Wednesday, 12 September 2012

Lesson 8: Reversals

So. Reversals. I bet you have already figured out how this cryptic wordplay works! Yes indeed, some letters or words are run backwards to help get to the answer.

In English, some words are perfect reversals of each other - TIPS / SPIT, SERIF / FIRES, GUM / MUG, and KEEP / PEEK are just a few. These sorts of words are called anadromes.

And you will know what palindromes are no doubt, those tricky words which read the same backwards and forwards! EVE, RADAR, TOT, and so on.

In cryptic clues, either the whole answer word can be clued with a "perfect" reversal (eg WOLF reversing to give FLOW), or as is more common, (let's face it, not that many words form perfect anadromes), the reversal forms part of the wordplay, in combination with another device (especially charades). They also have reversal indicator words, so you get some instruction on what to do.

Here's an example of a "pure" reversal clue:

Pam runs back to get a chart (3) 

Pam is the word that you're going to reverse, runs back is the reversal indicator, and a chart is the definition. MAP is the answer (PAM reversed).

More often than not, though, you won't be given the word to reverse 'in the clear' (as in the clue above). You will need to find it by locating a synonym for a word in the wordplay part of the clue. such as:

Keen opera singer is going the wrong way (4)

In this clue, keen is the definition. This means that opera singer is going the wrong way is the wordplay. Is going the wrong way is the reversal indicator, and opera singer is what to reverse ...

But, this doesn't lead to anything that's sensible (REGNIS AREPO, although it sounds like something Captain Kirk might use to name a new planet). So let's look for a synonym for opera singer that is 4 letters long. ALTO? Hmm, OTLA isn't promising. How about DIVA? Reverse this word, and you get AVID, which nicely matches with the definition!

One more example, of how a reversal can be used in combination with another device (fairly commonly with a charade clue, with an abbreviation tacked on somewhere).

Diana ran back to get Iranian currency (5)

In this clue, Iranian currency  is the definition. Diana is abbreviated to DI, and then add on ran back = NAR (backwards). DI + NAR = DINAR!

Reversal Indicators

As you can see, reversal indicators are words or short phrases that give a sense of something being turned over, reversed, sent back, returned, or pushed over.

All reversal indicators can be used with both Across and Down clues - however ones that give a sense of 'rising' or 'going up' can only be used with Down clues (as the words are written into the grid from top to bottom, therefore a reversal would effectively be written from bottom to top).

Here are just a few reversal indicator words. There is a more complete list on my website. The Down-only clue reversal indicators on this list are marked with an ^.

  • about
  • arising ^
  • back-to-front
  • climbing up ^
  • contrariwise
  • from the East
  • go back
  • in retrospect
  • keep back
  • knock over
  • looking up ^
  • overturned
  • recoiling
  • reflected
  • reject
  • rising ^
  • send up ^
  • set back
  • take up ^
  • turn back
  • upset ^

Practice Reversal Clues

Now it's your turn! Remember that each of the these clues has the definition, at the start or end of the clue, and the wordplay (which you know is a reversal).

1. Boast - lifted up attire! (4) (Down clue)
2. Have a quick look both ways (4) 
3. Wind, backtracking, to get to swimming place (4)
4. Round feline and tenor show discretion (4)
5. A young boy and Sal return to Texan city (6)

As ever, there is a cute puppeh guardian, looking after the explanations and clues. Scroll past Griff (who just turned 1!) when you're ready. It'll be easy,  he's neglecting his duties!


1. Boast - lifted up attire! (4) (Down clue)
Lifted up is the reversal indicator here. Attire is the definition. You need to find a synonym for the word boast (which starts with B) and reverse that, to get the answer. 

2. Have a quick look both ways (4) 
Both ways is a palindrome indicator - the answer reads the same in both directions. Have a quick look is the definition. There isn't a word to find a synonym for, as it's the same as the answer when reversed!

3. Wind, backtracking, to get to swimming place (4)
Did you spot the reversal indicator? Yes, it's backtracking. Swimming place is the definition, and wind is the word to find a synonym for and reverse, to get to the answer. The synonym for wind starts with L.

4. Round feline and tenor show discretion (4)
This clue is a little tricker! This clue combines a reversal with an abbreviation, in a charade (one bit after another). The reversal indicator is a bit harder to pin down - it's round (as in turning around, not the circular shape!). Discretion is the definition here. A feline is also a CAT. Tenor is often abbreviated as T. You know how to do the rest!

5. A young boy and Sal return to Texan city (6)
This clue is a charade of two reversals put next to each other! A young boy = LAD, and Sal = SAL. Return  is the reversal indicator, and Texan city is the definition.




  1. Shouldn't (5) be "Sal and a young boy return to Texan city"?
    Then you conjoin SAL LAD and then reverse the lot?

    I guess my question would be, is one reversal indicator sufficient?

    1. Hmmm, good point ... I think either would be OK, really. If both parts of the wordplay are being reversed, I think it's acceptable to have one reversal indicator working on both LAD and SAL. Gets a bit too wordy, otherwise, but other setters may disagree with me.

  2. Happy Birthday Pup(That's a reversal of sorts!!)


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