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puzzles and crosswords

Cryptic crosswords are the wordplay-packed relatives of regular crosswords. If you’re new to the game, you’ll need to learn the difference between regular clues and their cryptic cousins.

Every cryptic clue has two parts: a definition of the answer and another way of arriving at the answer through wordplay. These two parts are put next to one another. The starting point in solving is figuring out where one part ends and the other part begins. This can be helped along by identifying an indicator that tells you what type of wordplay to expect. Let’s go through the most common types of wordplay found in cryptic clues.

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Illustration by Antonio Giovanni Pinna

1. Anagram: Coldest cities rebuilt (6)

In an anagram clue, the letters that make up the answer are given to you in scrambled form. Beside them is an anagram indicator, a figurative word or phrase that tells you to anagram the letters. As well, as in any cryptic clue, there is a normal definition of the answer, always at either the beginning or end of the clue. In the clue above, the answer ICIEST (defined as “coldest”) is a rebuilt (i.e., anagrammed) version of CITIES. The digit 6 in parentheses tells you the answer is a six-letter word.

Anagram indicators hint at the anagram by suggesting rearranging, movement, or poor condition. Here are some examples of anagram indicators: changed, different, rearranged, unusual, wrong, cooked, doctored, tossed, novel, bad, sad, free, tipsy, excited, pitching, crazy, bats, bananas, nuts, crackers. There are many more of these indicators, but each one will suggest a rearrangement, sometimes in a whimsical way. Here are some anagram clues with their answers to give you the idea. We’ve italicized the anagram indicator in each clue to highlight it. In each clue look for a definition of the answer word, an anagram indicator, and the letters to anagram (which are always together in a clump). The answer to each clue is in capital letters after the clue.

  • View crop pest differently (8) PROSPECT
  • Less ambiguous Le Carre novel (7) CLEARER
  • Gutsy doctor in drag (6) DARING
  • One saint moving around from a Baltic republic (8) ESTONIAN
  • Keep it laced loosely (7) CITADEL
  • Extra fancy seaport (2,5) TO SPARE
  • Engineer recalls men’s TV (5,6) SMALL SCREEN
  • On an ego trip after breaking up (9) OPERATING (if a machine is operating, it’s “on”)

2. Charade: Churchill gains weight (7)

In a charade clue, as in the game of charades, the answer is broken into pieces and clued piece by piece. WINSTON (“Churchill”) is a charade of WINS (“gains”) + TON (“weight”). Some charade clues don’t need any indicators, but others will contain indicator words to tell you to put words together, or to give the order of the pieces if they are clued out of order. Here are some examples:

  • A rock group on leave (7) A + BAND + ON
  • Skinny monarch performing brain operations (8) THIN + KING
  • Damage in a boat basin (6) MAR + IN + A
  • Commercial release beginning (6) AD + VENT
  • Show leaf with insect (7) PAGE + ANT
  • Items to be loaded go behind automobile (5) CAR + GO
  • Check shower after siesta (8) REST + RAIN

3. Hidden Word: State in Balkans assailed (6)

In a hidden word clue, the answer is spelled out in its correct order right in the clue, with no rearranging necessary. In the example, KANSAS is the “state” hidden in BALKANS ASSAILED. Indicators may suggest the answer is hiding in or kept by or some of or essential to the words that contain it. The answer could also be hidden in another particular way that is specified in the clue using an appropriate indicator, such as hiding the word backward, or as an acronym, or in alternating letters of a word or phrase. In the examples below, we’ve underlined the letters that spell out the answer.

  • Espresso drink held by hospital attendant (5) LATTE
  • Snipers on alert hiding private (8) PERSONAL
  • Burned some Camembert or cheddar (7) TORCHED
  • God, suppose I do nothing for a stretch (8) POSEIDON
  • Dromedary held back by simple machine (5) CAMEL (hidden backward)
  • Magical kingdom found back among mountain ranges (6) NARNIA
  • Odd bits of bargain cereal (4) BRAN (hidden in odd-numbered letters)
  • Geezers came out of their shells, initially (5) COOTS
  • High schooler finally brought home the information (4) TEEN
  • Criticize pairs of ballet shoes (4) BASH

4. Two Meanings: Doesn’t take pages from a book (6)

A two-meanings clue simply gives two different definitions for the answer. The answer will often be a word that has two meanings from different word origins. In the example, the answer LEAVES means both “doesn’t take” and “pages from a book”. If the second definition is punny, this can be indicated by a question mark after the definition, just like in a regular crossword.

