A cryptic crossword is a crossword puzzle in which each clue is a word puzzle in and of itself. Cryptic crosswords are particularly popular in the United Kingdom, where they originated, Ireland, Israel, the Netherlands, and in several Commonwealth nations, including Australia, Canada, India, Kenya, Malta, New Zealand, and South Africa. In the United States, cryptics are sometimes known as "British-style" crosswords. Compilers of cryptic crosswords are commonly called "setters" in the UK.
Cryptic crossword puzzles come in two main types: the basic cryptic in which each clue answer is entered into the diagram normally, and "themed" or "variety" cryptics, in which some or all of the answers must be altered before entering, usually in accordance with a hidden pattern or rule which must be discovered by the solver.
The history of cryptic crosswords started in the UK. The first British crossword puzzles appeared around 1923 and were purely definitional, but from the mid-1920s they began to include cryptic material: not cryptic clues in the modern sense, but anagrams, classical allusions, incomplete quotations, and other references and wordplay. Torquemada (Edward Powys Mathers), who set for The Saturday Westminster from 1925 and for The Observer from 1926 until his death in 1939, was the first setter to use cryptic clues exclusively and is often credited as the inventor of the cryptic crossword.
The first newspaper crosswords appeared in the Sunday and Daily Express from about 1924. Crosswords were gradually taken up by other newspapers, appearing in the Daily Telegraph from 1925, The Manchester Guardian from 1929 and The Times from 1930. These newspaper puzzles were almost entirely non-cryptic at first and gradually used more cryptic clues, until the fully cryptic puzzle as known today became widespread. In some papers this took until about 1960.
Puzzles appeared in The Listener from 1930, but this was a weekly magazine rather than a newspaper, and the puzzles were much harder than the newspaper ones, though again they took a while to become entirely cryptic.
Torquemada's puzzles were extremely obscure and difficult, and later setters reacted against this tendency by developing a standard for fair clues, ones that can be solved, at least in principle, by deduction, without needing leaps of faith or insights into the setter's thought processes.
The basic principle of fairness was set out by Listener setter Afrit (Alistair Ferguson Ritchie) in his book Armchair Crosswords (1946), wherein he credits it to the fictional Book of the Crossword:
An example of a clue which cannot logically be taken the right way:
Here the composer intends the answer to be "derby", with "hat" the definition, "could be" the anagram indicator, and "be dry" the anagram fodder. But "be" is doing double duty, and this means that any attempt to read the clue cryptically in the form "[definition] [anagram indicator] [fodder]" fails: if "be" is part of the anagram indicator, then the fodder is too short, but if it is part of the fodder, there is no anagram indicator; to be a correct clue it would have to be "Hat could be be dry (5)", which is ungrammatical. A variation might read Hat turns out to be dry (5), but this also fails because the word "to", which is necessary to make the sentence grammatical, follows the indicator ("turns out") even though it is not part of the anagram indicated.
Torquemada's successor at The Observer was Ximenes (Derrick Somerset Macnutt, 1902–1971), and in his influential work, Ximenes on the Art of the Crossword Puzzle (1966), he set out more detailed guidelines for setting fair cryptic clues, now known as "Ximenean principles" and sometimes described by the word "square-dealing". The most important of them are tersely summed up by Ximenes' successor Azed (Jonathan Crowther, born 1942):
The Ximenean principles are adhered to most strictly in the subgenre of "advanced cryptics" — difficult puzzles using barred grids and a large vocabulary. Easier puzzles often have more relaxed standards, permitting a wider array of clue types, and allowing a little flexibility. The popular Guardian setter Araucaria (John Galbraith Graham, 1921–2013) was a noted non-Ximenean, celebrated for his witty, if occasionally unorthodox, clues.
Most of the major national newspapers in the UK carry both cryptic and concise (quick) crosswords. The puzzle in The Guardian is well loved for its humour and quirkiness, and quite often includes puzzles with themes, which are extremely rare in The Times. The Independent puzzle also includes themes quite often. However, with its larger circulation, The Telegraph version is probably the most attempted.
