Cryptic crossword

Cryptic crossword

Cryptic crosswords are crossword puzzles in which each clue is a word puzzle in and of itself. Cryptic crosswords are particularly popular in the United Kingdom, where they originated, Ireland, the Netherlands, and in several Commonwealth nations, including Australia, Canada, India, Kenya, Malta, New Zealand, and South Africa. In the United States, cryptics are sometimes known as "British-style" crosswords.

Cryptic crossword puzzles come in two main types: the basic cryptic in which each clue answer is entered into the diagram normally, and the advanced or "variety" cryptic, in which some or all of the answers must be altered before entering, usually in accordance with a hidden pattern or rule which must be discovered by the solver.



Most of the major national newspapers in the UK carry both cryptic and concise (quick) crosswords. The puzzle in The Guardian is well-loved for its humour and quirkiness, and quite often includes puzzles with themes, which are extremely rare in The Times.[1] The Independent puzzle also includes themes quite often.[citation needed] However, with its larger circulation, The Telegraph version is probably the most attempted.[citation needed] An indication of the popularity of the genre is that The Times and The Daily Telegraph charge a subscription for their online crosswords, although The Guardian, the Financial Times and The Independent place their daily crosswords online free.

Many Canadian newspapers, including the Ottawa Citizen, Toronto Star and the Globe and Mail, carry cryptic crosswords.

Cryptic crosswords do not commonly appear in U.S. publications, although they can be found in magazines such as GAMES Magazine, The Nation, Harper's, and occasionally in the Sunday New York Times. The New York Post reprints cryptic crosswords from The Times, which like the Post, is owned by News Corporation. Other sources of cryptic crosswords in the U.S. (at various difficulty levels) are puzzle books, as well as UK and Canadian newspapers distributed in the U.S. Other venues include the Enigma, the magazine of the National Puzzlers' League, and formerly, The Atlantic Monthly. The latter puzzle, after a long and distinguished run, appeared solely on The Atlantic's website for several years, and ended with the October 2009 issue. A similar puzzle by the same authors now appears monthly in The Wall Street Journal.

How cryptic clues work

In essence, a cryptic clue leads to its answer as long as it is read in the right way. What the clue appears to say when read normally (the surface reading) is a distraction and usually has nothing to do with the clue answer. The challenge is to find the way of reading the clue that leads to the solution.

A typical clue provides two ways of getting to the answer, either of which can come first. One part of the clue is a definition, which usually exactly matches the part of speech, tense, and number of the answer. The other part (the subsidiary indication, or wordplay) provides an alternative route to the answer (this part would be a second definition in the case of double definition clues.) One of the tasks of the solver is to find the boundary between definition and wordplay and insert a mental pause there when reading the clue cryptically. (Sometimes the two parts are joined with a link word or phrase such as "from" or "could be".)

Because a typical cryptic clue describes its answer in detail and often more than once, the solver can usually have a great deal of confidence in the answer once it has been determined. This is in contrast to non-cryptic crossword clues which often have several possible answers and force the solver to use the crossing letters to distinguish which was intended.

Here is an example (taken from The Guardian crossword of Aug 6 2002, set by "Shed").

15D Very sad unfinished story about rising smoke (8)

is a clue for TRAGICAL. This breaks down as follows.

  • 15D indicates the location and direction (down) of the solution in the grid
  • "Very sad" is the definition
  • "unfinished story" gives "tal" ("tale" with one letter missing; i.e., unfinished)
  • "rising smoke" gives "ragic" (a "cigar" is a smoke and this is a down clue so "rising" indicates that "cigar" should be written up the page; i.e., backwards)
  • "about" means that the letters of "tal" should be put either side of "ragic", giving "tragical"
  • "(8)" says that the answer is a single word of eight letters.

There are many "code words" or "indicators" that have a special meaning in the cryptic crossword context. (In the example above, "about", "unfinished" and "rising" all fall into this category). Learning these, or being able to spot them, is a useful and necessary part of becoming a skilled cryptic crossword solver.

Compilers or setters often use slang terms and abbreviations, generally without indication, so familiarity with these can be useful. Also words that can mean more than one thing are commonly exploited: often the meaning the solver must use is completely different from the one it appears to have in the clue. Some examples are:

  • Bloomer - often means flower (a thing that blooms).
  • Flower - often means river (a thing that flows).
  • Lead - could be the metal, an electric cable, or the verb.
  • Novel - could be a book, or a word for new, or a code-word indicating an anagram.
  • Permit - could be a noun (meaning licence) or a verb (meaning allow).

Of these examples, "flower" is an invented meaning by back-formation from the -er suffix, which cannot be confirmed in a standard dictionary. A similar trick is played in the old clue "A wicked thing" for CANDLE, where the -ed suffix must be understood in its "equipped with a . . . ." meaning. In the case of the -er suffix, this trick could be played with other meanings of the suffix, but except for river => BANKER (a river is not a 'thing that banks' but a 'thing that has banks'), this is rarely done.

