Cryptic Crosswords

by Hot

This article consists of the explanations of cryptic crosswords I presented in June 1999 to the joint meeting of the 58th National Congress of Classical Puzzling (puzzles in verse, aka flats), and the 20th Convention of the Italian Rebus Association (picture rebuses), in Verona, Italy. For the Web version, I added a few more examples, and a few links.


Translation from the Italian by Serendipity.

Before starting, I would like to thank Argon and Il Maculato for having invited me to this congress, and again Argon and Pasticca for their help in the preparation of this presentation.

The examples to which I will refer have been suggested to me by various American puzzlers and are the creations of Anomaly, Arachne, Fraz, Henry Hook, Hex, Hot, Ken Cain, King Frivolity, Lunch Boy, Manx, Quiz, Sibyl, Sluggo, and others.

I also received the help of Graziana Ramsden, my Italian teacher, who has corrected various... imperfections. I ask you to forgive me if my Italian is not particularly strong – in the Settimana Enigmistica, I can only solve the puzzles for children!



In his very interesting book on the rebus, Orofilo writes that "the words of the English language do not lend themselves as well as those of French and Italian at being manipulated, cut, and rearranged."

I must confess that I don't agree with him! Certainly, Italian puzzling is first rate, but the English language has a vast lexicon composed of terms of many origins, which permit many plays on words.

In the field of classical puzzling (puzzles in verse), for example, there are more than sixty puzzle types. Some are imitations of puzzles of Italian origin, but many others were invented in the United States. These are the verse puzzles which are published in The Enigma, the magazine of the National Puzzlers' League. Furthermore, there are more than sixty other puzzle types that have not yet been officially adopted.

The League, founded in 1883, is the oldest puzzling organization in the world, and its magazine is the only one in English that specializes in puzzles in verse. For more information and for examples, I suggest you visit the NPL's site:

  • The Enigma Minisample
  • Guide to the Enigma
  • Supplement to the Guide
  • Today I will not speak about classical puzzling. I have decided instead to present enigmatic crosswords in the English style, what we call "Cryptic Crosswords." These are spread throughout the English-speaking world, particularly in Great Britain, and offer many possibilities. With Trazom, I am the cryptic crossword editor of The Enigma; with Arachne, I have created many crosswords of this type; and in the past twenty years I have solved thousands of them. Therefore, I can say that this is the area of puzzles in English that I know the best.

    I hope I will succeed in explaining to you the art of the cryptic crossword, by giving examples of wordplay used in the clues, and thus demonstrate that puzzles can be done very well in English as well.

    In cryptic crosswords, the clues are not ordinary definitions. Each clue is presented as a normal phrase or sentence, but it is not necessarily what it seems. You must read it literally in order to find its two parts: the actual definition, and the wordplay that has the same word as the solution. It is not obvious which part is the definition, and which is the wordplay.

    Most of this presentation will consist of examples of clues, with their solutions and explanations.



    Here is a typical example:

    Shoestring allowances result in tears (11)

    Solution: LACERATIONS
    Tears = shoestring + allowances

    The two parts of the clue in this case are: the actual definition ("tears"), and the wordplay (the charade). To get optimal results it's best to insert into the clue at least one word that has an apparent meaning that is different from the real meaning, like "tears" in the first example. In this case, it was even more difficult to solve the puzzle because the pronunciation of "tears" is different with each meaning.

    Here are additional examples of charade clues:

    Frank is able and accomplished (6)
    Solution: CANDID
    Frank = is able + accomplished
    Go on holiday (8)
    Solution: PASSOVER
    Go + on = holiday
    Problem with Italian and German spirit (9)
    Solution: CONUNDRUM
    Problem = with (in Italian) + and (in German) + spirit

    Transposal (anagram)

    For this type of clue it is necessary to indicate that certain letters are reordered. In these examples, the clueing is done by the use of the words "new," "ill,", "doctor" (used as a verb, signifying "manipulate"), or "twist." Many other anagram indicators are possible.

    City of New Orleans (7)
    Solution: SALERNO
    Explanation: "City / (made) of new (order of the letters of) 'Orleans' "
    ["The City of New Orleans" is the title of a well-known song.]
    Groan, ill with gas (5)
    Solution: ARGON
    Explanation: "(the letters of) 'groan' are ill (disordered) with / gas"
    Doctor Strangelove to show calculus (11)
    Solution: GRAVELSTONE [an obscure word which means 'renal calculus' instead of the apparent mathematical sense]
    Explanation: Doctor (manipulate the letters of) 'Strangelove' to show / calculus"
    [Doctor Strangelove is a film by Stanley Kubrick]
    For No. Ten a new PM (9)
    Solution: AFTERNOON
    Explanation: " 'For No. Ten a' (reordered) / PM
    [the address of the British Prime Minister is Number 10 Downing Street]
    Hundreds twist and shout (8)
    Solution: THOUSAND
    Explanation: hundreds / twist (the letters of) 'and shout'
    ['Twist and Shout' is a song by the Beatles]
    Marconi broadcast to Spanish island (7)
    Solution: MINORCA
    Explanation: Marconi ('s letters reordered) to / Spanish island

    Word Deletion (container)

    A word inside a word. Note that the actual definition may be at the beginning of the clue, as in the first example below, or at the end, as in the second example.