Cryptic crosswords do not commonly appear in U.S. publications, although they can be found in magazines such as GAMES Magazine, The Nation, Harper's, and occasionally in the Sunday New York Times. The New York Post reprints cryptic crosswords from The Times. Other sources of cryptic crosswords in the U.S. (at various difficulty levels) are puzzle books, as well as UK and Canadian newspapers distributed in the U.S. Other venues include the Enigma, the magazine of the National Puzzlers' League, and formerly, The Atlantic Monthly. The latter puzzle, after a long and distinguished run, appeared solely on The Atlantic's website for several years, and ended with the October 2009 issue. A similar puzzle by the same authors now appears monthly in The Wall Street Journal.
Cryptic crosswords are very popular in Australia. Most Australian newspapers will have at least one cryptic crossword, if not two. The Sydney Morning Herald and Melbourne's The Age carry daily cryptic crosswords, including Friday's challenging cryptic by 'DA', composed by David Astle. The Australian puzzle publishers "Lovatts" regularly puts out cryptic crossword puzzle books.
In essence, a cryptic clue leads to its answer as long as it is read in the right way. What the clue appears to say when read normally (the surface reading) is a distraction and usually has nothing to do with the clue answer. The challenge is to find the way of reading the clue that leads to the solution.
A typical clue consists of two parts, the definition and the wordplay. It provides two ways of getting to the answer. The definition, which usually exactly matches the part of speech, tense, and number of the answer, is in essence the same as any 'straight' crossword clue, a synonym for the answer. It usually appears at the start or the end of a clue.
The other part (the subsidiary indication, or wordplay) provides an alternative route to the answer (this part would be a second definition in the case of double definition clues). One of the tasks of the solver is to find the boundary between definition and wordplay and insert a mental pause there when reading the clue cryptically. This wordplay gives the solver some instructions on how to get to the answer another way. (Sometimes the two parts are joined with a link word or phrase such as "from", "gives" or "could be".)
There are many sorts of wordplay, such as anagrams and double definitions, but they all conform to rules. The crossword setters do their best to stick to these rules when writing their clues, and solvers can use these rules and conventions to help them solve the clues. Noted cryptic setter Derrick Somerset Macnutt (who wrote cryptics under the pseudonym of Ximenes) discusses the importance and art of fair cluemanship in his seminal book on cryptic crosswords, Ximenes on the Art of the Crossword (1966, reprinted 2001).
Because a typical cryptic clue describes its answer in detail and often more than once, the solver can usually have a great deal of confidence in the answer once it has been determined. The clues are 'self-checking'. This is in contrast to non-cryptic crossword clues which often have several possible answers and force the solver to use the crossing letters to distinguish which was intended.
Here is an example (taken from The Guardian crossword of 6 August 2002, set by "Shed").
is a clue for TRAGICAL. This breaks down as follows.
There are many "code words" or "indicators" that have a special meaning in the cryptic crossword context. (In the example above, "about", "unfinished" and "rising" all fall into this category). Learning these, or being able to spot them, is a useful and necessary part of becoming a skilled cryptic crossword solver.
Compilers or setters often use slang terms and abbreviations, generally without indication, so familiarity with these is important for the solver. Abbreviations may be as simple as 'west' = W, 'New York' = NY, but may also be more difficult. Words that can mean more than one thing are commonly exploited; often the meaning the solver must use is completely different from the one it appears to have in the clue. Some examples are:
Of these examples, "flower" is an invented meaning by back-formation from the -er suffix, which cannot be confirmed in a standard dictionary. A similar trick is played in the old clue "A wicked thing" for CANDLE, where the -ed suffix must be understood in its "equipped with a ..." meaning. In the case of the -er suffix, this trick could be played with other meanings of the suffix, but except for river → BANKER (a river is not a 'thing that banks' but a 'thing that has banks'), this is rarely done.
Sometimes "compiler", or the name or codename of the compiler (if visible by the crossword), codes for some form of the pronoun "I, me, my, mine".
In the Daily Telegraph back page, Monday 15 March 2017, 7 down, is "Banish spirits with zero ice upsetting imbibing times (8)"; the answer is EXORCIZE: it means "banish spirits", and is "zero ice" rearranged, including 'x' (described as "times").
A typical cryptic crossword grid is generally 15×15, with half-turn rotational symmetry. Unlike typical American crosswords, in which every square is almost always checked (that is, each square provides a letter for both an across and a down answer), only about half of the squares in a cryptic crossword are checked.