Grids for cryptic crosswords

A lattice-style grid common for cryptic crosswords

A typical cryptic crossword grid is generally 15x15, with half-turn rotational symmetry. Unlike typical American crosswords, the grid entries are not "fully checked"; instead, roughly half the letters in each entry are checked. Checked squares are those in both across and down answers; squares used in only one answer are sometimes called "unches". In most daily newspaper cryptic crosswords, grid designs are restricted to a set of stock grids. In the past this was mainly because 'hot-metal' printing meant that new grids were expensive, but nowadays, it seems to be used as a way of making sure that grids conform to the preferences of a paper's crossword editor. Some papers have additional grid rules - at The Times, for example, all words have at least half the letters checked, and although words can have two unches in succession, they cannot be the first two or last two letters of a word. The grid shown here breaks one Times grid rule - the 15-letter words at 9 and 24 across each have 8 letters unchecked out of 15. The Independent allows setters to use their own grid designs.

Variety (UK: "advanced") cryptic crosswords typically use a "barred grid" with no black squares and a slightly smaller size - 12x12 is typical. Word boundaries are denoted by thick lines called "bars". In these variety puzzles, one or more clues may require modification to fit into the grid, such as dropping or adding a letter, or being anagrammed to fit other, unmodified clues; unclued spaces may spell out a secret message appropriate for the puzzle theme once the puzzle is fully solved. The solver also may need to determine where answers fit into the grid.

A July 2006 "Puzzlecraft" section in Games Magazine on cryptic crossword construction noted that for cryptic crosswords to be readily solvable, no fewer than half the letters for every word should be checked by another word for a standard cryptic crossword, while nearly every letter should be checked for a variety cryptic crossword. In most UK "advanced cryptics" ('variety cryptic'), at least three-quarters of the letters in each word are checked.

Regional variation

British and North American differences

There are notable differences between British and North American (including Canadian) cryptics. American cryptics are thought of as holding to a more rigid set of construction rules than British ones. American cryptics usually require all words in a clue to be used in service of the wordplay or definition, whereas British ones allow for more extraneous or supporting words. In American cryptics, a clue is only allowed to have one subsidiary indication, but in British cryptics the occasional clue may have more than one; e.g., a triple definition clue would be considered an amusing variation in the UK but unsound in the US.

Other languages

For the most part, cryptic crosswords are an English-language phenomenon, although similar puzzles are popular in a Hebrew form in Israel (where they are called tashbetsey higayon (תשבצי הגיון) "Logic crosswords")[2] and (as Cryptogrammen) in Dutch. In Poland similar crosswords are called "Hetman crosswords". 'Hetman', a senior commander, and also the name for a queen in Chess, emphasises their importance over other crosswords. In Finnish language, this type of crossword puzzle is known as piilosana (literally "hidden word"), while krypto refers to a crossword puzzle where the letters have been coded as numbers.


Clues given to the solver are based on various forms of wordplay. Nearly every clue has two non-overlapping parts to it - one part that provides an unmodified but often indirect definition for the word or phrase, and a second part that includes the wordplay involved. In a few cases, the two definitions are one and the same, as often in the case of "& lit." clues. Most cryptic crosswords provide the number of letters in the answer, or in the case of phrases, a series of numbers to denote the letters in each word; "cryptic crossword" would be clued with "(7,9)" following the clue. More advanced puzzles may drop this portion of the clue.

Cryptic Definition

Here the clue appears to say one thing, but with a slight shift of viewpoint it says another. For example:

A word of praise? (8)

would give the answer ALLELUIA, a word used by Christians to praise God, but not what first springs to mind on reading the clue. Notice the question mark - this is often (though by no means always) used by compilers to indicate this sort of clue is one where you need to interpret the words in a different fashion. The way that a clue reads as an ordinary sentence is called its surface reading and is often used to disguise the need for a different interpretation of the clue's component words.

Another one might be:

The flower of London? (6)

which gives THAMES, a flow-er of London. Here, the surface reading suggests a blossom, which disguises the fact that the name of a river is required.

This type of clue rarely appears in American cryptics but is common in British and Canadian cryptics. It's almost certainly the oldest kind of cryptic clue: cryptic definitions appeared in the UK newspaper puzzles in the late 1920s and early 1930s that mixed cryptic and plain definition clues and evolved into fully cryptic crosswords.

One crossword clue by the composer Araucaria contained the words "Araucaria is", coding for the letters IAM (= "I am") in the answer.

Double definition

A clue may, rather than having a definition part and a wordplay part, have two definition parts. Thus:

Not seeing window covering (5)

would have the answer BLIND, because blind can mean both "not seeing" and "window covering". Note that since these definitions come from the same root word, an American magazine might not allow this clue. American double definitions tend to require both parts to come from different roots, as in this clue:

Eastern European buff (6)

This takes advantage of the two very different meanings (and pronunciations) of POLISH, the one with the long "o" sound meaning "someone from Poland" and the one with the short "o" sound meaning "make shiny".

These clues tend to be short; in particular, two-word clues are almost always double-definition clues.

