The crossword is that rare thing: a healthy addiction. While there’s no shortage of ways to pass moments while travelling or taking a break, few leave your mind as thoroughly rebooted as a good puzzle.
If you don’t have long, the quick crossword takes the English language and turns its weirdness into a game. Most countries have some kind of crossword, but they’re full of names of places and people: trivia, you might call it.
The British quick is a different beast: it’s a linguistic workout – and one that only works in English. In the wake of countless immigrations and invasions, and later, as the empire borrowed and stole from around the globe, the English language became a unique jumble, where any given thing might have different names, and any word might mean many things. These ambiguities become part of the fun of crosswords, where “Press (4)” leads to URGE as neatly as it does to IRON.
The cryptic crossword, however, takes this to brain-bending new places. In a cryptic, a “Number of people in a theatre (12)” can be an ANAESTHETIST: a different kind of “theatre”, and “number” as one who numbs. The moment of enlightenment is a mental hit – a compulsive one.
It’s in its wordplay that the cryptic becomes an art form: “Natty, elegant and trim, primarily (4)” asks you to look at the words’ first letters; very NEAT. The cryptic-curious are often aware that puzzles will demand anagrams and acrostics, and despair of ever knowing what to look out for.
But the conventions are few and easily picked up; the Guardian site has a Cryptic crosswords for beginners series. It’s also worth solving with a friend – like any language, it comes more easily through conversation.
Once you’ve acquired the habit, you might be tempted to create a puzzle yourself. You’ll have no difficulty finding technical tools online, but you might find you make it too hard. A baffling puzzle is easier to set and much less satisfying to solve.
Remember: a decent puzzle has some easy clues, strategically placed, to get things going – and the harder clues must all yield eventually. The setter’s job is to put up a fight, but let the solver win, with a completed grid and a happy expression.
Agatha Christie once reflected on clues in a whodunnit. “It’s like making crossword puzzles,” she wrote. “You think it’s too idiotically simple and that everyone will guess it straight off, and you’re frightfully surprised when they simply can’t get it in the least.”
Cracking the clues
Here are the devices most commonly used by setters to guide you – however evasively – towards the answer. Think of it like a toolkit, where part of the fun is working out which tool to use next. For each, there’s a sample clue.
1. Double definition
These clues give two – often very different – meanings of the answer.
From Shed: “Alarming disclosure of beauty (9)”
2. Cryptic definition
The answer is described in a misleading way.
From Rufus: “They lead the way in the present transport system (8)”
Half the clue gives a definition of the answer; the other half is a jumble of the letters in the answer, plus a hint (“dodgy”, “disorganised” etc) that they should be jumbled.
From Brendan: “Collection of documents found to be dodgy ie dross (7)”
A definition, and some more words in which the answer is concealed, indicated by something like “among”, “amid”, or even “in”.
From Orlando: “In Scandinavia grandpa discovered potent drug (6)”
A definition, and a description of a word which, when spelled backwards, gives the answer.
From Paul: “Statement by filmed divorcee, retracted (6)”
A definition, and a hint to take the first letters of some other words for the answer.
From Bunthorne: “Does he lead prayer for openers? Is Mohammed a Muslim? (4)”
Along with the definition, and a hint that you should see what another word sounds like, maybe by “saying” it aloud.
From Araucaria: “Bond’s said to be Asian (4)”
Before you check your answers below, here are three clues written by Guardian setters that are all-time favourites of their solvers and peers:
8. From Paul
“Potty train (4)”
9. From Bunthorne
“Amundsen’s forwarding address (4)”
10. From Rufus
“Two girls, one on each knee (7)”
Alan Connor is the question editor on the quiz show Only Connect. To order a copy of his book Two Girls, One on Each Knee for £7.19 (RRP £8.99), visit bookshop.theguardian.com
1. BOMBSHELL (as in, say, “on that bombshell” and “blonde bombshell”)
2. REINDEER (“present” as a noun rather than an adjective)
3. DOSSIER (anagram of “ie dross”)
4. VIAGRA (hidden in “Scandinavia grandpa”)
5. REMARK (“Kramer” reversed)
6. IMAM (first letters of “Is Mohammed a Muslim”)
7. THAI (sounds like “tie”)
8. LOCO (double definition)
9. MUSH (cryptic definition)
10. PATELLA (“Pat” and “Ella”)
Какой ключ. Стратмор снова вздохнул. - Тот, который тебе передал Танкадо.