Words & Stuff

zz: Hidden X Term for Puzzlement (7, 9)

(28 June 1998)

Not all crossword puzzles are created equal. In an American-style crossword puzzle, you're given a definition for each word; you then come up with a word that fits both the definition and the puzzle. In a British-style crossword puzzle, also known as a "cryptic crossword," you're given a clue for each word; each clue consists of two parts, a definition and a cryptic clue that indirectly indicates the word, with no clear indication of where the dividing line is between the two parts.

The best cryptic-crossword clues read like headlines from a slightly deranged tabloid; in fact, when you've been solving cryptic crosswords for a while, newspaper headlines often start to sound like clues. To solve a clue, you have to ignore the apparent structure and sense of the phrasing, and break the clue down into its constituent parts. Here's an example clue:

Provide excuse for lab solvent ingredients? (7)

(The number in parentheses indicates the number of letters in the answer.)

Each cryptic clue contains hints as to what sort of clue it is. There are a limited number of standard types of cryptic clues:
Hidden word
The cryptic clue contains the clued word as a string of letters, often crossing word boundaries. Hinted at with phrases like "inside" or "part of." (In the above example, "ingredients" is meant to indicate a hidden-word clue; the question mark suggests that "ingredients" may not be a very good hint for indicating a hidden word.)

The cryptic clue defines a homophone of the clued word. Hinted at with phrases like "sounds like," "I hear," or "audible."

Double definition
The cryptic clue is a second definition of (a different meaning of) the clued word. Hinted at by short clues (a two-word clue is almost always a double definition) and words like "is."

Other standard cryptic-clue types include a variety of operations on words, such as:

The cryptic clue includes an anagram of the clued word (or a definition of an anagram of the clued word). Hinted at by phrases like "mixed up," "damaged," or "disarray."

The cryptic clue contains the clued word backwards (or a definition of the reverse of the clued word). Hinted at by phrases like "back" or "returning" or (for Down clues) "up" or "rising."

The cryptic clue contains the clued word minus a letter or two at the beginning or end (or a definition of the truncated word). Hinted at by phrases like "endless" or "headless."

Pieces of words
The cryptic clue contains a few letters from the clued word. Hinted at by phrases like "bit of" (which usually means the beginning of a word).

In addition, there are certain devices commonly used in clues, such as: breaking up the word into short pieces and cluing the pieces separately; using initial letters of clue words ("west" in a clue can indicate the letter W); using puns; and intentionally choosing misleading words. (For instance, the definition part of the clue may be used as a verb in the clue even though it really defines a noun. Also, clues may include words that appear to hint at a particular type of cryptic clue but are actually part of the definition, or part of a different type of cryptic clue.) Any word-operation cryptic clue can either include the operated-on word itself, or provide a synonym for that word (in which case you have to come up with the synonym before performing the operation).

The example given above starts with the definition ("provide excuse") and then adds the cryptic clue ("lab solvent ingredients?"). The answer is "absolve" -- contained in the phrase "lab solvent," defined (more or less) by "provide excuse."

Here are some other clues-without-a-crossword that Jim and I came up with. The answer links include explanations of the clues.

Save father unusual present on his day (10)

Inspire half-breeds with two articles (7)

Painter's heard to move camera (5)

Tin gift strangely appropriate (7)

Gremlin in aft of zeppelin (3)

Messy porn is a requirement (4)

Exit discount store (6)

Utter only half of puns read (4)

Search south, north, around, about (4)

Shrill sound affected his welt (7)

Pimple on woman's old plaything (6)

The number of letters in the clued word is important in a clue that isn't attached to a puzzle. It's also important in several other common cases in cryptic crosswords:

Many cryptic crossword aficionados apparently find regular cryptic clues too easy, because most cryptic crosswords have further twists. Some contain unclued words; some are in odd shapes (there was a brilliant one in Harper's a few years back in which the grid was part of a Penrose tiling); some have themes. They can be quite challenging. The British ones are even harder for us Americans, because they're generally chock-full of references to British pop culture and famous people. Americans may want to stick to the monthly puzzles in Harper's and other such magazines.

Thanks to Jim Moskowitz for his help developing this column.

Reader comments and addenda page

Jed Hartman <logophilia@kith.org>