Some papers have additional grid rules. In The Times, for example, all words have at least half the letters checked, and although words can have two unchecked squares in succession, they cannot be the first two or last two letters of a word. The grid shown here breaks one Times grid rule: the 15-letter words at 9 and 24 across each have 8 letters unchecked out of 15. The Independent allows setters to use their own grid designs.
Variety (UK: "advanced") cryptic crosswords typically use a "barred grid" with no black squares and a slightly smaller size; 12×12 is typical. Word boundaries are denoted by thick lines called "bars". In these variety puzzles, one or more clues may require modification to fit into the grid, such as dropping or adding a letter, or being anagrammed to fit other, unmodified clues; unclued spaces may spell out a secret message appropriate for the puzzle theme once the puzzle is fully solved. The solver also may need to determine where answers fit into the grid.
A July 2006 "Puzzlecraft" section in Games magazine on cryptic crossword construction noted that for cryptic crosswords to be readily solvable, no fewer than half the letters for every word should be checked by another word for a standard cryptic crossword, while nearly every letter should be checked for a variety cryptic crossword. In most UK "advanced cryptics" ('variety cryptic'), at least three-quarters of the letters in each word are checked.
There are notable differences between British and North American (including Canadian) cryptics. American cryptics are thought of as holding to a more rigid set of construction rules than British ones. American cryptics usually require all words in a clue to be used in service of the wordplay or definition, whereas British ones allow for more extraneous or supporting words. In American cryptics, a clue is only allowed to have one subsidiary indication, but in British cryptics the occasional clue may have more than one; e.g., a triple definition clue would be considered an amusing variation in the UK but unsound in the US.
For the most part, cryptic crosswords are an English-language phenomenon, although similar puzzles are popular in a Hebrew form in Israel (where they are called tashbetsey higayon (תשבצי הגיון) "Logic crosswords") and (as Cryptogrammen) in Dutch. In Poland similar crosswords are called "Hetman crosswords". 'Hetman', a senior commander, and also the name for a queen in Chess, emphasises their importance over other crosswords. In Finnish, this type of crossword puzzle is known as piilosana (literally "hidden word"), while krypto refers to a crossword puzzle where the letters have been coded as numbers. The German ZEITmagazin has a weekly cryptic crossword called Um die Ecke gedacht and the SZ Magazin features das Kreuz mit den Worten.
In India the Telugu publication Sakshi carries a "Tenglish" (Telugu-English, bilingual) cryptic crossword; the Prajavani crossword (Kannada) also employs cryptic wordplay. Enthusiasts have also created cryptic crosswords in Hindi. Since 1994, enigmista Ennio Peres has challenged Italians annually with Il cruciverba più difficile del mondo (The World's Most Difficult Crossword), which has many features in common with English-style cryptics.
In Chinese something similar is the riddle of Chinese characters, where partial characters instead of substrings are clued and combined.
Clues given to the solver are based on various forms of wordplay. Nearly every clue has two non-overlapping parts to it: one part that provides an unmodified but often indirect definition for the word or phrase, and a second part that includes the wordplay involved. In a few cases, the two definitions are one and the same, as often in the case of "& lit." clues. Most cryptic crosswords provide the number of letters in the answer, or in the case of phrases, a series of numbers to denote the letters in each word: "cryptic crossword" would be clued with "(7,9)" following the clue. More advanced puzzles may drop this portion of the clue.
An anagram is a rearrangement of a certain section of the clue to form the answer. This is usually indicated by words such as "strange", "bizarre", "muddled", "wild", "drunk", or any other term indicating change. One example:
gives ESCORT, which means chaperone and is an anagram of corset, indicated by the word shredded.
Anagram clues are characterized by an indicator word adjacent to a phrase that has the same number of letters as the answer. The indicator tells the solver that there is an anagram they need to solve to work out the answer. Indicators come either before or after the letters to be anagrammed. In an American cryptic, only the words given in the clue may be anagrammed; in some older puzzles, the words to be anagrammed may be clued and then anagrammed. So in this clue:
Chew is the anagram indicator; honeydew clues melon, which is to be anagrammed; and fruit is the definition for the answer, LEMON. This kind of clue is called an indirect anagram, which in the vast majority of cryptic crosswords are not used, ever since they were criticised by 'Ximenes' in his 1966 book On the Art of the Crossword. Minor exception: simple abbreviations may be used to spice up the process; e.g., "Husband, a most eccentric fellow" (6) for THOMAS, where the anagram is made from A, MOST, and H = husband.
