A cryptic is a special type of crossword puzzle in which each clue is a little puzzle in itself. Cryptics were invented in Britain, where they appear in every sort of publication, from the snootiest literary weeklies to the brassiest popular tabloids. In the United States, cryptics aren't as well known. But, like such other once-exotic treats as sushi, cappuccino, and acupuncture, the curious crossword with the convoluted clues has been catching on.
Simplicity and deception are the cryptic's twin charms: simplicity, because nearly every clue follows one simple rule: deception, because no word in a cryptic clue means what it appears to mean.
In a conventional crossword, a clue is a more or less straightforward definition of the answer. For example, in a conventional crossword the answer THENEWYORKER might be clued as, say, "Tina Brown's workplace (3 words)." In a cryptic crossword, the clue would be more, well, more cryptic. Something like, "Hey, enter work rolling a magazine (3,3,6)." The rule is that every cryptic clue is a kind of riddle in two parts. One end of the clue is a definition -- in this case, a magazine. The other end is a bit of word play -- in this case, "Hey, enter work rolling" that leads to the same answer in a more roundabout way. (This clue happens to be an anagram, explained below.) It's up to the solver to decide which end is which and where the dividing line falls. The definition and the wordplay can appear in either order but are never mixed.
There are many kinds of wordplay used in cryptic clues. Each kind has its own indicators that tip you off to what type is involved, and the number in parentheses at the end of a clue tells you the number of letters in the answer. Once you hit upon the answer, it fits the clue like a key in a lock and every word in the clue is accounted for.
For example, a clue for THRONE might include the definition "big chair" as well as the wordplay hint that throne is an anagram of the word HORNET. It would be a little too obvious if the clue said "big chair that's an anagram of HORNET" so the clue-writer chooses a more subtle word or phrase suggesting a mix of letters. The clue for THRONE might read, "big chair bothered hornet (6)." The word "bothered" suggests that the adjacent word, "hornet," has been tampered with in some way. "Big chair" defines the answer. The clue could also have been phrased, "hornet flying around big chair (6)." Here, flying around suggests that the letters of "hornet" are moving about.
There are eight basic types of wordplay. Here are tips for spotting and solving each one.
1. Anagram: Reach up at tangled skydiving apparatus (9).
The clues for THRONE and THENEWYORKER mentioned above are examples. "Reach up at tangled skydiving apparatus" is another. "Tangled" indicates that a rearrangement of the adjacent words "reach up at" will provide the answer ("PARACHUTE") which is defined in the latter part of the clue as "skydiving apparatus." An anagram clue always contains a word or phrase (like confused, weird, or badly formed) that suggests mixing, strangeness, or poor condition. The anagram indicator is always immediately adjacent to the letters to be scrambled, and those letters will be given explicitly. If a clue contains a word or set of words with the same number of letters as the answer, and these letters are located next to an anagram signal, try anagramming the given letters.
2. Hidden Word: Plumes in knife at her side (8).
This clue indicates that a word meaning "plumes" is found inside "knife at her side." The answer is "FEATHERS." In a hidden word clue, the answer is spelled out in correct order in the clue; no rearranging of letters is required. Even so, these clues can be tricky. "Aha! Green pens match (5)", for example, tells you that the phrase "aha Green pens" in a word meaning "match." The answer is "AGREE." The clue-writer has made "pens" look like a noun meaning writing implements, when actually it must be read as a verb meaning holds.
3. Reversal: Returned beer of kings (5).
A word meaning "beer," written backward, will yield the answer, a word meaning of kings: "REGAL." In some clues, known as down clues, the indicator may suggest that a word be written upward. For example, the answer to "Ambush split up (4)" is "TRAP" (ambush), which is "PART" (split) written upward. In reversal clues the indicator is always beside the definition of the word being reversed, not the definition of the answer. Words or phrases like backward, in retreat, heading west, or, in down clues, rising, and northward, may signal a reversal.
4. Homophone: Hot dog topping gathered for the audience (7)
"Hot dog topping" is "MUSTARD," which sounds like mustered (or gathered) to an audience, i.e., to hearers. Sometimes homophone clues are punny, as in "Fast remedy for gray hair, it is said (4)." A "fast" is an extreme example of a "DIET," which sounds the same as dye it, or "remedy for gray hair." Any word or phrase (such as hear, listen to, or from a reporter) that suggests hearing or saying the answer word can signal a homophone.
5. Two Meanings: Metal guide (4).
This clue gives two meanings for "LEAD." (The word lead has two different pronunciations, too, although this is not necessary in a two meanings clue.) Two meanings clues often involve puns, as in "Ahead of time, like a nobleman? (5)." The answer is "EARLY" (or EARL-Y). The question mark at the end of the clue, as in regular crosswords, suggests that a verbal prank is being played and that the solver should watch out. Two meanings clues can often be identified by their brevity.
6. Deletion: First off most uncompromising mountain (7).
Most uncompromising is "SEVEREST." If you take the first letter off, as the clue suggests, you get the answer, "EVEREST." Sometimes the deletion is made at the end of a word, as in "Almost climb onto wild pig (4)." By almost taking the word "BOARD" (climb onto), you get the answer, "BOAR." Deletions can be made in the middle of words, too; indicators are words like beheaded, heartless, and endless.
7. Container: Kid keeps near this evening (7).
Here, the word "TOT" (kid) goes around (or "keeps" in a figurative sense) "NIGH" (near), giving "TONIGHT" (this evening). A container clue may also be expressed in the opposite way, as one word inside another, as in "Points out lion in tropical islands (9)." By putting the word "CAT" (lion) inside "INDIES" (tropical islands), you get "INDICATES" (points out). Words and phrases like outside, around, and holding or inside, wearing, and surrounded by indicate containers.