In the UK, multiple definitions are occasionally used; e.g.:

Burn milk making hot drink for clergyman (6)

is a triple definition of BISHOP ("mulled red wine flavoured with bitter oranges" or "to burn milk in cooking") [3] but in the US this would be considered unsound.

Some British newspapers have an affection for quirky clues of this kind where the two definitions are similar:

Let in or let on (5) - ADMIT

Note that these clues do not have clear indicator words.

Embedded words

When the answer appears in the clue but is contained within one or more words, it is hidden. For example:

Found ermine, deer hides damaged (10)

gives UNDERMINED, which means (cryptically at least) "damaged" and can be found as part of "Found ermine deer". The word "hides" is used to mean "contains," but in the surface sense suggests "pelts".

Possible indicators of a hidden clue are "in part", "partially", "in", "within", "hides", "conceals", "some", and "held by".

Another example:

Introduction to do-gooder canine (3)

gives DOG, which is the first part of, or "introduction to", the word "do-gooder", and means "canine".


A word that gets turned around to make another is a reversal. For example:

Returned beer fit for a king (5)

The answer is REGAL. "Lager" (i.e., "beer") is "returned" to make regal.

Other indicator words include "receding", "in the mirror", "going the wrong way", "returns", "reverses" "to the left" or "left" (for across clues), and "rising", "overturned" or "mounted" or "comes up" (for down clues).

"Charade" clues

Here the answer is formed by joining individually clued words to make a larger word (namely, the answer).

For example:

Outlaw leader managing money (7)

The answer is BANKING formed by BAN for "outlaw" and KING for "leader". The definition is "managing money". With this example, the words appear in the same order in the clue as they do in the answer, and no special words are needed to indicate this. However, the order of the parts is sometimes indicated with words such as "against", "after", "on", "with" or (in a down clue) "above".


A container clue puts one set of letters inside another. So:

Apostle's friend outside of university (4)

gives PAUL ("apostle"), by placing "pal" ("friend") outside of "U" ("university").

Other container indicators are "inside", "over", "around", "clutching", "enters", and the like.


An anagram is a rearrangement of a certain section of the clue to form the answer. This is usually indicated by words such as 'strange', 'bizarre', 'muddled', 'wild', 'drunk', or any other term indicating change. One example:

Chaperone shredded corset (6)

gives ESCORT, which means chaperone and is an anagram of corset, indicated by the word shredded.

Anagram clues are characterized by an indicator word adjacent to a phrase that has the same number of letters as the answer. The indicator tells the solver that there is an anagram they need to solve to work out the answer. Indicators come either before or after the letters to be anagrammed. In an American cryptic, only the words given in the clue may be anagrammed; in some older puzzles, the words to be anagrammed may be clued and then anagrammed. So in this clue:

Chew honeydew fruit (5)

Chew is the anagram indicator; honeydew clues melon, which is to be anagrammed; and fruit is the definition for the answer, LEMON. This kind of clue is called an indirect anagram, which in the vast majority of cryptic crosswords are not used, ever since they were criticised by 'Ximenes' in his 1966 book 'On the Art of the Crossword'. Minor exception: Simple abbreviations may be used to spice up the process; e.g., "Husband, a most eccentric fellow" (6) for THOMAS, where the anagram is made from A, MOST, and H = husband.

Anagram indicators, among the thousands possible, include: about, abstract, absurd, adapted, adjusted, again, alien, alternative, anew, another, around, arranged, assembled, assorted, at sea, awful, awkward, bad, barmy, becomes, blend, blow, break, brew, build, careless, changed, chaotic, characters, clumsy, composed, confused, contrived, convert, cooked, corrupt, could be, damaged, dancing, designed, develop, different, disorderly, disturbed, doctor, eccentric, edited, engineer, fabricate, fake, fancy, faulty, fiddled, fix, foolish, form, free, fudge, gives, ground, hammer, haywire, hybrid, improper, in a tizzy, involved, irregular, jostle, jumbled, jumping, kind of, knead, letters, loose, made, managed, maybe, messy, mistaken, mix, modified, moving, muddled, mutant, new, novel, odd, off, order, organised, otherwise, out, outrageous, peculiar, perhaps, playing, poor, possible, prepared, produced, queer, questionable, random, reform, remodel, repair, resort, rough, shaken, shifting, silly, sloppy, smashed, somehow, sort, spoilt, strange, style, switch, tangled, treated, tricky, troubled, turning, twist, unconventional, undone, unsettled, unsound, untidy, unusual, upset, used, vary, version, warped, wayward, weird, wild, working, wrecked, wrong.

It is common for the setter to use a juxtaposition of anagram indicator and anagram that form a common phrase to make the clue appear as much like a 'normal' sentence or phrase as possible. For example:

Lap dancing friend (3)

uses dancing as the indicator as it fits cohesively with lap to give the solution, PAL.


