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)!


  1. I love solving your clues, it always seems much harder in the grid!! I actually really love anagrams, not that I am terribly good at them, like the DA man on Letters and Numbers!!

  2. David Astle is incredible, he solves all those anagrams *in his head* and *on the spot* O.o I don't know of any other crossword setters who can do that!

  3. Anagrams may be the easiest format. Once you are convinced you have an anagram, you have all the letters and just need to rearrange them. Thanks, Denise, for this tutorial. It helps us solvers and I can share it with friends who are beginners!


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