Anagram indicators, among the thousands possible, include: about, abstract, absurd, adapted, adjusted, again, alien, alternative, anew, another, around, arranged, assembled, assorted, at sea, awful, awkward, bad, barmy, becomes, blend, blow, break, brew, build, careless, changed, chaotic, characters, clumsy, composed, confused, contrived, convert, cooked, corrupt, could be, crazy, damaged, dancing, designed, develop, different, disorderly, disturbed, doctor, eccentric, edited, engineer, fabricate, fake, fancy, faulty, fiddled, fix, foolish, form, free, fudge, gives, ground, hammer, haywire, hybrid, improper, in a tizzy, involved, irregular, jostle, jumbled, jumping, kind of, knead, letters, loose, made, managed, maybe, messy, mistaken, mix, modified, moving, muddled, mutant, new, novel, odd, off, order, organised, otherwise, out, outrageous, peculiar, perhaps, playing, poor, possible, prepared, produced, queer, questionable, random, reform, remodel, repair, resort, rough, shaken, shifting, silly, sloppy, smashed, somehow, sort, spoilt, strange, style, switch, tangled, treated, tricky, troubled, turning, twist, unconventional, undone, unsettled, unsound, untidy, unusual, upset, used, vary, version, warped, wayward, weird, wild, working, wrecked, wrong.
It is common for the setter to use a juxtaposition of anagram indicator and anagram that form a common phrase to make the clue appear as much like a 'normal' sentence or phrase as possible. For example:
uses dancing as the indicator as it fits cohesively with lap to give the solution, PAL.
Here the answer is formed by joining individually clued words to make a larger word (namely, the answer).
The answer is BANKING formed by BAN for "outlaw" and KING for "leader". The definition is "managing money". With this example, the words appear in the same order in the clue as they do in the answer, and no special words are needed to indicate this. However, the order of the parts is sometimes indicated with words such as "against", "after", "on", "with" or "above" (in a down clue).
A container clue puts one set of letters inside another. So:
gives PAUL ("apostle"), by placing "pal" ("friend") outside of "U" ("university").
Other container indicators are "inside", "over", "around", "about", "clutching", "enters", and the like.
Deletions consist of beheadments, curtailments, and internal deletions. In beheadments, a word loses its first letter. In curtailments, it loses its last letter, and internal deletions remove an inner letter, such as the middle one.
An example of a beheadment:
The answer would be TAR, another word for "sailor", which is a "celebrity", or star, without the first letter.
Other indicator words of beheadment include "don't start", "topless", and "after the first".
An example of curtailment:
The answer is BOO. If you ignore the punctuation, a book is a "read", and book "endlessly" is boo, a "shout".
Other indicators include "nearly" and "unfinished".
An example of internal deletion:
The answer is DARING, which means "challenging", and is darling without its middle letter, or "heartlessly".
Note that "sweetheart" could also be simply "wee" or the letter "E", that is, the "heart" (middle) of "sweet".
A clue may, rather than having a definition part and a wordplay part, have two definition parts. Thus:
would have the answer BLIND, because blind can mean both "not seeing" and "window covering". Note that since these definitions come from the same root word, an American magazine might not allow this clue. American double definitions tend to require both parts to come from different roots, as in this clue:
This takes advantage of the two very different meanings (and pronunciations) of POLISH, the one with the long "o" sound meaning "someone from Poland" and the one with the short "o" sound meaning "make shiny".
These clues tend to be short; in particular, two-word clues are almost always double-definition clues.
In the UK, multiple definitions are occasionally used; e.g.:
is a quintuple definition of DOWN ("blue" (sad), "swallow" (drink), "feathers" (plumage), "fell" (cut down) and "from above"), but in the US this would be considered unsound.
Some British newspapers have an affection for quirky clues of this kind where the two definitions are similar:
Note that these clues do not have clear indicator words.
When the answer appears in the clue but is contained within one or more words, it is hidden. For example:
gives UNDERMINED, which means (cryptically at least) "damaged" and can be found as part of "Found ermine deer". The word "hides" is used to mean "contains," but in the surface sense suggests "pelts". A complication is that "damaged" often (but not in this clue) means "rearrange the letters".