Homophones are words that sound the same but have different meanings, such as "night" and "knight". Homophone clues always have an indicator word or phrase that has to do with phonetics, such as "reportedly", "they say", "utterly" (here treated as "utter(ing)-ly" and not with its usual meaning), "vocal", "to the audience", "by the sound of it", "is heard" and "on the radio". "Broadcast" is a particularly devious indicator as it could indicate either a homophone or an anagram.

An example of a homophone clue is

We hear twins shave (4)

which is a clue for PARE, which means "shave" and is a homophone of pair, or "twins". The homophone is indicated by "we hear".

If the two words are the same length, the clue should be phrased in such a way that only one of them can be the answer. This is usually done by having the homophone indicator adjacent to the word that is not the definition; therefore, in the previous example, "we hear" was adjacent to "twins" and the answer was pare rather than pair. The indicator could come between the words if they were of different lengths and the enumeration was given, such as in the case of "right" and "rite".


In an initialism clue, the first letters of part of the clue are put together to give the answer.

An example of an initialism:

Initially amiable person eats primate (3)

The answer would be APE, which is a type of primate. "Initially" signals that you must take the first letters of "amiable person eats" – "ape".

Another example would be:

At first, actor needing new identity emulates orphan in musical theatre (5)

The answer would be ANNIE, the name of a famous orphan in musical theatre. This is obtained from the first letters of "actor needing new identity emulates".

Words that indicate initialisms also include "firstly" and "to start".

It is possible to have initialisms just for certain parts of the clue. It is also possible to employ the same technique to the end of words. For example:

Old country lady went round Head Office initially before end of day (7)

The answer would be DAHOMEY, which used to be a kingdom in Africa (an "old country"). Here, we take the first letters of only the words "Head Office" (ho) and we take the "end" of the word "day" (y). The letters of the word "dame", meaning "lady", are then made to go around the letters "ho" to form Dahomey.

Odd/Even Clues

An odd/even clue is one in which the odd or even letters of certain parts of the clue give the answer. An example is:

Odd stuff of Mr. Waugh is set for someone wanting women to vote (10)

The answer would be SUFFRAGIST, which is "someone wanting women to vote". The word "odd" indicates that we must take every other letter of the rest of the clue, starting with the first: Stuff of Mr Waugh is set.


Deletions consist of beheadments, curtailments, and internal deletions. In beheadments, a word loses its first letter. In curtailments, it loses its last letter, and internal deletions remove an inner letter, such as the middle one.

An example of a beheadment:

Beheaded celebrity is sailor (3)

The answer would be TAR, another word for "sailor", which is a "celebrity", or star, without the first letter.

Other indicator words of beheadment include "don't start", "topless", and "after the first".

An example of curtailment:

Shout, "Read!" endlessly (3)

The answer is BOO. If you ignore the punctuation, a book is a "read", and book "endlessly" is boo, a "shout".

Other indicators include "nearly" and "unfinished".

An example of internal deletion:

Challenging sweetheart heartlessly (6)

The answer is DARING, which means "challenging", and is darling without its middle letter, or "heartlessly".

Note that "sweetheart" could also be simply "wee" or the letter "E", that is, the "heart" (middle) of "sweet".

Combination clues

A clue may employ more than one method of wordplay. For example:

Illustrious baron returns in pit (9)

The answer is HONORABLE. "Baron" "returns", or is reversed, and put inside "pit" or hole, to make honorable, or "illustrious".

In this example, the clue uses a combination of Reversal and Hidden clue types:

Cruel to turn part of Internet torrid (6)

The answer to this clue is ROTTEN. The phrase "to turn" indicates "to reverse," and "part of" suggests a piece of "Internet torrid".

"& lit."

A rare clue type is the "& lit." clue, standing for "and literally so". In this case, the entire clue is both a definition and a cryptic clue. In some publications this is always indicated by an exclamation mark at the end of the clue. For example:

God incarnate, essentially! (4)

The answer is ODIN. The Norse god Odin is hidden in "god incarnate", as clued by "essentially", but the definition of Odin is also the whole clue, as Odin is essentially a God incarnate.

This satisfies the "& lit." clue definition but as read is clearly a cryptic clue. Another example:

Spoil vote! (4)

would give the answer VETO; in the cryptic sense, spoil works as an anagram indicator for vote, while the whole clue is, with a certain amount of licence allowed to crossword setters, a definition.

Another example:

e.g., Origin of goose (3)

gives the answer EGG. Geese find their origins in eggs, so the whole clue gives "egg", but the clue can also be broken down: e.g., loses its full stops to give eg., followed by the first letter (i.e., the "origin") of the word goose—g--to make egg.

Visual Clues

Visual clues are very rare. They are best explained using an example:

Exclamation of surprise about spectacles (3)

The answer would be COO, which is an "exclamation of surprise". The 'c' comes from the abbreviation of the word "circa", meaning "about", and "spectacles" is OO because these letters look like a drawing of a pair of spectacles.

Other types of cluing

A cryptic crossword on the back page of the Manchester Evening News Thursday 20 October 2011 included the answer ESTABLISH, whose clue was "Found a woozy bliss following electric shock treatment (9)"; part of the clue is initialisms, but "woozy bliss" means "'bliss' in a drunken voice", i.e. "blish".

