“HHow the hell do these things work? “It is a reasonable question when faced with a cryptic clue. The answer is” Well, half is a definition of the answer and the other half is a little recipe for the letters of the answer “, because that is how they are always structured things.
Except, of course, when they are not.
Since the early days, the shipowners have also implemented another trick: describing the answer in a way that is very easy to misinterpret. The cryptic definition is more or less a joke, and many of the most cited clues work this way. Here are a couple, which have been attributed to Adrian Bell, the Times’ first point guard.
This cylinder is stuck (5.4)
“Dying” and “stuck” are not doing what they seem, as the answers are SWISS ROLL and ICE CUBE. Unlike some types of clues from the early days (like “fill in the missing word in the Horace ode”), the cryptic definition is strong. In The Guardian, I hope to find one or two on Mondays, for many Rufus years …
16ac Sports event in which you are required to compete (5-6,4)
3d Even when frayed, it should be kept (6)
10ac They lead the way in today’s transportation system (8)
… that’s THREE-LEG RACE, TEMPERATURE and RENO, and today from setters like Vulcan. Here’s one of the latest from Vulcan:
2d Paperwork finished without tears (7)
“Tears” rhymes with “bears”, not “fears”, and is ORIGAMI. But, the solver can be reasonably concerned: I to know these are cryptic definitions because you just told me that’s what we’re talking about. In a genuine puzzle environment, couldn’t I get stuck? I will not have an anagram or anything to confirm the answer.
Do not worry! The crossed letters are of great help; Also, sometimes you get something else to confirm the answer. We have analyzed double definition tracks; sometimes the setter will bundle a normal definition and a cryptic definition. Rufus again:
20ac Be careful! The time is not right (5.3)
Two ways to BE CAREFUL. Similarly, a setter could offer a cryptic definition accompanied by the usual synonyms and abbreviations that make up most cryptic clues. This is from Paul:
American 24ac behind bars, enclosure with little space (4.4)
[ wordplay: synonym for ‘enclosure’ next to (‘with’) synonym for ‘little room’, euphemistically ]
[ CAGE next to JOHN ]
[ definition: American behind bars ]
Whats Next? Beginners, any questions? Cryptic clues are sometimes given the impression that they are cryptic definitions, but they are more of an occasional treat.
That being said, American riddles, using no puns at all and forcing each letter to be part of a crossover and downward clue, keep things interesting with a much higher proportion of cryptic definitions – there are plenty of examples in the American-style puzzle series we’re developing here.
The examples of double definitions in our series for beginners may be a good place to go next; seasoned solvers, do you have any favorites to share?
Finally, these explainers are supposed to be timeless, but for those of you who have come here in 2021, we share tips on a playlist called Healing music recorded in 2020-21 to accompany a solution or even listen. The latter was recorded last week by Isata Kanneh-Mason.
Alan Connor’s The Shipping Forecast Puzzle Book, which is partially, but not predominantly cryptic, can be ordered at the Guardian Bookstore.
George is Digismak’s reported cum editor with 13 years of experience in Journalism