Cracking Codes and Cryptograms For Dummies
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People love to do puzzles of all kinds, but cryptic crosswords are often seen as a challenging form of entertainment — delight may be rare to anyone new to cryptics! This cheat sheet covers the basics of how to start on a cryptic crossword grid, and you’ll also find some handy reference lists and explanations to spotting certain clue devices.

Making a start on a cryptic crossword

While they do look completely incomprehensible at first glance, cryptic clues are actually written along strict guidelines. The majority of clues in a cryptic crossword follow these standards:

  • Every cryptic clue includes a straight definition of the answer, just like in a regular crossword. Astonishing, but true!

  • The definition part of the clue will always be at the start or end of the clue, and never sandwiched in the middle.

  • Most cryptic clues run along the lines of this formula: Definition + Wordplay = Answer, or Wordplay + Definition = Answer.

  • The definition may be a straight synonym, or a more oblique reference to the answer.

  • There are nine main wordplay devices used in cryptics: anagrams, reversals, deletions, charades, containers, hidden words, double definitions, homophones, and cryptic definitions.

  • Abbreviations are used a great deal in cryptic clues, so it’s important to get a handle on these.

  • The best way to tackle a cryptic clue is to try to ignore the first impression you get from reading the clue, and look at each word in the clue one by one to see if you can discover the definition and wordplay.

  • There’s no need to solve the clues in a crossword in order, just look through the list until you see one that you think you might be able to get out.

  • In general, you can ignore the punctuation in a clue — it’s mostly just there to mislead you!

  • It’s perfectly okay to use a thesaurus to look for synonyms for the words at the start and end of the clue to see if they reveal the answer (from the definition). You can always work out the wordplay part after the fact, and try to figure out what the setter has done to make the clue work. It’s all part of the learning process!

  • Different authors (or setters) write clues slightly differently, so it’s best to get used to one setter’s style at first, rather than solving cryptics from all over the place.

Cryptic crossword reference list of common abbreviations

Here are some basic abbreviations that are very useful to have by your side when cracking cryptic clues. The list only focuses on the harder abbreviations. Straightforward abbreviations and simple foreign words have been omitted from this list.

10 = X 100 = C 1,000 = M 5 = V
50 = L a follower = B about = C, CE, RE against = V (versus)
alien = ET American soldier = GI ancient city = UR ancient times = BC
Anglo-Saxon = AS Arabic = AR artist = RA (Royal Academy) Asian = E (Eastern)
at home = IN bishop = B (chess) Bond’s boss = M book = B
bridge player = N, S, E, W British = B, BR Capone = AL carbon copy = CC
castle = R (rook) chapter = C or CH chief = CH Church of England = CE
civil engineer = CE cross = X club/s = C (cards) Common Era = CE
Cyprus = CY daughter = D degree = D, BA, MA diamond/s = D (cards)
Diana = DI direction = N, S, E,W doctor = DR, MB, MD, MO dram = DR
duck = O (cricketing) Elizabeth = E English = E exercise = PT or PE
exist = BE fine = F (pencil), OK first = IST (1st) first class = AI (A1)
fish = LING, EEL, COD etc. force = F former partner = EX France = F
gas = H (hydrogen), CO (carbon monoxide), etc. George = G Georgia = GA (state), GE (country) German = G
gold = AU or OR (heraldry) good = G good man = ST (saint) graduate = BA, MB
Greek character or letter = PI, NU, MU, XI, etc. Guevara = CHE hard = H (pencil) heart/s = H (cards)
hexadecimal = HEX honour = OBE hour = HR hug = O
husband = H hush = SH I am = IM (I’m) in charge = IC
instant message = IM integrated circuit = IC judge = J king = K or ER
kiss = X last character = Z lawyer = BL (Bachelor of Law) letter = EF, EM, EL
Liberal = L line = L (l looks like a line) loud = F (forte) midday = N (noon)
model = T (Model T Ford) moment = MO monsieur = M months = MOS
new = N newton = N (unit) no good = NG noon = N
note = A – G, DO, RE, MI, FA, SO, LA, TI, TE, DOH,
nothing = O ocean = O old = O
old boy = OB old city = UR old record = EP one = A, AN, I (1)
operation = OP oriental = E (from the East) penny = P playing = ON (stage)
point = N, S, E or W power = P present day = AD princess = DI
printer’s measure = EN, EM private investigator = PI physical education = PE Public Record Office = PRO
quarter = N, NE, NW, E etc queen = R, Q, or ER queen’s honour = OBE quiet = P (piano)
ring = O resistance = R (unit) river = R, EXE, DEE, PO, etc. roughly = CA (circa)
round = O sailor, salt = AB (able- bodied seaman) second = S second-class = B
Shakespearean king = LEAR ship/s = SS short time = T single = I (1)
society = S soft = P (music), B (pencil) son = S spade/s = S (cards)
square = S teetotal/le = TT temperature = T thanks = TA
the thing = IT times = X top class = AI (A1) translator = TR
unknown = X or Y versus = V, VS very black = BB (pencil) vitamin = A, B, BI (B1), C, etc.
vote = X wife = W will = LL (contraction) women’s supporter = BRA
worker = ANT, BEE year = Y yours truly = I, ME

Spotting indicator words when solving cryptic crosswords

Indicator words are vital words that are found in many (but not all) cryptic clues for crosswords. These are words that indicate the type of wordplay being used, so they’re giving you a sort of coded message about what to do to get to the answer.

The main clue devices that should always use indicator words are anagrams, containers, hidden words, reversals, deletions and homophones. Double definition and charade clues don’t have to have indicator words, but they are occasionally used. Cryptic definition clues don’t use indicator words, although they are often indicated with a question mark or exclamation mark. (This is one of the few times where you do need to pay attention to the punctuation!).

Here is a list of the sorts of words you’ll find for these indicator words below. If you can learn to spot indicator words by context, you’ll have more cryptic solving success.

  • Anagram indicators: These are words that give a sense of some word or words in the clue being jumbled up. These words can give a sense of things being broken, damaged, cooked, confused, upset, edited, ugly, insane, invented, engineered, out of sorts, designed, mishandled, drunk, built, versatile, rearranged, smashed, askew and so on (ad infinitum?!).

  • Container indicators: These are words that give a sense of one thing being put around another thing, or one thing being put inside another thing. So words such as acquiring, keeping, possessing, devouring, hugging, amidst, occupying, getting into and set in can be used.

  • Hidden word indicators: Hidden word indicators give a sense of something being found inside something else. Container indicators are often used, too. They may be words like a bit of, buried in, essentially, fragment, held in, part of or sample of.

  • Reversal indicators: These indicators tell you to run some letters or a word backwards. They are words that give a sense of reversal (not surprisingly!) such as around, backslide, brought about, come back, flipped over, going west, knocked over or reflected. In down clues, a reversal indicator can give a sense of rising upwards, for example held up, lifted or skyward.

  • Deletion indicators: These are words that tell you to delete some letters from a word. They give a sense of removal such as absent, excluding, losing, not, dropped, cut, without or short. Letter positions can also be indicated with deletion clues such as first, head, opener, tail, end, conclusion, half, middle, centre and so on.

  • Homophone indicators: These words give a sense of something being listened to or said aloud. They can include words such as on the air, broadcast, I hear, said, declared, audibly, outspoken, reportedly, sounds like and vocal.

  • Double definition and charade indicators: These clue devices don’t have to have indicator words, but if they are used, they generally just give a sense of one thing following another, being added to another, or of one thing leading from another. Words such as and, but, in which, makes, provides, next to, joining, on and with may be used.

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