Adam Barnard

Crack the code: Cryptic crosswords made easy

Keen to delve into the arcane world of cryptic crosswords but don’t have a clue? Today’s your lucky day!



Crooked CIA blurs no spyglasses (10). No, it’s not a typo. That is exactly what I meant to say. I know it sounds wrong and nonsensical, but for cryptic crossword nuts who have probably worked it out already, I’ve clearly just said BINOCULARS. That wild opening sentence was a clue in the SMH recently, written by compiler LR and very good it was too. Thanks LR. Yes, it’s time to forget the normal rules of English and step blindly into the literal world of the cryptic crossword.

Leave your grammar textbooks at home.

Little did British-born American Arthur Wynne know, way back in 1913 when his “Word-Cross” was first published in a journalistic outing called New York World, just how popular the crossword (as it became known) would be. Originally considered a passing fad, the crossword really took off through the 1920s and 1930s and gradually became more complicated and tricky, evolving into the now standardised 15×15 grid – Arthur’s grid was diamond-shaped and had no black squares. It was also not exactly “cryptic” as such, and more like what we would call a “quick” crossword. But over 90 years later, the cryptic crossword still has the power, like a dubious joke, to divide a room into lovers or haters.

Okay, history is all very well, but how do you do the bloody things? There are many tricks and methods involved in order to attain solutions, so let’s go through a few basics. First, don’t read the clues like conventional sentences and expect them to make any sense. The English language is awash with multiple words with the same meaning and the same word with multiple meanings, and this is very handy for the crossword compiler. A good start is to treat each word of the clue as a separate entity and define any possible meaning of each on its own, rather than trying to make a cohesive sentence out of them.


Don’t read the clues like conventional sentences and expect them to make any sense.


Cryptic crosswords can contain anagrams, unusual words, words backwards, words cut up or mixed, palindromes, spoonerisms and puns, and identifying which trick the compiler has used in any particular clue can be tough. It’s important to know that each clue is usually in two parts – the actual clue; and the cryptic hint leading to the solution. Trying to work out which is which can be a brain-fryer sometimes! I’m sure LR won’t mind if we do some dissection, so let’s take another look at the little devil. Crooked CIA blurs no spyglasses (10). Sounds like a password from Get Smart, right? And what the hell does that little number ten in brackets mean? Well, that simply signifies how many letters are in the answer, which is certainly helpful. Now, we know that the solution is a single ten-letter word, BINOCULARS, but how did we get there?

Let’s split the clue into two: crooked and spyglasses. The word “crooked” tells us that there’s probably an anagram in there. If clues use words like “badly”, “strange”, “around” or something similar, it’s a pretty safe bet there’s an anagram involved. So what exactly is crooked? Let’s not delve into the practices of the Secret Service, no matter where the clue sounds like it’s going, but rather take “CIA blurs no” as simply letters, not words. The fact that it doesn’t make a lot of sense is a bit of a giveaway, plus the fact there are ten letters in the phrase. “Spyglasses” is the actual clue, and “crooked” is the cryptic hint – so we’re looking for a ten-letter word for spyglasses that is an anagram of “CIA blurs no”, thus BINOCULARS. Need a Panadol yet?

But it doesn’t stop at anagrams. Key words like “up” or “back” indicate a word, or part thereof, is backwards. For instance, you might come across the word “redback” in a clue, and you instantly think about nasty spiders and toilet seats. Actually, this usually means the word “red” is backwards and features somehow in the solution. I’ll make up an example: Redback triumphed first in awe (6). Huh? Okay, not the best clue, I admit, but I’ll pull it to bits: “redback” becomes “der”; another word for “triumphed” is “won”. Put that first, as the clue suggests, and you have “wonder”, which is a six-letter word for awe. Need another Panadol?

Other mind-bending tricks employed by compilers include the words “love” or “duck”, to indicate the letter O – taken from scoring in tennis and cricket, respectively; “thousand” could mean M (Roman numerals), K (kilometre) or G (grand – a thousand dollars); “Spanish” is often “el”; “Italian” is often “il”; and “French is often “le” or “la”. But wait, there’s still more! “Left” could be either L or “port” (maritime); “right” is usually R; “alien” is usually “ET”; “ten” could be X (Roman numerals again) or “io” (because the letters visually resemble the number).


Also, there are what I like to call “crossword words” – words you’d probably never use in your life, except if you were doing a crossword – words like “adit” (a mine entrance); “etui” (a sewing needle case); and “ounce” (a type of snow leopard), just to name a few.


Also, there are what I like to call “crossword words” – words you’d probably never use in your life, except if you were doing a crossword – words like “adit” (a mine entrance); “etui” (a sewing needle case); and “ounce” (a type of snow leopard), just to name a few. This is where the dictionary comes in, a massive resource for the cruciverbalist. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve gone searching through the dictionary to see if the ridiculous word I just made up is actually real! Doing the crossword regularly certainly teaches you new words, plus you also get to know the style of certain compilers, and what sneaky nuances they bung in to put you off the scent. It’s all clever stuff and lots of fun.

So there you have it, a small insight into the thought processes behind the cryptic crossword. There are many, many other little tricks that are very difficult to list in a short article like this, so you’ll just have to go out, get yourself a crossword and see how you go. I wonder what Mr Wynne would make of today’s cryptic crossword? Probably like me he’d be reaching for the Panadol.

If you’d like Adam to teach you more about solving cryptics, please email the Editor, [email protected]

Adam Barnard

Adam Barnard has been a drummer/percussionist working with many bands around the Sydney scene for the last thirty-four years, playing jazz, blues, rock'n'roll, country and whatever else appeals to his imagination. He also repairs and restores drums, and he writes, sketches and makes films. He makes a pretty passable lasagne too.