The arcane pleasure of cryptic crosswords

3 min

76 shares, 137 points

As an American writer at a British newspaper, I have certain professional obligations: spell colour like so, put the day before the month, learn when (and what) bank holidays are. I am also obliged, or so I’ve told my boss, to solve the crossword in these pages every day. That puzzle, of course, is British.

But it is out of thrill rather than duty that I solve these puzzles. I am a genuine convert to the British Church of Cryptic. I am here to preach the gospel to my countrymen, and I am not alone.

I have enthusiastically solved American-style crosswords for many years. I have competed in American crossword tournaments and set puzzles for American publications. I even broke news of a plagiarism scandal in the world of American puzzles. But solving a British puzzle, or cryptic, is like relearning your own language. And like learning any language, it is both rewarding and enriching.

An American crossword grid, left, and a British one

The differences begin with the architecture of the grids themselves, which speak to their homelands. An American puzzle is a brash frontier: wide-open spaces, a distant horizon dotted with novel construction and neologisms. A British one is compact and stately: all hedgerows and narrow lanes, packed with layered, arcane meaning.

American crosswords elevate the answers. American setters prioritise fresh and lively fill, plucked anew from an ever-shifting culture and language. A setter’s word list is a prized possession and the clues themselves are, in most cases, little more than an afterthought to get the kapow into the grid.

Interactive crosswords on the FT app

Subscribers can now solve the FT’s Daily Cryptic, Polymath and FT Weekend crosswords on the iOS and Android apps

British crosswords, meanwhile, elevate the questions. While the answers are often pedestrian, each clue in a cryptic is a mystery unto itself, a deviously constructed linguistic locking mechanism, unopenable, until you open it. In this sense a cryptic is not a single puzzle at all but a puzzle made of puzzles.

Solving an American puzzle is an exciting smash-and-grab job. Solving a cryptic is a sophisticated bank heist.

Cryptic clues, for the uninitiated, have two parts — one literal, one cryptic — though you do not know at first which is which. The literal part defines the answer, as in an American puzzle, while the cryptic part provides some wordplay that also gives the answer. The wordplay may involve anagrams, hidden words, backwards words, homophones and many other tricks.

For example, consider the recent FT clue, “Bursars got confused in EU hub” (10). Here “EU hub” is the literal part and “Bursars got confused” is the cryptic part. “Confused” is signalling that “bursars got” is an anagram. Rearranging the letters gives us Strasbourg, the French city and EU hub in question.

Combined, these subtle changes deliver a radically different form and a tougher one for many, myself included. But that toughness comes with its own reward. “If British crosswords were harder to solve, they were therefore more virtuous endeavours,” writes Adrienne Raphel in Thinking Inside the Box.

The relative difficulty is broadly accepted stateside, and it is a feature, not a bug. Many strong American solvers eventually migrate to the genre. “The cryptic is an exciting step up,” says Dan Feyer, eight-time champion of the American Crossword Puzzle Tournament. “It is in the same category of wordplay fun, but a slight turn to the left down a scarier street, or a little more of an adventure.”

Stella Zawistowski is a longtime constructor and elite speed solver who whips through American puzzles in the time it takes me to fold my newspaper. “I do not have that ‘aha’ moment very much any more,” she says of American puzzles. “Cryptics are a bit of a stronger drug.”

Zawistowski calls herself a “cryptic evangelist” and tweets cryptic clues every day, inviting her followers to “like” if they get it, thereby spreading the good word in the states. One recent example: “Imagine, in a whirlwind, losing one puzzle” (6). Like if you’ve got it*.

There are other positive side effects of the language of cryptic construction. The US and Britain, they say, are two lands separated by a common language. The language of cryptics exerts a strange magic. A few clues from that same recent FT puzzle could make a rather successful modernist poem, a bit of aesthetic solace when your solving effort stalls.

Black duck on watch in summerhouse
Musical note in two forms one plays in silence
Nothing shown after silent film

And in any case, stalling is just part of the fun for new congregants of this particular church. “They are called cryptics,” Zawistowski says. “They are not called straightforwards.”

“I love cryptics even though, or maybe especially because, I am terrible at them,” Raphel says. “I love feeling like I am about to be recruited for the CIA, or at least about to win something. They give major breakfast-cereal decoder-ring energy.”

Oliver Roeder is the FT’s US senior data journalist


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Source: Financial Times

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