Possible indicators of a hidden clue are "in part", "partially", "in", "within", "hides", "conceals", "some", and "held by".
gives DOG, which is the first part of, or "introduction to", the word "do-gooder", and means "canine". Hidden words clues are sometimes called "Embedded words" or "Telescopic clues". The opposite of a hidden word clue, where letters missing from a sentence have to be found, is known as a Printer's Devilry, and appears in some advanced cryptics.
There are several common techniques used in Hidden Word clues.
The first letters of part of the clue are put together to give the answer.
An example of an initialism:
The answer would be APE, which is a type of primate. "Initially" signals that you must take the first letters of "amiable person eats" – "ape".
Another example would be:
The answer would be ANNIE, the name of a famous orphan in musical theatre. This is obtained from the first letters of "actor needing new identity emulates".
Words that indicate initialisms also include "firstly" and "to start".
It is possible to have initialisms just for certain parts of the clue. It is also possible to employ the same technique to the end of words. For example:
The answer would be DAHOMEY, which used to be a kingdom in Africa (an "old country"). Here, we take the first letters of only the words "Head Office" (ho) and we take the "end" of the word "day" (y). The letters of the word "dame", meaning "lady", are then made to go around the letters "ho" to form Dahomey.
Either the odd or even letters of words in the clue give the answer. An example is:
The answer would be SUFFRAGIST, which is "someone wanting women to vote". The word "odd" indicates that we must take every other letter of the rest of the clue, starting with the first: StUfF oF mR wAuGh Is SeT.
Homophones are words that sound the same but have different meanings, such as "night" and "knight". Homophone clues always have an indicator word or phrase that has to do with phonetics, such as "reportedly", "they say", "utterly" (here treated as "utter(ing)-ly" and not with its usual meaning), "vocal", "to the audience", "auditioned", "by the sound of it", "is heard", "in conversation" and "on the radio". "Broadcast" is a particularly devious indicator as it could indicate either a homophone or an anagram.
An example of a homophone clue is
which is a clue for PARE, which means "shave" and is a homophone of pair, or "twins". The homophone is indicated by "we hear".
If the two words are the same length, the clue should be phrased in such a way that only one of them can be the answer. This is usually done by having the homophone indicator adjacent to the word that is not the definition; therefore, in the previous example, "we hear" was adjacent to "twins" and the answer was pare rather than pair. The indicator could come between the words if they were of different lengths and the enumeration was given, such as in the case of "right" and "rite".
A word that gets turned around to make another is a reversal. For example:
The answer is REGAL. "Lager" (i.e., "beer") is "returned" to make regal.
Other indicator words include "receding", "in the mirror", "going the wrong way", "returns", "reverses" "to the left" or "left" (for across clues), and "rising", "overturned" or "mounted" or "comes up" (for down clues).
Here the clue appears to say one thing, but with a slight shift of viewpoint it says another. For example:
gives THAMES, a flow-er of London. Here, the surface reading suggests a blossom, which disguises the fact that the name of a river is required. Notice the question mark: this is often (though by no means always) used by compilers to indicate this sort of clue is one where you need to interpret the words in a different fashion. The way that a clue reads as an ordinary sentence is called its surface reading and is often used to disguise the need for a different interpretation of the clue's component words.
This type of clue is common in British and Canadian cryptics but is a bit less common in American cryptics; in American-style crosswords, a clue like this is generally called a punny clue. It's almost certainly the oldest kind of cryptic clue: cryptic definitions appeared in the UK newspaper puzzles in the late 1920s and early 1930s that mixed cryptic and plain definition clues and evolved into fully cryptic crosswords.
A very uncommon clue type, a Spoonerism is a play on words where corresponding morphemes are switched between two words in a phrase (or syllables in a word) and the switch forms another pair of proper sounding words. For example: "butterfly" = "flutter by".
Both the solution word or phrase and its corresponding Spoonerism are clued for, and the clue type is almost always indicated by reference to Spooner himself – with some regions/publications insisting his religious title "Rev." or "Reverend" be included. In contrast to all other clue types, this makes them almost impossible to disguise. But that doesn't necessarily make them easy.
