread and make final corrections on the second book (Cryptic Crosswords For Dummies), which mainly involves checking all 56 of the crosswords yet again. I will only get a week to do this in, the proofs will probably arrive tomorrow.

So, in 4 months I wrote two whole Dummies books, with around 2,500 cryptic clues between them. If there's ever a Volume 2 of the crosswords, I definitely want more time! I can handle writing one cryptic a day – it's intense, but do-able ... more than that is dreadfully exhausting (I've been averaging 1.5 crosswords a day for the past several months).

Griff is glad I can leave my desk sometimes, now!