'Deciphering cryptic clues ...'


LESSON 5 in ‘How to solve cryptic crosswords’

Most cryptic clues provide at least two paths to the solution. The trick is knowing how to decipher the meaning.

Generally, each clue will contain a definition of the answer and a cryptic means of reaching it. This is sometimes known as a direct and an indirect clue.

Step one is to ignore the initial sense of the words.

No matter how elegantly or awkwardly phrased, the great majority of cryptic clues are meaningless if read conventionally. Instead, look for key words or phrases which will help you identify the solution and what steps you must take to get to it.

For example, Stick notice in this place (6). The answer is ADHERE which is another word for stick (i.e. the direct clue). The rest of the words are telling you how to get the answer. In this case, AD is a cryptic abbreviation for notice (advertisement) and HERE is another word for in this place.

If this seems complicated at first, don't be concerned. As you learn some of the cryptic abbreviations, it will become easier.

Another example of definition and cryptic instruction is Feather dusters go on strike (4,5). The answer is DOWN TOOLS. To go on strike is to 'down tools' (i.e the definition of the clue). To arrive at the answer you will recognise that DOWN is a synonym for feather and dusters are TOOLS.

Needless to say, the definition will not always be easy to locate.

It may be at the beginning, or the end of a clue.

It may be a noun, an adjective, a verb, an adverb or a phrase. Compilers will do their best to obscure the definition, because part of their art is to make things as difficult as possible for you while still producing a clue which is solvable.

As you work through the puzzle deciphering clues, you can be confident that a cryptic crossword compiler will always say what she or he means. Even if at first sight it may not seem so, the information you need is there in front of you.

This cryptic law is known as Afrit's Injunction after A.F. Ritchie, a noted British compiler of the 1930s and '40s known as Afrit. In 1949 he wrote:

We must expect the composer to play tricks, but we shall insist that he play fair. The Book of the Crossword lays this injunction upon him: "You need not mean what you say, but you must say what you mean." This is a superior way of saying that he can't have it both ways. He may attempt to mislead by employing a form of words which can be taken more than one way, and it is your fault if you take it the wrong way, but it is his fault if you can't logically take it the right way.

The solver, for his part, is enjoined to read the clues in an anti-Pickwickian sense. This also requires explanation. To take a remark in a Pickwickian sense is not to take it literally; therefore, to read a clue in an anti-Pickwickian sense is to close the mind to the acquired metaphorical meaning of the words and to concentrate upon their bald literal significance ...

Understanding that cryptic crossword compilers often use words in a literal sense will help you considerably.

For example, in cryptic terms, summer is more likely to refer to a MATHEMATICIAN or a COUNTER than to a time of year or a season; and a drop out will probably refer to a PARACHUTIST rather than someone seeking an alternative lifestyle.

Known as cryptic puns, these literal interpretations are often clever and humorous. What's more, they are a delightful reminder for solvers that cryptic crosswords require flexible and lateral thinking.

A compiler will often use established pointers to show you how to find the solution. In cryptic terms, a pointer is a word or phrase in the clue which indicates which words or letters in the clue, or which operation, will be used to arrive at the solution.

Words which suggest change, for example, point to an anagram or a re-ordering of letters.

In other cases the clue may point you towards the joining or deletion of words or abbreviations to form the answer. For example, words like continuous, unbroken, and unified suggest that words or letters should be joined while reduce, remove, and without suggest that words or letters should be deleted from the clue to form an answer.

Alternatively, you may be required to include a word within another or place a word within or outside a cryptic abbreviation.

Don't worry if it seems a little complicated, examples are following ...

Lesson 6: Cryptic abbreviations


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