Monday, March 03, 2008

confused badger swims backwards to Mongolia, we hear

I won't pretend that it doesn't give me a bit of a smug glow of Britocentric satisfaction to note that the classic cryptic crossword has never really caught on in the USA. It seems somehow implausible to picture some hot-shot New York lawyer fretting over 14 Across during his lunch hour when he could otherwise be out eating sushi and generally chewing ass, or whatever it is they do. No, cryptic crossword wrangling seems to me to be an inherently slightly tweedy and British thing to do.

However, if you like puzzles and wordy stuff in general then I recommend it as excellent brain exercise. And it's a skill that has to be learnt - no-one is born knowing how to solve cryptic crossword clues, you have to learn the tricks the setters use to try and simultaneously show you the answer and throw you off the scent. I learnt it from my father, who in turn learnt it (I think) from his mother-in-law (i.e. my maternal grandmother).

Once you know what to look for, there's a sense in which cryptics are easier than the "concise" crosswords which the newspapers also carry, in the sense that there's no room for ambiguity; you've either no idea what the answer is, or you know you've got it, for instance: "Hoofed animal (5)" could be any of HORSE, HIPPO, SHEEP, etc., etc., but "Caught a pirate smuggling hoofed animal (5)" gives you either head-scratching incomprehension, or TAPIR unambiguously (it's hidden in the first three words - I just made that clue up, incidentally, and I think it's rather good).

The best way to start, if you don't have an enthusiast handy to teach you, is to sit down with a copy of the paper and a copy of the answers, and try to work out why they're the answers. The following resources may be of use:
If you're really stuck then there are numerous online resources which may also be of use. I think there's a sort of moral continuum at one end of which is doing the whole crossword without recourse to any reference material at all, slightly further along are the online equivalents of a printed dictionary and encyclopaedia (probably OK), and definitely nearing the cheaty end of the spectrum are anagram-solvers and word-fitting applications. But, in a crisis, go for it.

Obviously the anagram application is like a red rag to a bull, so let me conclude by revealing that a list of anagrams of electric halibut includes the following:

I liberate clutch
cute liberal itch
chili bear cutlet
cute itchier ball
hurtle icicle bat
bluer tit chalice
heretical bi cult
tactile club hire


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