  • Beautiful flower came up (4) ROSE
  • Metal guide (4) LEAD
  • Leather mask (4) HIDE
  • One not eating more quickly (6) FASTER
  • Benevolent sort (4) KIND
  • Resist bar (7) COUNTER
  • Hit, don’t miss (4) BEAT (as two words, BE AT means “make sure you attend” or “don’t miss”)
  • Disappear, like a moving company’s vehicle? (6) VAN-ISH
  • Ahead of one’s time, like a nobleman? (5) EARL-Y

5. Container: Tom Hanks film about relatives riding two-wheelers (6)

In a container clue, the solution is formed by putting one part of the answer inside (or outside) another. BIKING (“riding two-wheelers”) is formed by putting BIG (“Tom Hanks film”) about or around KIN (“relatives”), like this: BI(KIN)G.

  • Huge write-off in fuel (8) CO(LOSS)AL
  • Weapon tucked into man’s clothing (8) G(ARM)ENT’S
  • Number spotted outside social gathering (9) S(EVENT)EEN
  • Discover me packing newspaper clipping (4,4) CO(ME) UPON
  • Cloud over Noah’s boat in retreat (6) D(ARK)EN
  • Public houses close suddenly (9) OVER(NIGH)T

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6. Homophone: Burn prophet, we hear (4)

A homophone clue tells you that the answer has the same sound as another word or phrase. In the example, the answer SEAR (“burn”) sounds like SEER (“prophet”) when we hear the word. Homophone clues have indicators like to the audience, by the sound of it or reportedly to indicate that we hear or say the two words the same way. The homophone indicator is always beside the definition of the homophone, not beside the definition of the answer word.

  • Hide money in the auditorium (5) CACHE (“cash”)
  • At hearing, seize others (4) REST (“wrest”)
  • Forbidden troupe on the radio (6) BANNED (“band”)
  • Sound of wild pig tolerated (4) BORE (“boar”)
  • State school taken in (5) EATEN (“Eton”)

7. Reversal: Tells asterisk is reversed (4)

A reversal clue features an answer word that spells something else when reversed. RATS (“tells,” as a snitch might) is what you get when STAR (“asterisk”) is reversed. A reversal clue always contains an indicator (like back, returned or from the east) that suggests the reversal in a playful way. This indicator goes beside the definition of the reversal, not beside the definition of the answer word. In Down clues, which refer to vertical entries, look for indicators like up, northward and rising.

  • Moistens hearty dish the wrong way (4) WETS
  • Handle back-ordered parts (5) STRAP
  • Be against horn coming from the right (4) ABUT
  • Daffy guesstimate written up (4) [Down clue] BATS
  • Reversed like an Oxford sticker (5) DECAL (an Oxford is a lace-up shoe)

8. Deletion: Most of long stretch of time (4)

In a deletion clue, a word is going to lose a letter. A clue may suggest that a word could lose its “head” (first letter), “heart” (central letter) or “tail” (last letter) to form a new word. Or the clue may tell you not to start the word, or not to finish it. In the example, the answer word YEAR (“stretch of time”) is most of the word YEARN (“long”). The words “most of” suggest that you need almost all of the word. That is, you drop the last letter.

  • Shortened factory design (4) PLAN(t)
  • Christmas decoration completely missing its head (5) (w)HOLLY
  • Leave shindig before the end (4) PART(y)
  • Infuriate national park official after the opening (5) (r)ANGER
  • Conspicuous hospital client loses heart (6) PAT(i)ENT
  • Sharp butcher’s knife with middle piece missing (6) CLE(a)VER
  • Stuttgart loses all the time, darling (5) S(t)U(tt)GAR(t) (T = time)

9. Combination clues: Piano maker ordered wine to break up visit (8)

Some clues involve a combination of two or more types of wordplay, such as an anagram inside a reversal, or a deletion as part of a charade. STEINWAY (“piano maker”) is created when an ordered (anagrammed) version of WINE breaks up STAY (“visit”), like this: ST(EINW)AY.

  • Forest animals don’t have to live confined by bars (5,5) B(LACK + BE)ARS
  • Head off rascal in Los Angeles opera house (2,5) L((r)A SCAL)A
  • Dorothy’s aunt bedazzled after D.A. leaves stole (9) EM + BE(da)ZZLED
  • Lukewarm piece of pizza in retro food plan (5) TE(P)ID (diet reversed)

10. Letter Bank: Student data taken only from notecard (10,6)

A letter bank is a word with no repeated letters (like COUSIN) whose letters are drawn upon to make longer words (like CONCUSSION or UNCONSCIOUS). All of the letters of the “bank” are used, and the longer word is always at least three letters longer than its letter bank. In the example, the answer ATTENDANCE RECORD (“student data”) is made only from letters in the bank “notecard”. Letter-bank clues have become popular in North American cryptics, but not yet overseas.

