Culture Trips

Cryptic crosswords: A puzzling British obsession

A neat primer for wannabe solvers on how this principle works in various kinds of cryptic clues was set out in a BBC Radio 4 podcast by leading contemporary setter Sarah Hayes, noted for the left-wing slant of her clues as The Guardian’s ‘Arachne’.

One type of clue relies on double definitions. An example would be: “Tours streets,/and wishes one hadn’t” (4). The answer is ‘rues’, playing on a double meaning combining the French word for street with an English word for regret.

Then there are ‘hidden word’ clues, such as this rather fiendish example by Brian Greer (aka ‘Brendan’, ‘Virgilius’ and ‘Jed’ for papers like The Times and Independent): “Some job at hand? We’ll soon see” (4, 3, 5).  The solution (underlined) is Bath and Wells, and the buried hint is the fact that ‘see’ is a word referring to a bishopric, of which Bath and Wells is a famed English example.

‘Envelope’ clues, meanwhile, use one word inside another. A brain-scrambling example is: “Artist’s phone hacked by horrible woman” (7). The answer is Chagall – puzzled out by playing with ‘hag’ (horrible woman) inside ‘call’ (the phone reference), while also picking up the hint that an artist is involved in the solution.

Puzzles with style

As with any form of creative expression, cryptic crossword setters can showcase their own style, which devotees grow to appreciate as much as they might like an author or songwriter.

In his article on the joys of cryptics, Sondheim put the idea succinctly. “In the best puzzles, styles of clue-writing are distinctive, revealing special pockets of interest and small mannerisms, as in any prose style. The clues of the author who calls himself ‘Ximenes’ in the London Sunday Observer are, to the eye of a puzzle fan, as different from those in, say, The Guardian as Wilde is from Maugham.” Or as a Sondheim musical differs from one composed by Andrew Lloyd-Webber.

Fittingly for such cleverly creative puzzles, cryptic crosswords have made telling appearances in British literature, particularly in murder mysteries. Famed fictional cop Inspector Morse was one devotee – hardly surprising given his creator Colin Dexter set cryptic crosswords for The Oxford Times. In Dorothy L Sayers’ story The Fascinating Problem of Uncle Meleager’s Will, sleuth Lord Peter Wimsey solves a crossword in order to solve the mystery, as do the protagonists in books by Agatha Christie (Curtain) and Ruth Rendell (One Across, Two Down).

The quirky creativity of cryptic crosswords also offers a beacon of hope for those worried at the way computers have proven superiority over humans at our most complex games like Go and poker – even with the latter drawing on psychological tricks like ‘bluffing’. Computer programmes are even churning out passable efforts at formalised poetry forms like haiku or basic forms of jokes, such as puns.

Yet experts like Friedlander think cryptic crosswords are one arena no AI will ever truly master, thanks to their use of “aesthetically beautiful clues that incorporate subtle nuances of language to misdirect the reader… It will be this kind of deeply deceptive clue which AI will struggle to solve, and which the human brain, with its capacity for picking up hidden hints, puns and remotely associated concepts, will be able to execute much more successfully.”

Bringing humans together 

Despite the image of solitary solvers puzzling over clues, cryptic crosswords actually often engender a distinctive community spirit of shared appreciation in the effort to decode each setter’s tricks. One poignant illustration of the special unity of cryptic devotees was the outpouring of emotion when much-loved Guardian setter ‘Araucaria’ (Reverend John Graham) set clues in a 2013 puzzle whose solutions revealed that he was dying of cancer.

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