An example of a Spoonerism clue is:
The answer is LITTERBUG (He will casually put down). The Spoonerism being "bitter" (angry) and "lug" (bear, as in carry).
The vast majority of Spoonerism clues swap the first consonants of words or syllables, but Spoonerisms are not strictly restricted to that form and some setters will take advantage of this. John Henderson (Enigmatist in the Guardian) once clued for the Spoonerism "light crick" from "right click", which didn't sit well with many solvers.
An "&lit." or "Literal" clue is not a clue type, but, rather a variant on an existing clue. "&lit" stands for "and literally so". In this case, the entire clue is both a definition and a cryptic clue. In some publications &lit clues are indicated by an exclamation mark at the end of the clue. For example:
The answer is ODIN. The Norse god Odin is hidden in "god incarnate", as clued by "essentially", but the definition of Odin is also the whole clue, as Odin is essentially a God incarnate.
This satisfies the "& lit." clue definition but as read is clearly a cryptic clue. Another example:
would give the answer VETO; in the cryptic sense, spoil works as an anagram indicator for vote, while the whole clue is, with a certain amount of licence allowed to crossword setters, a definition.
gives the answer EGG. Geese find their origins in eggs, so the whole clue gives "egg", but the clue can also be broken down: e.g., loses its full stops to give eg, followed by the first letter (i.e., the "origin") of the word goose—g—to make egg.
It is very common for a clue to employ more than one method of wordplay. For example:
The answer is HONORABLE. "Baron" "returns", or is reversed, and put inside "pit" or hole, to make honorable, or "illustrious".
In this example, the clue uses a combination of Reversal and Hidden clue types:
The answer to this clue is ROTTEN. The phrase "to turn" indicates "to reverse," and "part of" suggests a piece of "Internet torrid".
To make clues more difficult, cryptic constructors will frequently use traditional indicator words in a misleading manner.
Abbreviations are popular with crossword compilers for cluing individual letters or short sections of the answer. Consider this clue:
About to come between little Desmond and worker for discourse (7)
Compilers use many of these crossword abbreviations.
Another type of abbreviation in clues might be words that refer to letters. For example, 'you' refers to the letter U, 'why' refers to the letter Y, etc. A clue for instance:
There are many ways in which constructors can clue a part of a clue. In this clue:
Exclamation of surprise about spectacles, from the top (3)
Often, Roman numerals are used to break down words into their component letter groups. E.g. In this clue:
A team's first supporter is pivotal (4)
In a cryptic crossword in the British newspaper Daily Telegraph (20 April 2017), the clue "Irritating proverb we're told (4) (SORE = "saw") depends on a homophony which only happens in British arhotic pronunciation.
Cryptic clue styles across newspapers are ostensibly similar, but there are technical differences which result in the work of setters being regarded as either Ximenean or Libertarian (and often a combination of both).
Ximenean rules are very precise in terms of grammar and syntax, especially as regards the indicators used for various methods of wordplay. Libertarian setters may use devices which "more or less" get the message across. For example, when treating the answer BEER the setter may decide to split the word into BEE and R and, after finding suitable ways to define the answer and BEE, now looks to give the solver a clue to the letter R. Ximenean rules would not allow something like "reach first" to indicate that R is the first letter of "reach" because, grammatically, that is not what "reach first" implies. Instead, a phrase along the lines of "first to reach" would be needed as this conforms to rules of grammar. Many Libertarian crossword editors would, however, accept "reach first" as it would be considered to reasonably get the idea across. For instance, a clue following Ximenian rules for BEER (BEE + R) may look as such:
While a clue following Libertarian rules may look as follows:
The Guardian is perhaps the most Libertarian of cryptic crosswords, while The Times is mostly Ximenean. The others tend to be somewhere in between; the Financial Times and Independent tend towards Ximenean, the Daily Telegraph also – although its Toughie crossword can take a very Libertarian approach depending on the setter. None of the major daily cryptics in the UK is "strictly Ximenean"; all allow clues which are just cryptic definitions, and strict Ximenean rules exclude such clues. There are other differences like nounal anagram indicators and in current Times crosswords, unindicated definition by example: "bay" in the clue indicating HORSE in the answer, without a qualification like "bay, perhaps".