  • Repeatedly retain host (12) ENTERTAINER
  • Organized bits of satin quickly (2,2,7) IN AN INSTANT
  • Stable provides everything needed to make sports equipment (8,4) BASEBALL BATS

11. Cryptic Definition: Attractive material for a jacket? (5)

The cryptic definition is a feature of British cryptic crosswords. In this type of clue, the entire clue is a definition of the answer, but this definition is written in an intentionally misleading way. In the example, the solver might initially try to think of nice-looking fabric for a suit jacket. But the answer is instead BLURB, which is the written material on a book jacket that is intended to attract buyers. That is, a different type of “attractive material for a jacket.”

  • Get out of doing work (4) EARN (not avoid work, but acquire (money) by doing work)
  • An extremely important station (8) TERMINUS (a station whose importance is that it is at one “extreme” of the line)
  • A joint where members meet (5) ANKLE (not a bar where club members meet, but a human joint where “members”, or body parts, meet)
  • It’s light to carry (5) TORCH (not something that isn’t heavy to carry, but an illumination that you carry)
  • Worker whose money may be well-earned (7) DRILLER (worker whose money is earned by making a well, making it punnily “well”-earned)
  • You have to do so (7) POSSESS (To possess something, you have it)
  • Open-air types will be out of these (5) DOORS (out of doors)
  • Was off for the rest of the night (5) SLEPT (had nodded “off” for the “rest” (sleep) of the night)
  • It’s still produced in Russia (5) VODKA (a Russian drink that could be made in a “still”, so it’s still-produced. To be sneaky, the clue-writer omits the hyphen.)
  • One looking for scraps may show it (12) BELLIGERENCE (the “scraps” are fights, not bits of food)
  • Fabulous victim of soaring ambition (6) ICARUS (“fabulous” can mean “in a fable”, and the soaring here is literal, on wax wings)
  • They’re barely seen in camp (7) NUDISTS (here, “barely” means without clothes, and the camp is a nudist camp)
  • This speaker keeps his topic to himself (7) EGOTIST (who only talks about himself)

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Indirect Anagram

In most anagram clues, the letters to be anagrammed are given explicitly in the clue. But in an indirect anagram, part or all of the anagram is defined. Most often, the solver will need to change a word to its abbreviation or symbol, and then anagram that with other words nearby. The indirect anagram is a subject of debate in the cryptic crossword community. Some people find indirect anagrams unfair and say they should never be used. Others like them for the extra challenge they provide.

  • A game bird for example all of a flutter (6) BRIDGE (bird e.g. anag.)
  • Tommy’s quiet, possibly a sign of illness (7) SYMPTOM (Tommy’s p anag.)
  • A hundred cheers perhaps or one cry of terror (7) SCREECH (C cheers anag.)
  • House doctor out at sea (5) TUDOR (Dr out anag.)

Unusual Punctuation

Speaking of clues that lead to debate, the use of tricky punctuation can be a love-it-or-hate-it thing among solvers. Should clue-writers be free to add or delete spaces anywhere? Should a hyphen be allowed between the two halves of a clue? In these situations, some solvers cry foul; others think the ideas are fun.

  • Not so many, we infer (5) FE(WE)R (add a missing space to “infer” to read the last part as WE in FER)
  • A keyhole affair (5) E + VENT (a charade of E (“a key” in music) and VENT (“hole”) makes EVENT (“affair”))
  • Red-gold flame (6) AU + BURN (ignore the hyphen)

Symbols and Abbreviations

Clue-writers may use common symbols or abbreviations, including these:

  • A, D = across, down (crossword notation)
  • A, K, Q, J = ace, king, queen, jack (playing cards)
  • AB, FLA, ILL, NS, SD = Alberta, Florida, Illinois, Nova Scotia, South Dakota (etc.)
  • AVE, RD, ST = avenue, road, street
  • B = bachelor (as in BA or BSc)
  • B, D, M = born, died, married (in Who’s Who)
  • B, K, N, P, Q, R = bishop, king, knight, pawn, queen, rook (chess notation)
  • B, G, R, W = black, green, red, white (common colour abbreviations)
  • C, H = cold, hot (on faucets)
  • C, H, N, O = carbon, hydrogen nitrogen, oxygen, etc. (chemical symbols)
  • CH, SCH, U = church, school, university
  • DAS, DER, DIE = the German (German words for “the”)
  • E, H, R = error, hit(s), run(s) (sports stats)
  • E, F = empty, full (on automobile gas gauges)
  • E, I, M, R, T, W = energy, current, mass, resistance, time, work (in science)
  • F, G, P, S, U = fail(ing), good, pass(ing), satisfactory, unsatisfactory (school reports)
  • F, T = false, true (school tests)
  • G, R, X = general, restricted, adult (movie ratings)
  • G = grand (as in 10G to mean $10,000)
  • H, L = high, low (on weather maps)
  • I, R = island, river (abbreviations on maps)
  • I, V, X, L, C, D, M = 1, 5, 10, 50, 100, 500, 1000 (Roman numerals)
  • IL = the Italian (one of the Italian words for “the”)
  • K = kindergarten (as in K-8 school)
  • LA, LE, LAS, LES = the French (French words for “the”)
  • L, M, S = large, medium, small (clothing sizes)
  • L, R = left, right
  • M, F = male, female (or masculine and feminine, in grammar)
  • MA, PA = mother, father
  • MO = month
  • N, S, E, W = north(ern), south(ern), east(ern), west(ern)
  • N, Y = no, yes (on survey boxes)
  • N, X, Y = unknown (in algebra)
  • O = circle, globe (from its shape), love (tennis score), zero, nothing
  • P = page
  • P = parking (street signs)
  • P = piano, quiet, soft (music notation, also F = forte, loud, noisy)
  • SR = senior
  • T = shirt (T-shirt)
  • UN, UNE = a French (French words for the article “a”)
  • X = by (as in 2x4 planks)
  • X = wrong

