The training wheels are definitely still on: my repeated attempts to crack the code of cryptic crosswords

26 Jun

If there’s one language I’d really like to speak, it’s that of the cryptic crossword.  Those little black and white boxes taunt me from the corner of the newspaper, begging to be filled, if I only I could master the strange, impenetrable clues.  I see other people, including my mother, happily preoccupied for hours, even a whole weekend, wandering around with a folded newspaper in hand, trying to crack the mystery the crossword setter has laid out before them.  Quite frankly, I’m jealous; it’s a club to which I want to belong.

So every few years, I have another go at decrypting the code.  I’ve bought a book of crosswords, a book on how to solve crosswords, I’ve read articles and I even watched a documentary series about this very British hobby.

What I’ve managed to learn so far is that a cryptic crossword clue has two parts: one half of the clue is a literal definition, the other half the cryptic.  But a clue is much more than simply this mix of the literal and metaphorical: it’s often part poetry, part pun, part general knowledge and large part sheer puzzlement.   A great crossword clue is all these things in one – and there is many a time when, having found the right answer by fair means or foul, I am awestruck by the setter’s brilliance.

I give you this one, from my well-thumbed book: How to Master The Times Crossword

Eccentric as three-quarters of the characters in Fiji (5)

The answer?  Dotty.   Dotty is another word for ‘eccentric’ – so that’s the literal definition.  And three out of four of the letters of the name ‘Fiji’ are dotted, so it’s definitely a dotty word.   Clever, eh?

My current attempt to speak the lingo involves a Times cryptic crossword app and online access to OneLook, the brilliant site that scours several dictionaries simultaneously, and allows you to search with missing letters.  I will confess now that I am cheating – I try and solve the clues, and then use the ‘solve’ function on the app to see if I’m right.  If I’m not right (which is more often than not), I do enter the correct word to give me a few letters to help with other clues.  If I have a few letters but no idea otherwise, I might use OneLook to see there are any words fitting the pattern that make sense of the clue.   Crossword purists would probably hate what I’m doing – but my excuse is that I’m just learning!

I’ve discovered so far that I’m quite good at the anagram clues.  There’s usually at least one or two in each of the crosswords on the app.  I look for clues where there is a really strange phrase and see if the number of letters in the phrase matches the number of letters in the solution. There’s often a word like ‘mixed up’ or ‘change’ in the clue to indicate it’s an anagram as well.

Some of the anagrams I’ve solved so far are:

Marine attacker Cuba radar picked out (9)

My immediate thought was that ‘Cuba radar’ was a strange phrase and that it might be an anagram.  Playing round with the letters produced ‘barracuda’ – definitely a mariner attacker!  Way hey!

Pa’s nice girls get into trouble in Aussie town (5, 7)

I started this one by thinking about Australian towns – and the only one I could think of that was 5, 7 was Alice Springs.  But what did this have to do with ‘Pa’s nice girls’?  I noticed that phrase was 12 letters, and the ‘get into trouble’ could mean an anagram – and lo and behold, Pa’s nice girls rearranged itself perfectly into Alice Springs.

Letter-opener produced by Eppie and Frank working together (5, 5)

Again, I looked at Eppie and Frank and thought that looked quite unusual – and given the length of the letters involved, it could be an anagram for the 5, 5 solution.  ‘Paper knife’ appeared quite easily – although I could have got this from the first half of the clue!

I’m doing less well at other sorts of clues, but I’m managing to pick up a few from each crossword.

Diligent student’s grub (8) – I guessed this one was ‘bookworm’ and after a quick cheat, I was actually right!

Failure of explosive device (4) – I figured this one was ‘bomb’. It was probably the easiest clue I’ve come across so far!

I was particularly pleased to get this long clue:

Ready to start all over again – having landed on a snake? (4, 2, 6, 3)

Which I correctly figured out as ‘back to square one’.

This then gave me a ‘b’ as the fourth letter in this clue:

Various blood groups make up this extensive tree (6)

I tried to think about what blood groups I knew – A, B, AB etc – and then I remembered that there is an African tree called something like ‘baoabo’.  A quick search on Google produced ‘baobab’, which fit perfectly.  Hooray!

One clue that I blatantly should have got, but didn’t, was:

Seed said to be effective in opening spell (6)

I already had the letter ‘S’ at the start of this word from another clue.  ‘Opening spell’ made me think of Macbeth, so I looked up the opening scene to see if there was an ingredient that the witches hubbled and bubbled – but I couldn’t find anything.  I gave up and looked up the answer, which turned out to be the entirely obvious ‘sesame’ – which is both a seed and a spell “Open Sesame!” from Ali Baba!

And I wish I’d got this clue as it’s just so brilliant:

Childish housebreaker, one breaking metal fastenings (11)

The answer is ‘Goldilocks’, who was, according to the fairy tale, a child who broke into houses, and a gold lock is also a metal fastening.

I’m not sure this is a language that I’ll ever speak fluently, but I love the sheer self-satisfaction I feel when I get even one simple clue right!


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