Thursday, 22 August 2013

How I solve a cryptic clue

One of the things I like about cryptics is how — although I write them — I still find cryptics by other setters challenging and enjoyable to solve. I don't do 'quick' crosswords any more, solving one is too much like the work I do in writing them ... another bloody definition? No thanks ...

But cryptics are still a fascinating challenge to me, and are still fun for me to solve. I don't classify myself as an expert solver, I can't solve The Times cryptic in record time or anything like that. I don't solve enough cryptics often enough to get the necessary daily practice in. But being a setter does give me a certain advantage!

So, I thought you might find it interesting to see the mental process I go through when solving clues by other setters.

Here are a few clues by a variety of setters, and my thoughts as I solve them ...

Wife given a kiss then getting yen for pasty (4)

Hmmm, what are possible abbreviations in this clue? Wife = W, kiss = X, yen = Y. I think pasty might be the definition, which leaves wife given a kiss then getting yen. The 'a' is probably just A, in the clear. W (wife) + A + X (kiss) + Y (yen) = WAXY! That works! Huzzah! 

Cold tart (6)

Only two words in this clue, so it's likely to be a double definition. What is a word that means both cold and tart? Hmmm. It might also be a cryptic definition of some sort. Cold can also = C. Tart = pie, pastry, flan, or acidic, sharp, sour etc, or a prostitute, or to dress up ... Maybe BITING? You can have biting cold, and a sharp tart taste is also said to be biting. So I'll pencil it in, and look for confirmation from crossing over letters from other answers in the grid. It might be BITTER, too, I'm not 100% sure yet.

She loved Narcissus it's recalled (4)

I'm looking up Narcissus in my dictionary, to check my Greek mythology. Ah, he was loved by ECHO ... and that makes sense, with it's recalled as the definition. This is a double definition clue.

Offensive characters recalled from Tess of the d'Urbervilles (4)

Well, I know I most likely don't need to know anything about this novel to solve the clue (as this level of specialised knowledge isn't usually required). So that means that the definition is probably offensive, or offensive characters, and that (characters?) recalled from Tess of the d'Urbervilles is probably the wordplay.

Recalled from makes me think this might be a hidden word clue, with the letters appearing in reverse in the letters of Tess of the d'Urvervilles.  So let's trawl backwards through the letters of the novel title, looking for 4 in a row that spell a word ... ah ha, there it is! Tess of thE D'URbervilles = EDUR, or RUDE when put around the right way. That works, with offensive as the definition. So this solution = RUDE.

With solving that one above, I now have a crossing over letter for the 1 Down clue:

Area below tar's not concrete (8)

The solution runs _ _ _ _ R _ _ _. Possible abbreviations in this clue? Area = A is the main one. The apostrophe S in tar's makes me think that this marks the split between definition and wordplay. Mind you, the S might be part of the answer, too. 

So area below tar is the same as not concrete. Hmmm. Area below tar  does sound like a cryptic wordplay, with below as a position indicator. A word for area (or an A) going below a synonym for tar? Tar has a couple of meanings, it might be the thick black stuff, or a sailor. How about synonyms for area? Region, zone, spot, domain, yard, part, realm ...

Hang on, concrete has 8 letters (the number indicated for the answer), and not might be an anagram indicator, and R is in both my crossword grid (from RUDE), and in concrete. Let's try that out ... hmm ... ergh, no, I'm not finding any nice easy anagrams from the letters of concrete. OK, well, at least that means I know not concrete is probably the definition. Liquid, maybe? Or something more esoteric?

If tar = sailor, it might mean jack, rating, sailor, salt, or the abbreviations AB (able-bodied seaman), OS (ordinary seaman), or RN (Royal Navy). RN isn't the start of any word, and I don't think the synonyms will really work either, so I'll play around with AB and OS for the moment, with AB being the most likely pair of letters to start a word (rather than OS). 

So that would give me AB_ _ R _ _ _.  Let's add in that S from tar's, just in case it's part of the answer. ABS _ R _ _ _ . That's looking like a feasible English word, from those letter patterns. I think I might be on the right track. The alternative would be OSS _ R _ _ _,  which is less likely to be a word, I think.

So now I need a 5 letter word, with R as the second letter, that means area. I have a quick look at my thesaurus for some ideas ... 5 letter synonym include realm, patch, tract, sweep ... hang on, tract, that has R as the second letter! Let's try that out: ABS+TRACT! Woo hoo! ABSTRACT is definitely another way of saying not concrete.

I hope that seeing the process I go through helps you improve your solving skills too. As you can see, I still use reference works like a thesaurus and dictionary now and then, and have false starts.

 Now to finish this crossword ...


  1. Yeah,it takes some convoluted, out-of-the-box thinking to crack some 'hard-nut' clues. But it's always fun to do the thinking that leads to the solution.


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