8. Charade: Anti-abortionist ate spread (11).
As in the game charades, a charade clue breaks the answer into pieces and clues them individually. An "anti-abortionist" is a PRO-LIFER, the word "ATE" is given directly, and together they spell "PROLIFERATE" which is defined as "spread." The words making up a charade are always etymologically unrelated to the answer. Thus, "bookworm" would never be broken into book + worm, since those two words are related in meaning to the whole.
Not all cryptic clues involve only one type of wordplay, as do the examples above. Sometimes a clue will involve a combination of two or more wordplay types, such as an anagram inside a reversal, or a container as part of a charade. For example. "Someone beyond criticism raced wildly in boat (6,3)." The answer here is "SACRED COW" (someone beyond criticism). It is made by inserting an anagram of "RACED" (which is signaled by wildly) into "SCOW" (boat).
These eight devices, and combinations thereof, account for nearly every kind of wordplay you will encounter in cryptic crosswords. However, occasionally a novel kind of clue appears, such as "Eight botch theft after ignoring the odds (5)." The answer, "OCTET," is a group of eight, and can be gotten by ignoring the odd letters of bOtCh ThEfT. The key to solving unusual clues like this, as with all other types, is to follow the literal instructions.
Bits and Pieces
When a clue-writer breaks an answer word into parts to describe it in the wordplay part of the clue, it may not break neatly into smaller words. Individual letters or groups of letters may be left over. The clue-writer must also define these, of course, and will sometimes do so in playful ways. For instance, the capital of Japan may turn out be the letter J, and the end of September could be R. Abbreviations may be used, if they are common. Thus: eastern = E, grand = G (as in money), right and left = R and L (respectively), Pennsylvania = PA, love = O (from the tennis score), fifty = L (Roman numeral), and chlorine = CL (in the periodic table). And the word "article" in a clue could mean any of the grammatical articles A, AN, or THE. Here's a charade clue that contains several bits and pieces: "Nearly ace final in school months ahead of time (6)." On playing cards an ace is the letter A, the final in school is L, months equals MOS (a standard abbreviation), and these all go ahead of T (a scientific abbreviation for time) to get the answer, "ALMOST" (nearly). (Relax: this is only a demonstration clue; few real ones would include this many abbreviations.)
& Lit. (And Literally So)
In almost every clue, the definition and the wordplay are separated by an indicator word, but once in a great while the two part of a clue completely overlap. For example: "Author perhaps penning the foremost of essays! (7)." The answer, "THOREAU," is an anagram of "AUTHOR" (signaled by the word "perhaps") going around, or penning, E ("the foremost of essays"). Read the clue once in full and it provides the wordplay on the answer. Read it again in full and it defines the answer. The exclamation point at the end is the traditional sign of an & lit. clue, a hint to the solver of the clue's special nature: self-referential wordplay.
The Final Word
There are two small practice puzzles on the next page, each containing exactly eight clues demonstrating all the standard varieties of cryptic wordplay. When you've got the hang of it, try this week's puzzle in The New Yorker. If you're still puzzled, work backward from the answer in next week's issue. And if you're still puzzled after that, don't worry overmuch. It is, after all, a puzzle. It's supposed to be puzzling; that's the fun of it.
1 Get rid of gardener's building (4) two meanings
5 Heavy sword gashed girl (7) charade
6 Shorten grid Abe reconstructed (7) anagram
7 Hit friends back (4) reversal
1 Also, CIA leader holds party (6) hidden word
2 Records tenants after introduction (6) beheadment
3 In audition, manage German composer (6) homophone
4 Dozing Lee is eaten by snake (6) container
ANSWERS to Example 1:
1 SHED means both get rid of and gardener's building
5 CUTLASS (heavy sword) is made up of CUT (gashed) and LASS (girl)
6 ABRIDGE (shorten) is a reconstructed version of GRID ABE
7 SLAP (hit) is PALS (friends) backward
1 SOCIAL (party) is held by alSO CIA Leader
2 ENTERS (records) is RENTERS after its introduction (first letter)
3 HANDEL (German composer) sounds like HANDLE (manage), as suggested by the indicator in audition.
4 ASLEEP (dozing) is LEE eaten by ASP (snake)
1 Endlessly talk about Olympic throwing event (6) curtailment
5 Stop energetic carrying game at start of season (6) hidden word
7 Suddenly attacks reedy water plants (6) two meanings
8 Sell bicycle, we hear (6) homophone
2 Thrust poems Id rewritten (7) anagram
3 Hide once owned by Coolidge (7) container
4 Thus on the subject of tender (4) charade
6 Ambush split up (4) reversal
ANSWERS to Example 2:
1 DISCUS (Olympic throwing event) is DISCUSS (talk about) without its last letter, as suggested by the indicator endlessly
5 OPENER is game at start of season and stOP ENERgetic is carrying it.
7 RUSHES means both suddenly attacks and reedy water plants
8 PEDDLE (sell) sounds like PEDAL (bicycle)
2 IMPOSED (thrust) is a rewritten (anagrammed) version of POEMS ID
3 CONCEAL (hide) is ONCE inside CAL (Coolidge)
4 SORE (tender) is SO (thus) + RE (on the subject of)
6 TRAP (ambush) is PART (split) written up
-- This material was prepared by The New Yorker and is available by sending an e-mail to firstname.lastname@example.org.