Introduction to Cryptic Crosswords

My wife lived in England for a year before she hopped back across the pond to marry me. She spent a fair bit of her childhood exposed to a greater variety of international entertainment than her Texas-dwelling husband. (How many American children were raised on Horrible Histories?) As a way to broaden my horizons, we have been watching a few British television shows together, and while I haven't yet warmed up to Doctor Who, I have become quite the fan of a detective drama called Endeavour.

The main character, Endeavour Morse, has among his arsenal of intellectual skills a peculiar knack for cryptic crossword puzzles. I, being the somewhat ignorant American that I am, had only ever heard of what I now know to be "quick" crosswords. If you're a bit confused by my prepending any adjective at all to "crossword", you're in for a fantastic treat. Unless, of course, you prefer trivia to proper mind-bending puzzles. In that case, I'm afraid no one can help you.

Quick Crosswords

The most prevalent type of crossword puzzle in America is the quick crossword. These crosswords have straightforward clues and straightforward answers. Take, for instance, this clue from a recent Washington Post crossword.

Beethoven's birth city (4)

You either know that Beethoven was born in Bonn, or you don't. If you're lucky, you may know a few of the nearby intersecting words, but success in these puzzles is predominantly based on the number of facts you have rattling around in your head.

Maybe I will find a love for these crosswords when I reach my 50s, after having finally acquired a bit of crystallized intelligence and a wider vocabulary. For now, I much prefer the quick crossword's cryptic sibling.

Cryptic Crosswords

If you don't have any exposure to cryptic crossword clues, you might find the experience initially uncomfortable. Unlike our previous example, these clues almost never mean what they say. Each clue is a word puzzle, and while their solutions are a bit more difficult to find, they are also much more satisfying.

Consider this example.

Back in March, courthouse, school and shop all closing (4)

The solution is HELP, but an uninitiated onlooker may see both the clue and the solution without the slightest idea how to connect one to the other. Thankfully, cryptic clues are much more logical than they appear, but their logic follows a few hidden rules.

Most clues have two parts, a definition and a puzzle, which both provide a way to find the answer. One word (or phrase) at the beginning or end of the clue is the definition and is usually synonymous with the answer. In our example, the definition is "back" (as in, "back a candidate"). The puzzle usually comprises the rest of the clue and is the more devious portion. Our puzzle from the example clue is "in March, courthouse, school and shop all closing". "All closing" indicates that we should look at the end of the given words, and indeed the last letters of "March", "courthouse", "school", and "shop" spell out HELP!

Here's another example.

Lavished compliments on sliced bread and pies (9)

The solution is BEPRAISED. The definition is "lavished compliments", but this time, the puzzle is an anagram. "Sliced" is used to indicate that the letters of "bread" and "pies" should be rearranged into the final solution.

As you can see, the answers become wonderfully intuitive and obvious when the right pattern is found (as the best puzzles should be). And if, like me, you don't know very many synonyms for "lavished compliments", you still have a chance to solve the puzzle anyway.

The puzzle portions of a clue come in a wide variety of flavors, and these examples barely scratch the surface. For a more comprehensive list, visit the cryptic crossword wikipedia page, and of course, go try a cryptic crossword for yourself!