Abbreviations in clues

Abbreviations are popular with crossword compilers for clueing individual letters or short sections of the answer.

Consider the following clue:

About to come between little Desmond and worker for discourse (7)

There are two abbreviations used here. "About" is abbreviated "c" (for "circa") and "little Desmond" indicates that the diminutive of Desmond—namely, DES—is required. The "c" is "to come between" DES and ANT (a worker; note that compilers also use "worker" to stand for BEE or HAND), giving DESCANT, which means "discourse".

Compilers make use of a large number of these crossword abbreviations.

History and development

The history of cryptic crosswords started in the UK. The first British crossword puzzles appeared around 1923 and were purely definitional, but from the mid-1920s they began to include cryptic material: not cryptic clues in the modern sense, but anagrams, classical allusions, incomplete quotations, and other references and wordplay. Torquemada (Edward Powys Mathers, 1892–1939), who set for The Saturday Westminster from 1925 and for The Observer from 1926 until his death, was the first setter to use cryptic clues exclusively and is often credited as the inventor of the cryptic crossword.

The first newspaper crosswords appeared in the Sunday and Daily Express from about 1924. Crosswords were gradually taken up by other newspapers, appearing in the Daily Telegraph from 1925, The Manchester Guardian from 1929 and The Times from 1930. These newspaper puzzles were almost entirely non-cryptic at first and gradually used more cryptic clues, until the fully cryptic puzzle as known today became widespread. In some papers this took until about 1960.

Puzzles appeared in The Listener from 1930, but this was a weekly magazine rather than a newspaper, and the puzzles were much harder than the newspaper ones, though again they took a while to become entirely cryptic.

Torquemada's puzzles were extremely obscure and difficult, and later setters reacted against this tendency by developing a standard for fair clues, ones that can be solved, at least in principle, by deduction, without needing leaps of faith or insights into the setter's thought processes.

The basic principle of fairness was set out by Listener setter Afrit (Alistair Ferguson Ritchie) in his book Armchair Crosswords (1946), wherein he credits it to the fictional Book of the Crossword:

We must expect the composer to play tricks, but we shall insist that he play fair. The Book of the Crossword lays this injunction upon him: "You need not mean what you say, but you must say what you mean." This is a superior way of saying that he can't have it both ways. He may attempt to mislead by employing a form of words which can be taken in more than one way, and it is your fault if you take it the wrong way, but it is his fault if you can't logically take it the right way.

An example of a clue which cannot logically be taken the right way:

Hat could be dry (5)

Here the composer intends the answer to be "derby", with "hat" the definition, "could be" the anagram indicator, and "be dry" the anagram fodder. But "be" is doing double duty, and this means that any attempt to read the clue cryptically in the form "[definition] [anagram indicator] [fodder]" fails: if "be" is part of the anagram indicator, then the fodder is too short, but if it is part of the fodder, there is no anagram indicator; to be a correct clue it would have to be "Hat could be be dry (5)", which is ungrammatical.

Torquemada's successor at The Observer was Ximenes (Derrick Somerset Macnutt, 1902–1971), and in his influential work, Ximenes on the Art of the Crossword Puzzle (1966), he set out more detailed guidelines for setting fair cryptic clues, now known as "Ximenean principles" and sometimes described by the word "square-dealing".[4] The most important of them are tersely summed up by Ximenes' successor Azed (Jonathan Crowther, born 1942):

A good cryptic clue contains three elements:
  1. a precise definition
  2. a fair subsidiary indication
  3. nothing else

The Ximenean principles are adhered to most strictly in the subgenre of "advanced cryptics" — difficult puzzles using barred grids and a large vocabulary. Easier puzzles often have more relaxed standards, permitting a wider array of clue types, and allowing a little flexibility. The popular Guardian setter Araucaria (John Galbraith Graham, born 1921) is a noted non-Ximenean, celebrated for his witty, if occasionally unorthodox, clues.

Clueing technique and difficulty

Cryptic clue styles across newspapers are ostensibly similar, but there are technical differences which result in the work of setters being regarded as either Ximenean or Libertarian (and often a combination of both).

Ximenean rules are very precise in terms of grammar and syntax, especially as regards the indicators used for various methods of wordplay. Libertarian setters may use devices which “more or less” get the message across. For example, when treating the answer BEER the setter may decide to split the word into BEE and R and, after finding suitable ways to define the answer and BEE, now looks to give the solver a clue to the letter R. Ximenean rules would not allow something like “reach first” to indicate that R is the first letter of “reach” because, grammatically, that is not what “reach first” implies. Instead, a phrase along the lines of “first to reach” would be needed as this conforms to rules of grammar. Many Libertarian crossword editors would, however, accept "reach first" as it would be considered to reasonably get the idea across. For instance, a clue following Ximenian rules for BEER (BEE + R) may look as such:

Stinger first to reach drink (4)

While a clue following Libertarian rules may look as follows:

Stinger reaches first drink (4)

The Guardian is perhaps the most Libertarian of cryptic crosswords, while The Times is mostly Ximenean. The others tend to be somewhere in between; the Financial Times and Independent tend towards Ximenean, the Daily Telegraph also – although its Toughie crossword can take a very Libertarian approach depending on the setter. None of the major daily cryptics in the UK is "strictly Ximenean" - all allow clues which are just cryptic definitions, and strict Ximenean rules exclude such clues. There are other differences like nounal anagram indicators and in current Times crosswords, unindicated definition by example - "bay" in the clue indicating HORSE in the answer, without a qualification like "bay, perhaps".

