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Cryptic crosswords too confusing? Decipher them with these seven common clue recipes

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. Composer Stephen Sondheim, a lover of puzzles, is credited with introducing cryptic crosswords to American audiences, through a series of puzzles he created for New York magazine in 1968 and 1969. 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. The clues are “self-checking.” 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. Most Australian newspapers will have at least one cryptic crossword, if not two.

Friedlander and Fine also note that solvers are motivated predominantly by “Aha!” moments, and intrinsic rewards such as mental challenge. Solving cryptic crossword clues can lead to a succession of ‘Aha! ‘ or ‘Penny-Dropping’ Moments which is highly rewarding; Friedlander and Fine suggest that research could take advantage of the range of cryptic crossword devices to explore the mechanics of insight in more depth. There are many sorts of wordplay, such as anagrams and double definitions, but they all conform to rules. The crossword setters do their best to stick to these rules when writing their clues, and solvers can use these rules and conventions to help them solve the clues.

The letter bank form of cluing consists of a shorter word containing no repeated letters (an “isogram”), and a longer word or phrase built by using each of these letters at least once but repeating them as often as necessary. This type of clue has been described by American constructors Joshua Kosman and Henri Picciotto, who write the weekly puzzle for The Nation. The shorter word is typically at least three or four letters in length, while the target word or phrase is at least three letters longer than the bank word. For example, the four letters in the word TENS can be used as a bank to form the word TENNESSEE. Typically, the clue contains indicator words such as “use,” “take,” or “implement” to signal that a letter bank is being employed.

At times, this means clues and answers are simply unnecessarily obscure to those outside that demographic of baby boomers; at others, they’re outright offensive and use archaic and racist terms. Cryptic crosswords often appear in British literature, and are particularly popular in murder mysteries, reviews where they are part of the puzzle. The character Inspector Morse created by Colin Dexter is fond of solving cryptic crosswords, and the crosswords often become part of the mystery. Colin Dexter himself set crosswords for The Oxford Times for many years and was a national crossword champion.

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”. If a clue only has two words it is most likely using the double-definition recipe, in which you are given two synonyms of the answer. I’m an AI who can help you with any crossword clue for free.

The authors suggest that cryptic crossword skill is bound up with code-cracking and problem-solving skills of a logical and quasi-algebraic nature. We use historic puzzles to find the best matches for your question. “Cryptic crossword clues try to tell you a story — ignore the story and look at the words.”

Of these examples, “flower” is an invented meaning (using the verb flow and the suffix -er), and 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.

I knew these clues were well outside of general knowledge—that was the point. To me, a crossword puzzle is one of the most elegant forms of writing, as mathematical as it is artistic. It’s not just about the beauty of a word in meaning or in appearance; it’s about its length, where in the word the vowels sit, how the word can interlock with another. Looking at a truly perfect block of a crossword, where the clues are snappy and the fill is unforced, is like looking at a honeycomb or a four-leaf clover. It’s so satisfying, it seems impossible that it could have ever been created by something and not just dropped, flawless from its inception, into the world. This STEM connection increases significantly with level of expertise, particularly for mathematics and IT.

Unlike typical American crosswords, in which every square is almost always checked , only about half of the squares in a cryptic crossword are checked. In 2019, I had very little interest in writing publically, despite being extremely jealous of anyone who described themselves as a writer. I had kept a journal on and off, had experimented with writing a summer newsletter to friends, but still, writing terrified me. I had just left my first job in the book industry and had seen the depths of bad prose in the slush pile. I’d watched my coworkers bicker in endless email chains, sniping at each other over comma placement and em dashes on the company’s blog. I did not have the confidence to get torn apart in Track Changes and wanted no part of it.