A clue-writer may also instruct the solver to pull off pieces of words. For example, the capital of France is F (its capital letter), the third of May is Y (its third letter), central Poland is LA (the two letters at the centre) and piece of wood is W (“piece of” always refers to the first letter in this context.)

Very British Abbreviations

British cryptics use extra abbreviations that are seen less frequently in North American puzzles. Here are some of them.

  • A,B,C,D,E,F,G = note (musical notes)
  • AB = sailor (able-bodied seaman)
  • AC = account, bill (abbreviation for account)
  • AI = first-rate (a top-condition ship in Lloyds Register is classified A1)
  • ANT = worker (ants are considered to work hard)
  • AVE, RD, ST = way (any thoroughfare can be clued with “way”)
  • CE = church (Church of England)
  • CHA = tea (originally from a Chinese word)
  • CHAR = cleaner (charwoman)
  • CID = detectives (Criminal Investigation Department)
  • CO = business, firm (company)
  • COR = gosh, my (exclamation of surprise)
  • CR = credit
  • D = copper, penny (abbrev. for pence in the old Lsd system)
  • ED = journalist (abbreviation of editor)
  • ELY = see (Ely is a cathedral city in the UK)
  • EM, EN = measure, space (printer’s measure)
  • FR = father
  • GG = horse (slang for horse is gee-gee)
  • H = husband
  • IV, V, VI, IX = few (any small Roman numeral could be clued with “few”)
  • L = beginner, learner (L-plates on a learner driver’s car)
  • L = pound, quid (abbreviation for pound note)
  • LAG = jailbird, prisoner (older slang)
  • MB = doctor (Medicinae Baccalaureus)
  • MI = motorway (the M1 motorway, with the 1 becoming I in a crossword)
  • MO = doctor (medical officer)
  • MON = Scotsman (Scottish for “man”)
  • MP = member (Member of Parliament)
  • MS = text, writing (abbreviation of manuscript)
  • N, S, W, E = bearing, point (compass bearings, or points of the compass)
  • NT = books (New Testament)
  • O = old
  • OB = died (abbreviation of Latin obitus)
  • OB = old boy
  • OBE = award, honour, order (Order of the British Empire)
  • OM = award, honour (Order of Merit)
  • OP = work (abbreviation of opus, a composer’s work)
  • OR = gold (term for gold or yellow colour in heraldry)
  • OS = large (outsize, on clothing labels)
  • OT = books (Old Testament)
  • PI = sanctimonious, virtuous (short for “pious”)
  • PT = exercise, training (physical training)
  • R = king, queen (Latin Rex, Regina)
  • RA = artist, painter (member of the Royal Academy)
  • RA = artillery, gunners (Royal Artillery)
  • RE = engineers, sappers, soldiers (British Army’s Royal Engineers)
  • RE = Bible study (religious education)
  • RN = navy, sailors (Royal Navy)
  • RR = bishop (Right Reverend)
  • RU = game (Rugby Union)
  • RUM = odd, peculiar (“rum” means odd or unusual)
  • RY = line, rail, track (abbreviation of railway)
  • SP = odds (starting price, in betting)
  • SS = boat (steamship); “on board” can mean putting a word inside S–S
  • ST = good man (saint)
  • TA = reservists, volunteers (Territorial Army)
  • TA = thanks
  • TED = little Edward
  • TT = dry, non-drinker, not drinking (short for teetotaller)
  • TT = race (Isle of Man Tourist Trophy motorcycle race)
  • U = posh, proper (first letter of upper-class)
  • W = wife
  • XI = team (Roman numeral; a cricket team is an “eleven”, its number of players)
  • YE = the old (an old way of writing “the”)

More puzzles: Download The Globe’s 2023 Canada Day puzzles as a PDF. Or try the giant holiday puzzle here from 2022 or 2021 here.

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