In terms of difficulty, Libertarian clues can seem impenetrable to inexperienced solvers. However, more significant is the setter him/herself. Crosswords in The Times and Daily Telegraph are published anonymously, so the crossword editor ensures that clues adhere to a consistent house style. Inevitably each setter has an individual (and often very recognisable) approach to clue-writing, but the way in which wordplay devices are used and indicated is kept within a defined set of rules.

In The Guardian, Independent, Financial Times and Telegraph Toughie series the setters’ pseudonyms are published, so solvers become familiar with the styles of individual setters rather than house rules. Thus the level of difficulty is associated with the setter rather than the newspaper, though puzzles by individual setters can actually vary in difficulty considerably.

It is effectively impossible, then, to describe one newspaper’s crosswords as the toughest or easiest. For newcomers to cryptic puzzles the Daily Telegraph is often regarded as an ideal starting point, but this is contentious. Since all of the newspapers have different styles, concentrating on one of them is likely to lead to proficiency in only one style of clue-writing; moving to a different series, after perhaps years spent with just one, can leave the solver feeling as if they gone back to square one. The better technique is to simply attempt as many different crosswords as possible, perhaps to find a “comfort zone” but, more importantly, to experience the widest possible range of Ximenean/Libertarian styles.

Cryptic crosswords in specific publications

The UK

In Britain it is traditional—dating from the cryptic crossword pioneer Edward (Bill) Powys Mathers (1892–1939), who called himself Torquemada in honour of the great Inquisitor -- for compilers to use evocative pseudonyms. Crispa, named from the Latin for "curly-headed", who set crosswords for the Guardian from 1954[5] until her retirement in 2004, legally changed her surname to Crisp after divorcing in the 1970s. Some pseudonyms have obvious connotations - e.g. Torquemada as already described, or "Mephisto" with fairly obvious devilish overtones. Others are chosen for logical but less obvious reasons, though 'Dinmutz' (the late Bert Danher in the FT) was produced by random selection of Scrabble tiles.