In terms of difficulty, Libertarian clues can seem impenetrable to inexperienced solvers. However, more significant is the setter him/herself. Crosswords in the Times and Daily Telegraph are published anonymously, so the crossword editor ensures that clues adhere to a consistent house style. Inevitably each setter has an individual (and often very recognisable) approach to clue-writing, but the way in which wordplay devices are used and indicated is kept within a defined set of rules.
In the Guardian, Independent, Financial Times and Telegraph Toughie series the setters' pseudonyms are published, so solvers become familiar with the styles of individual setters rather than house rules. Thus the level of difficulty is associated with the setter rather than the newspaper, though puzzles by individual setters can actually vary in difficulty considerably.
It is effectively impossible, then, to describe one newspaper's crosswords as the toughest or easiest. For newcomers to cryptic puzzles the Daily Telegraph is often regarded as an ideal starting point, but this is contentious. Since all of the newspapers have different styles, concentrating on one of them is likely to lead to proficiency in only one style of clue-writing; moving to a different series, after perhaps years spent with just one, can leave the solver feeling as if they have gone back to square one. The better technique is to simply attempt as many different crosswords as possible, perhaps to find a "comfort zone" but, more importantly, to experience the widest possible range of Ximenean/Libertarian styles.
In Britain it is traditional — dating from the cryptic crossword pioneer Edward (Bill) Powys Mathers (1892–1939), who called himself "Torquemada" after the Spanish Inquisitor — for compilers to use evocative pseudonyms. "Crispa", named from the Latin for "curly-headed", who set crosswords for the Guardian from 1954 until her retirement in 2004, legally changed her surname to "Crisp" after divorcing in the 1970s. Some pseudonyms have obvious connotations: for example, Torquemada as already described, or "Mephisto" with fairly obvious devilish overtones. Others are chosen for logical but less obvious reasons, though "Dinmutz" (the late Bert Danher in the Financial Times) was produced by random selection of Scrabble tiles.
Several setters appear in more than one paper. Some of these are:
|Guardian||Times||Independent||Financial Times||Daily/Sunday Telegraph||Telegraph Toughie||Private Eye||Observer|
|John Galbraith Graham||Araucaria||Cinephile|
|Sarah Hayes||Arachne||x||Anarche||Rosa Klebb|
x - Denotes a compiler operating without a pseudonym in this publication.
Research into cryptic crossword solving has been comparatively sparse. Several discrete areas have been explored: the cognitive or linguistic challenges posed by cryptic clues, the use of cryptic crosswords to preserve cognitive flexibility ("use-it-or-lose-it") in aging populations, and expertise studies into the drivers of high performance and ability in solving cryptics.
Recent studies by Friedlander and Fine, based on a large-scale survey of 805 solvers of all ability (mainly UK-based), suggest that cryptic crossword solvers are generally highly academically able adults whose education and occupations lie predominantly in the area of scientific, mathematical or IT-related fields. This STEM connection increases significantly with level of expertise, particularly for mathematics and IT. The authors suggest that cryptic crossword skill is bound up with code-cracking and problem-solving skills of a logical and quasi-algebraic nature.
Friedlander and Fine also note that solvers are motivated predominantly by "Aha!" moments, and intrinsic rewards such as mental challenge. Solvers voluntarily choose to engage with intellectually and culturally stimulating activities like music, theatre, reading, and the arts in their leisure time, and pursue active musical participation such as singing or playing an instrument at noticeably higher levels than the UK national average.
Cryptic crosswords often appear in British literature, and are particularly popular in murder mysteries, where they are part of the puzzle. The character Inspector Morse created by Colin Dexter is fond of solving cryptic crosswords, and the crosswords often become part of the mystery. Colin Dexter himself set crosswords for The Oxford Times for many years and was a national crossword champion. In the short story "The Fascinating Problem of Uncle Meleager's Will", by Dorothy L Sayers, Lord Peter Wimsey solves a crossword in order to solve the mystery. Ruth Rendell has used the device in her novel One Across and Two Down. Among non-crime writers, crosswords often feature in the works of P. G. Wodehouse, and are an important part of the book The Truth About George.
Crosswords have also featured in TV series like The Simpsons and The West Wing. They feature prominently in the 1945 British romantic drama film Brief Encounter, scripted by playwright Noël Coward, which is number two in the British Film Institute's Top 100 British films.