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)