The Times
Adrian Bell was the first to set The Times Crossword from 1930[6] and was one of those responsible for establishing its distinctive cryptic style. (The Times was a relatively late adopter: the Telegraph crossword started in 1925, and the Guardian in 1929.) The Times has a team of about 15 setters, many of whom set puzzles for other papers. The setter of each puzzle is not identified. The Times also has "jumbo" (23x23) puzzles in the Saturday edition and since 1991 has provided a home for the famously difficult advanced cryptic puzzle which used to appear in the BBC's The Listener.
The daily Times puzzle is syndicated in the New York Post (US) and The Australian (Aus) papers. In both cases, the puzzle appears some weeks after it appeared in The Times.
In October 2007, The Bugle—a TimesOnline podcast by John Oliver and Andy Zaltzman—introduced the first, revolutionary "Audio Cryptic Crossword."[7]
The Daily / Sunday Telegraph
The Telegraph, like the Times, does not identify the setter of each puzzle but, unlike the Times, has a regular setter for each day of the week, plus a few occasional setters to cover holidays or sickness. Regular setters include Roger Squires, Ray Terrell, Jeremy Much, Don Manley, Peter Chamberlain and Brian Greer. The regular setters as at 1 November 2006 are shown in a photograph here. Edited by Phil McNeill, who took over from Kate Fassett in early 2009. There's an advanced cryptic called Enigmatic Variations in the Sunday Telegraph, and a 15x15 blocked grid puzzle too.
In September 2008 the Telegraph started printing a 'Toughie' crossword as well as the daily puzzle, on Tues-Fri. This is described by the paper as "the toughest crossword in Fleet Street" or similar and does include the setter's pseudonym. Comments from some solvers on these puzzles don't always agree with this assessment, rating maybe half of them as close to average broadsheet cryptic difficulty.
The Independent
The Independent is a relative newcomer but is generally regarded as a source of some of the most innovative crosswords. Setters include Virgilius, Dac, Phi, Quixote, Nimrod, Monk, Nestor, Bannsider, Anax, Merlin, Mass, Math, Morph, Scorpion, Tees and Punk. The crosswords are often themed and may contain a Nina - a hidden feature. The daily puzzle is edited by Eimi (Mike Hutchinson) and the fiendish Inquisitor puzzle is edited by John Henderson whose predecessor was the late former Times crossword editor Mike Laws.
The Sunday Times
The Sunday Times cryptic crossword is compiled in rotation by three setters - Tim Moorey, Jeff Pearce and Dean Mayer. Before that, until her retirement in January 2011, the cryptic and concise puzzles were set by Barbara Hall, who was also puzzles editor for thirty two years. The position of puzzles editor is now held by Peter Biddlecombe and the concise puzzle is compiled by Dean Mayer. The Sunday Times is also home to the difficult barred-grid Mephisto puzzle, produced in rotation since 1995 by Chris Feetenby (replaced by Paul McKenna in 2008), Tim Moorey and Don Manley. Previous Mephisto setters were Richard Kilner (from 1959 to 1973), Richard Whitelegg (from 1973 to 1995) and Mike Laws. [8]
The Guardian
Notable compilers of The Guardian’s cryptic crosswords include Araucaria, Enigmatist, Pasquale, Paul, Rufus, and the late Bob Smithies (Bunthorne). The puzzle is edited by Hugh Stephenson.
The Observer
Home of the famous Azed crossword, which employs a barred grid and a wider vocabulary than standard cryptics, and in conjunction with its predecessors 'Torquemada' and 'Ximenes' is the longest-running series of barred-grid puzzles. On the first Sunday of every month and at Christmas, Azed runs a clue-writing competition, via which many of today's top compilers have learnt their trade. The Observer also features a standard cryptic crossword, the Everyman, compiled by Allan Scott.
The Radio Times
Roger Prebble has compiled the cryptic crossword since 1999.
The Spectator
Cryptics in the weekly Spectator often have a specific theme, such as a tribute to a public figure who has died recently or a historic event which has its anniversary this week. As in most British periodicals, the cryptic in the Spectator is numbered: in the Spectator's case, a puzzle's theme may be related to its specific number (such as a historic event which occurred in the year corresponding to the four-digit number of the puzzle for that week). Compilers include Doc (the puzzle editor as well as chief setter), Dumpynose (an anagram for 'Pseudonym') and Columba.
Private Eye
In the early 1970s the satirical magazine Private Eye had a crossword set by the Labour MP Tom Driberg, under the pseudonym of "Tiresias" (supposedly "a distinguished academic churchman"). It is currently set by Eddie James under the name "Cyclops". This crossword is usually topical, and contains material varying from risqué to rude, in clues, answers and the solver's head - much of the rudeness is by innuendo.[citation needed] It also often includes references to the content of the rest of the magazine, or its jargon in which, for example the current monarch of the UK is "Brenda" and the likely next one "Prince Brian". The £100 prize for the first correct solution opened is unusually high for a crossword and attracts many entrants.[citation needed]
Viz Magazine
Since 2009 the adult comic magazine Viz has incorporated a cryptic crossword credited to Anus. This is a collaboration of two setters, one of whom has a minor role in supplying some pre-written clues. In keeping with the comic’s “top shelf” status the puzzle content is an amalgam of humour and obscenity, although the clueing style retains both Libertarian and Ximenean disciplines.


