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Never a cross word
Isn't this a good joke to make about crossword puzzles? Or so I thought. But I was google-thwarted again. Tony Augarde got there first:
Cryptic crosswords are particularly good devices for exercising the brain, since compilers deliberately make their clues mysterious and often ambiguous
This compels would-be solvers to use lateral thinking. It sometimes deters newcomers, who think that such crosswords are difficult - as, indeed they often are. Yet crossword setters tend to use a limited number of types of clue Once you are aware of the range of possibilities, cryptic crosswords may not seem so daunting.
Probably the commonest type of cryptic clue is the anagram, in which the letters of the word being clued are rearranged somewhere in the clue.
Thus the clue 'Mixing a pink gin makes you a VIP (7)' can lead to kingpin (an anagram of pink gin), while 'Lacking resolve, Tories rule badly (10)' leads to irresolute (an anagram of Tories rule).
Note how, as well as the anagrams, each clue includes a definition (VIP and lacking resolve) as well as a word like 'mixing' or 'badly' which suggests that an anagram is involved.
These 'anagram indicators' comprise almost any word that signifies rearrangement or disturbance: like awkward, irregular and tangled.
Anagram clues do not always include such indicators, as in 'The beadiest disease (8)' (= diabetes) or the phrase included in a Christmas crossword set by Araucaria in the Guardian with the clue 'O hark the herald angels sing the boy's descent which lifted up the world' - a brilliant anagram of 'While shepherds watched their flocks by night, all seated on the ground.'
A similar device is the reversal, in which the clue suggests that you have to turn a word back-to-front. So 'Have a little look round part of castle (4)' gives you keep (which is peek, 'a little look', turned round). Again, the word 'round' is an indicator that you are looking for a reversal. A particularly ingenious clue is 'Row back and forth in boat if fitter (4)' - a clue to tiff, which is a kind of 'row' and is found both forwards and backwards in the phrase 'boat if fitter'.
This leads us on to another common form of cryptic clue, in which a word is hidden in the letters of a phrase.
The most usual indicators here are words like 'in', 'around' and 'about'. For example, 'He is beaten in a close-run race (5)' leads to 'loser', which describes a person who is beaten and is hidden inside the phrase 'close-run'.
Similarly 'Nothing seen in prize rose (4)' leads you to 'zero'. One of my favourite such clues - apparently referring to the composer Chopin and his lover George Sand - is, 'Tingle concealed by Chopin, Sand - needlessly (4, 3, 7)' - a clue to pins and needles.
An associated kind of clue is known as the 'container and contents' type, where one word is hidden inside another. One or both of the words may be an abbreviation, as in 'Devout acknowledgment of a debt in a postscript (5)' = 'pious' (that is, IOU in PS) or 'Look! the fly has swallowed a penny! (7)' = 'inspect' (p inside insect).
Once again, notice how a straightforward definition of each word ('devout' and 'look') is included alongside the cryptic part of the clue.
This is an important aspect of the best crossword clues - they say what they mean at the same time as trying to conceal what they mean.
Abbreviations are frequently used in crosswords, as in 'Peel's creation, initially (6, 9)' which leads to 'police constable' (with the initials PC).
Abbreviations can betray the archaic world inhabited by some compilers, who still use 'EP' for the (obsolete) extended-play record, refer to a sailor as an 'AB' (or even a 'tar' and think that a penny is still 'd' rather than 'p'.
My two favourite crossword clues of all time are:
Apotheosis of the palindrome (seven letters)
The overloaded postman (mailman to Americans)
How many letters?
Answer: too many