Mental Floss

Weekend Word Wrap: cryptic words

David K. Israel

I was tempted to categorize this post in my running feature, Things considered a big deal in Europe but not in the States, because, sadly, cryptic puzzles haven't really caught on here like they have in England, where they were invented and popularized. Originally an extension of the crossword puzzle, Edward Powys Mathers is thought to be the first person to write cryptic clues exclusively (first for The Saturday Westminster in 1925 and then The Observer).

So what is a cryptic puzzle clue exactly? Well, the short answer goes something like this: it's a clue that contains a word puzzle within it. To solve the larger puzzle, you first have to solve all the tiny puzzles buried in the clues. And, just to make your job more interesting, you also have to figure out what kind of puzzle the author is employing, as there exists a small pantload of different varieties. Because we'd be here all the-blog-long, I'm only going to run down a list of the clues you need to know today before I send you off on your own to solve some fun clues created especially for us by my friend Tom Toce. (For the seasoned puzzle solvers out there, feel free to skip on past this part.)

First off, almost every cryptic clue is divided into two parts: the definition and the wordplay. Sometimes the definition will come first, sometimes the wordplay will come first. Part of your job is to figure out how to read the clue before attempting to solve it. On top of all this, there will usually be a parenthetical number at the end of the clue, as well. Don't freak out! It simply lets you know how many letters are in the answer.

Now then, here are six very common cryptic puzzle clue categories:

The Anagram clue: In this clue, one side of the clue contains an anagram. You will also find an anagram tip-off word, or indicator that lets you know there's an anagram in the clue. Often-employed tip-off words include strange, mixed up, muddled, wild, and drunk. Here's an example of an anagram clue: A slice of meat looks strange on a skate (5) So here, "a slice of meat" is the definition, found on the left side of the clue, while "looks strange on" is your tip-off that there's an anagram in the clue and skate is the word to be rearranged. The answer contains 5 letters, so it can only be STEAK. Steak is a slice of meat and it's also an anagram of skate.

The Hidden Answer clue: As it sounds, here one part of the clue has the definition and the other has a hidden answer stretched over multiple words. There will also be your good friend again, the tip-off word, or indicator. For container clues, these include hides, incorporates, is part of, and going through. Here's an example of a hidden answer: Smart youngster incorporates best picture in 1955 (5) Here, our 5-letter answer is defined on the right side of the clue: "best picture in 1955" "“ and that would be MARTY, of course. And then the word incorporated in sMART Youngster, is, of course, also MARTY.

The Homophone clue: This is a fun one, maybe my favorite. Here you're looking for two words that are spelled differently but pronounced the same way. The tip-off word will always be related to sound, speech, or the ear, etc. Here's an example: Sounds like the part he played in that film went down hill (4) So here, the clue begins with a tip-off phrase "Sounds like," and then you get your homophones: "the part he played in that film" is a role and "went down hill" is another roll. Because both homophones contain 4 letters, here, the answer would be ROLE, not roll, because the homophone closest to the indicator is always the correct answer. (Obviously if the two words were they're and their, the parenthetical number would give you your answer.)

The Deletion clue: In this clue, one or more letters need to be removed. Most often, words lose the first letter (called "beheading") or the last letter, or sometimes even internal letters. Indicators that there's a deletion needed include chop off, remove, off, take, etc. Here's an example: Paint without tea to develop an ache (4) Here the definition is on the right side of the clue "an ache" and the word play is on the left Paint-t=PAIN.

The Double Definition clue: In this one, there is no wordplay. You just have two definitions to deal with, and sometimes the two are homographs, to boot! Here's a classic example: Shoe coating from Warsaw (6) Get it? "Shoe coating" is polish and someone "from Warsaw" is Polish! Fun, right?

The Combination Clue: Here you'll find two different puzzle-clues in one clue. I know what you're thinking: oh joy. But, honestly, they are pretty cool once you get the hang of "˜em. Other tip-offs you want to look for in the clues: the word even usually means you only want to use even letters in a word (the 2nd, 4th, 6th, and so on), while odd sometimes means the odd numbers (but also might mean there's an anagram, so be careful!). As in crosswords, other languages as well as abbreviations can be used. "In French" often means you have to translate a word into French. So if you see "she said in French" you're probably looking for elle. Saint might actually be St, which could be used in a container. Here's an example: Saint Baseball Referee joined up for base of tree (5) Answer? STUMP, of course. (Saint = st + ump "baseball referee")

For a complete list of all the different types of clues, you can check out this cool site here. But, as I promised, today's warm-up clues really only use the types I just described above.

Tom Toce put these 10 clues together for us. (Hint: Each answer has something to do with Albert Einstein.) Tom has published puzzles in The Sondheim Review, Contingencies, and on the NY Times Puzzle Forum Web site.

albert-einstein-1.jpg /
  1. Christmas around the 7th?--dynamite, man (5)
  2. William or Harry takes 2000 pounds to school (9)
  3. Re-order three in medium (5)
  4. Sam's hysterical church service (4)
  5. Dad, the big top is there for all to see (6)
  6. Swiss city to go up in flames, I hear (4)
  7. Grant for one theory of relativity (7)
  8. Manger destroyed by the Nazis, for example (6)
  9. Emit retro publication (4)
  10. Eurydice left out the cubes (4)