Saturday, 7 July 2012


I haven’t done a crossword puzzle for many years, but I understand their fascination. I should add that although there are puzzles with one-word clues, and there are puzzles that are de facto quizzes, the only type that interests me is one with cryptic clues. These are nothing less than a battle of wits between the compiler and the legions of would-be solvers. They test a person’s ingenuity in the use of language. There are many words and phrases that immediately alert the solver to the nature of the clue, and there are often a few literary and cultural allusions. The conventions vary from compiler to compiler, and the first thing a potential solver must do is master the quirks of that particular compiler.

If you’ve never looked at a typical cryptic clue, then a clue is likely to be without obvious meaning, because a stilted sentence immediately gives the game away as to how the clue should be interpreted. The usual practice is for one part of the clue to define the word or phrase being sought, while the other part provides directions for constructing the word or phrase from bits and pieces. The following is a typical example, taken from the Daily Telegraph:
Little creature in a poem ran all over the place. (10)
The number in parentheses is the number of letters in the word being sought. This clue is an anagram, although why this should be the case isn’t immediately obvious. At first glance, it is easy to imagine that ‘Little creature in a poem’ is the defining phrase, but in fact the defining phrase is merely ‘Little creature’. The anagrammatic nature of the clue is hinted at by the phrase ‘all over the place’, although the anagram is disguised and thus easy to miss because it chimes with where we would expect a little creature to run. So we are looking for a ten-letter word for some kind of little creature that is an anagram of ‘in a poem ran’. The answer is pomeranian, which is a breed of small dog.

Clever clues rarely stick in the memory, but my favourite is this unforgettable gem from British satirical magazine Private Eye. Given its provenance, you can expect the answer, which is a four-word phrase with words of five, two, four and four letters, respectively, to be quite rude.
Listen! Aural intercourse. (5,2,4,4)


  1. Dennis, I use to like puzzles years ago, the ones with simple one word clues although they weren't always easy. I've been racking my brains with this one but still no closer. I know it's something to do with communication but that's about it. It's too hard. I have a feeling that the answer is going to be a real simple one that will cause me to kick myself.

    1. That’s the nature of crossword clues Rum: completely obscure until you see the answer, at which point you wonder “How on earth did I not think of that?” I’ll be posting the answer at the end of the month.

  2. I don’t know how many people have attempted to solve the Private Eye crossword clue, but I’ve received no correct submissions, so here is the answer.

    Clearly, the dividing line between the two parts of the clue is the exclamation point, and ‘aural intercourse’ is a sufficiently unusual phrase to suggest that it describes how the answer is constructed. The phrase being sought therefore means ‘listen’. ‘Aural’ refers to the ears, while intercourse implies that a sexual connotation may be involved. No other information can be deduced.

    At this point, the only course of action is to rack one’s brains to come up with a phrase that meets all the conditions listed in the previous paragraph. This is it:

    “Prick up your ears.”

    I told you it was rude.

  3. Hello Dennis! Hope you are doing well these days.
    One of my routines was to do the daily crossword puzzle in the Los Angeles times. If I was not at home and had to buy a paper, I'd usually do the New York Times. In order to be successful, I believe a person has to do them almost everyday. I find that if I do them often enough, my brain starts thinking the way the puzzle creator does and I can pretty quickly catch on to their little tricks. You are right about some of the words being impossible to figure out. They are meant to be that way. In order to complete the puzzle you have to work around them, using the regular clues and words until they are revealed. All crossword puzzle creators also use "filler" words, that a regular person just wouldn't know. If you've done puzzles for a long time and you know how they are made, you use these to fill in portions of the puzzle. A good example is the clue "gangster." The answer is almost always "yegg." This one is used very frequently. Anyway, printed newspapers have gotten so expensive that I've stopped subscribing to them and now only do them occasionally. I can already feel my brain slipping! I guess we really do need to use it, or we lose it!

    1. Hi Pat. Sorry to take so long to reply to your comment, but I’ve been under the weather lately, hence the lack of activity here during the past few weeks. I’m suffering from chronic lack of sleep as a result of pain in my knee. Even a short walk to the local shops is causing me extreme discomfort, and until the last couple of weeks the weather has been so poor that cycling (which I find beneficial) has been impossible.

      You’re absolutely spot on with your comment that you need to do a particular puzzle regularly in order to “get inside the mind of the compiler”. I would expect the cultural references in American crosswords to be opaque to me (for instance, I cannot for the life of me work out how ‘gangster’ translates to ‘yegg’), although I cannot think of any British examples to test whether the same applies in reverse. I did the Daily Telegraph crossword for years, and the Times crossword, which is reprinted in the main English-language newspaper in Hong Kong, is well worth a look.

      Like you I don’t buy newspapers nowadays, but on environmental rather than cost grounds. In any case, most newspapers also have their own websites, so buying a newspaper does seem rather pointless.

      Did you check out A Hard Question? This kind of puzzle requires a similar mindset to that needed to solve a cryptic crossword.


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