The Hindu (India)
"The Hindu" newspaper carries cryptic crosswords in the main paper from Monday to Saturday, and a much tougher Sunday Crossword in the Sunday Magazine supplement. The weekday crosswords are set by the following setters: Gridman (6), M. Manna (7), Neyartha (2), Buzzer (1), Scintillator (1), Arden (2), Cryptonyte (1) and Sankalak (6). In every cycle, a setter publishes a certain number of crosswords allotted to him or her (indicated in brackets), unlike British papers where things are mostly random. The Sunday Crossword is a syndicated crossword from the UK newspaper, The Guardian set by Everyman.
Irish Times
The Irish Times originally provided a daily puzzle by "Crosaire" (Derek Crozier), which featured a fairly unorthodox style of clue-writing. The paper continued to run his puzzles after his death in April 2010. The last of Crozier's crosswords was published in the Irish Times on 22nd October 2011. The Irish Times' cryptic crossword is currently set by Roy Earle.[9]
Ottawa Citizen
The Ottawa Citizen has carried a weekly puzzle by (Susannah Sears) since 2001.
The Globe and Mail (Canada)
"Canada's national newspaper" includes a daily cryptic somewhat less difficult than its British cousins. The crossword also comes with another set of "Quick Clues" (American-style) which provide a completely different set of answers. Fraser Simpson compiles the Saturday cryptic; he also used to compile an advanced cryptic in The Walrus. Once a year on Canada Day, The Globe publishes a large 24x24 bar-diagram cryptic.
The Toronto Star (Canada)
Includes a cryptic crossword in the Saturday edition in the Puzzles section.
The Listener (New Zealand)
This weekly magazine includes a cryptic by David Tossman, who took over from RWH (Ruth Hendry) in 1997. RWH had been providing a mixed (some cryptic clues) puzzle since 1940.
New York Magazine
Stephen Sondheim’s puzzles for New York Magazine have been collected in book form. Sondheim is himself a collector of old-time puzzles and board games.
New Yorker
For some of the time that this magazine was edited by Tina Brown (1997-1999), it included a small (8x10) barred-grid cryptic crossword, set by a range of American and Canadian setters. These puzzles are also available in a book collection.
New York Times
Two weeks in every 18, the 'variety puzzle' in the Sunday edition is a cryptic crossword, usually by Emily Cox and Henry Rathvon, Richard Silvestri, or Fraser Simpson. One week in 18, it's a "Puns and Anagrams" puzzle, a relic of a 1940s attempt to introduce cryptic puzzles to the US.
Sydney Daily Telegraph
Prints the "Stickler" puzzle, set by David Stickley.
Sydney Morning Herald
Prints a daily puzzle which was also available free on-line until August 31st, 2009. Various setters compose the puzzles, each being indicated by their initials.
Lovatts Crosswords
Lovatts Crosswords are a range of magazines sold throughout the UK, Ireland, Australia and New Zealand. Christine Lovatt is the main cryptic compiler, and she has been so for 30 years.
The Nation
This liberal American political weekly featured a weekly puzzle by Frank W. Lewis from late 1947 until Lewis's retirement in late 2009. Lewis developed one of the most recognizably personal styles of cryptic setting, and The Nation has also published book collections of his puzzles. After Lewis' death in 2010, the magazine has announced that it will hire a new cryptic puzzle setter.
The Atlantic
The Atlantic magazine had a long-running cryptic crossword, known as the Puzzler, created by Emily Cox and Henry Rathvon beginning in 1977,[10] available only online since March 2006. The final original Puzzler was published in August 2009 for the September issue. An online archive of Puzzlers going back to 1997 is still available.[11]
This magazine features a monthly variety cryptic by Richard Maltby, Jr., aimed at advanced solvers.
Both of these magazines usually include two standard grid-style cryptic crosswords, as well as one bar-style with a twist--typically a rule, described by unclued entries, that requires the solver to amend a number of answers in a similar fashion to fit them into the grid. On occasion, WORLD OF PUZZLES devotes a special section to Cryptics, featuring up to 12 Cryptic crossword puzzles in various styles (grid, bar, diagramless, etc.).

Setters on more than one British national paper

Several setters appear in more than one paper. Some of these are:

Guardian Times Independent Financial Times Daily/Sunday Telegraph Telegraph Toughie Private Eye
Paul Bringloe Tees Neo
Michael Curl Orlando x Cincinnus
John Galbraith Graham Araucaria Cinephile
Brian Greer Brendan x Virgilius x
John Halpern Paul x Punk Mudd Dada
John Henderson Enigmatist x Nimrod Io Elgar
Eddie James [12] Brummie Cyclops
Mark Kelmanson Monk Monk
Don Manley Pasquale x Quixote Bradman x Giovanni
Dean Mayer x Anax Loroso Elkamere
Roger Phillips x Nestor Notabilis
Richard Rogan x Bannsider
Roger Squires Rufus Dante x

x - Denotes a compiler operating without a pseudonym in this publication.

In addition, Roger Squires compiles for the Glasgow Herald and the Yorkshire Post.

Roger Squires and the late Ruth Crisp set at various times in their careers for all 5 of the broadsheets.

See also


  1. ^ How to master the Times Crossword, Tim Moorey, p. 186
  2. ^ A Cryptic Crossword in Hebrew, by Ghil'ad Zuckermann
  3. ^ The Chambers Dictionary 9th Edition 2003
  4. ^ Reissued Aug 2001: Swallowtail Books ISBN 1-903400-04-X, ISBN 978-1-903400-04-3
  5. ^ A Display of Lights (9), Val Gilbert, 2008 - p. 155
  6. ^ Kamm, Oliver (2009-03-26). "The Times crossword the man who began it all". The Times (London). Retrieved 2010-04-30. 
  7. ^ The Times (London). [dead link]
  8. ^ The Sunday Times Mephisto Crossword Book 1, 2003 - Introduction
  9. ^ Gillespie, Elgy. "Carrying the Crosaire". The Irish Times. The Irish Times. Retrieved 22 October 2011. 
  10. ^ Horne, Jim (November 8, 2008). "Acrostic Creators". Wordplay: The Crossword Blog of The New York Times (The New York Times). Retrieved October 21, 2009. 
  11. ^ Rathvon, Henry; Cox, Emily (August 13, 2009). "The Puzzler: Sections". The Atlantic. The Atlantic Monthly Group. Retrieved October 21, 2009. 
  12. ^ EJ's Crossword Showcase

Further reading

  • Chambers Crossword Manual by Don Manley (4th edition, Chambers 2006)
  • Collins A to Z of Crosswords by Jonathan Crowther (Collins 2006)
  • Pretty Girl in Crimson Rose (8) by Sandy Balfour (Atlantic Books 2003)
  • Secrets of the Setters by Hugh Stephenson (Guardian Books 2005)
  • 101 Cryptic Crosswords: From The New Yorker edited by Fraser Simpson (Sterling Publishing 2001)

External links

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Look at other dictionaries:

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