    Charged: "Bad in bed" (6)
    Solution: BILLED
    Explanation: BILLED (charged) = ILL (bad) in(side) BED
    A group of musicians, having finished, left (9)
    Solution: ABANDONED
    Explanation: "ABANDONED (left) = DONE (finished) inside of A BAND (a group of musicians)"
    Busy couple in boat (2,4)
    Solution: AT WORK
    Explanation: AT WORK (busy) = TWO (couple) inside ARK (boat)
    Obscure poet Cummings describes movie excerpts (7)
    Solution: ECLIPSE
    Explanation: ECLIPSE (obscure) = CLIPS (movie excerpts) inside E.E. (the initials of the poet Cummings)

    Deletion, Beheadment, Curtailment

    One letter is taken out inside the word, in front, or in back respectively.

    Lead removed from toy gun (5)
    Solution: RIFLE
    Explanation: The first ('lead'ing) letter removed from toy (TRIFLE) / gun
    Found guilty one leaving was suggestive (8)
    Solution: INDICTED
    Explanation: INDICTED (charged) = INDICATED (was suggestive) leaving 'A' (one)

    Hidden Word

    The solution is literally hidden in the clue.

    Actress involved in Titanic-and-iceberg encounter (7,6)
    Solution: CANDICE BERGEN
    Explanation: Actress / involved in (hidden in the words) 'TitaniC-AND-ICEBERG ENcounter'
    Stop illegally swallowing drug (4)
    Solution: PILL
    Explanation: (The words) 'StoP ILLegally' (are) swallowing / drug
    Airplanes the Siamese used to hide narcotics, perhaps (10)
    Solution: ANESTHESIA
    Explanation: (The words) 'AirplANES THE SIAmese' (are) used to hide / narcotics, perhaps
    Award accepted by 1980s cartoonist (5)
    Solution: OSCAR
    Explanation: Award / accepted by (hidden in the words) '1980S CARtoonist'
    Create a second being based upon rib (5)
    Solution: TEASE
    Explanation: (The words) 'CreaTE A SEcond' contain 'tease' (another meaning of 'rib')

    Homonym (homophone)

    In English, there are many pairs of words that have the same pronunciation, but different spelling.

    Chuck said "Arrivederci," (4)
    Solution: CIAO
    Cryptic reading: Food pronounced like 'Arrivederci'
    Explanation: CIAO sounds like 'chow' =food; 'chuck' also means food in slang
    Looking for Moby Dick, for crying out loud (7)
    Solution: WHALING
    Cryptic reading: Looking for Moby Dick / pronounced like crying
    Explanation: 'Whaling' sounds like 'wailing'


    A word is read backwards.

    Swallow boomerangs to get publicity (4)
    Solution: PLUG
    Explanation: PLUG (publicity) is the reversal of GULP (swallow)

    Any clue can be reversed. The following example is a reversed charade:

    Everything I run over becomes a pancake (8)
    Solution: TORTILLA
    ALL (everything) + I + TROT (run) (turned) over becomes TORTILLA ('a pancake')

    Double Definition

    In this type of clue there are also two parts but here, neither part is a play on words. Instead, both are definitions.

    Dog food (4)
    Solution: CHOW
    Message from renter (6)
    Solution: LETTER
    Type well (4)
    Solution: FONT
    Walk within the law (14)


    These clues can be classified as charades, or double definitions, but in the terminology of the NPL they are heteronyms. (One meaning of "heteronym" is the changing of word breaks.)

    Walk within the law (5)
    Solution: LEG IT / LEGIT
    Saw is free of frost? (7)
    Solution: NOTICED / NOT ICED
    Astonish archery aficionado? (4,4)
    Solution: BOWL OVER / BOW LOVER

    &Lit ("and literally so")

    In these clues, the most difficult to create, there aren't two parts. The entire clue is the definition, and the entire clue, at the same time, is the wordplay. It is traditional to put an exclamation mark at the end of these clues.

    Dogs in wild! (6)
    Solution: DINGOS (transposal)
    Result of a piercing tool! (10)
    Solution: IMP(A)LEMENT (deletion)
    Terribly angered! (7)
    Solution: ENRAGED (transposal)

    The Gimmick

    Cryptic crosswords often have one more trick (we call it the gimmick, or the theme), which makes the solution even more difficult to find.

    For example, I created one (with Arachne) which we called "Diagnose!". We constructed it for the Convention of the NPL in San Diego (do you see the transposal?) I'll try to explain the method: the solvers have to diagnose what "illness" certain words have. The symptoms are that there is an extra letter, or that there is a missing letter in the definition. (Naturally, this means that the definitions are more difficult to solve!) Reading these letters in order, the solvers get: "vitamin deficiency," and the 'sick' words must be written in the grid without the letters A, B, C, D or E (the vitamins).

    The possibilities for this final gimmick are infinite, and guarantee that cryptic crosswords will never be boring!

    I hope that I have succeeded in convincing you that puzzles can be created in English! I will finish with a few details.


    The Diagram

    There are two types of grids: the first with black squares and the second with black bars. Generally, the first type does not have any further gimmicks, and approximately half of the letters in the words are checked (belong to two words, across and down). The second type usually does have a gimmick, and about two-thirds of the letters in the words are checked.

    The reason why there are so many isolated letters is because there is a lot of information in the clues. Cryptic crosswords would be too easy to solve if we respected the rules of the standard American crossword, which require words to have a minimum four letters, and no unchecked letters.


    Where to Find Them

    You can look for cryptic crosswords on line, as well as in almost all British newspapers. The most difficult are the "Listener Puzzles" of the Saturday London Times, and those by Azed in The Observer on Sunday. (Ximenes, also of The Observer, was the original creator of cryptic crosswords.) In the United States, these crosswords are found in The Nation, and Harper's. The easiest are in Games magazine, and the most difficult in The Enigma.

    For more examples and explanations of cryptic crossword rules, see these articles:
    by Hex
    by Trazom