Skip to content, or skip to search.

Skip to content, or skip to search.

How to Do a Real Crossword Puzzle

Or What's a Four-letter Word for "East Indian Betel Nut" and Who Cares?


From the April 8, 1968 issue of New York Magazine.

There are crossword puzzles and crossword puzzles. The kind familiar to most New Yorkers is a mechanical test of tirelessly esoteric knowledge: "Brazilian potter's wheel," "East Indian betel nut" and the like are typical definitions, sending you either to Webster's New International or to sleep. The other kind, prevalent in Great Britain but inexplicably nonexistent in the United States apart from The Nation and an occasional Sunday edition of The New York Times, is a test of wits. This kind of puzzle offers cryptic clues instead of bald definitions, and the pleasures involved in solving it are the deeply satisfactory ones of following and matching a devious mind (that of the puzzle's author) rather than the transitory ones of an encyclopedic memory.

To call the composer of a crossword an author may seem to be dignifying a gnat, but clues in a "British" crossword have many characteristics of a literary manner: cleverness, humor, even a pseudo-aphoristic grace. In the best puzzles, styles of clue-writing are distinctive, revealing special pockets of interest and small mannerisms, as in any prose style. The clues of the author who calls himself "Ximenes" in the London Sunday Observer are, to the eye of a puzzle fan, as different from those in, say, The Manchester Guardian as Wilde is from Maugham. But a "Bantu hartebeest" remains a "Bantu hartebeest" whether it's in The New York Times or The Daily News.

Railway coaches, undergrounds, lunch counters and offices in England hum with the self-satisfied chuckles of solvers who suddenly get the point of a clue after having stared at it for several baffled minutes. Bafflement, not information, is the keystone of a British puzzle. A good clue can give you all the pleasures of being duped that a mystery story can. It has surface innocence, surprise, the revelation of a concealed meaning, and the catharsis of solution. Solving a British puzzle is far more rewarding than dredging up arcane trivia and is not annoyingly difficult once you've been initiated into the methods of solution. It's a matter of mental exercise, not academic clerk-work, and all it takes is inexhaustible patience, limitless time and a warped mind.

On the following pages are two puzzles of this sort. One is a reprint from the London Times and one is an American adaptation of a puzzle from The Listener, a weekly publication of the BBC. For crossword fans who, out of fright, have never attempted solving cryptic clues and for those who have, but with limited success, this article will serve as an initiation ceremony, with some ground rules.

In a British puzzle, definitions are called "clues." This is not a pedantic distinction. Each clue, in actuality, is in two parts—a definition (i.e., a synonym) and an elliptical indication of the answer. In a scrupulously written clue these two parts are separate and distinct but blended in such a way as to cause maximum confusion. (The clues in the London Times, incidentally, are not always scrupulous.) Theoretically, therefore, this kind of clue is easier than the usual straightforward definition because you get two indications of the answer for the price of one. But a good clue is a deceptive clue and may fool you.

The problem for the solver is that the words in a clue may, if taken literally, mean something quite different from their apparent meaning. Here's a clue, for example: "Stares at torn pages (5)." (Numbers in parentheses following a clue are a conventional notation in British puzzles and indicate the number of letters in the answer, saving you the bother of counting squares in the diagram.) "Stares at torn pages" may suggest at first glance some obscure term in bibliophilia, but what the phrase really means is "A word meaning 'stares at' whose letters are those of 'pages' out of their normal order." In however veiled a way, that is literally what it says. "Stares at" is a synonym for GAPES; "torn," in this context, means "separated with violence so that the parts are out of their normal order." So there are two separate and distinct references to GAPES, one a definition and one an elliptical description of the way the word is formed. Your problem is merely to punctuate the clue in an odd way: "Stares at/torn 'pages'."

Mental repunctuation is the essence of solving cryptic clues. Punctuation in ordinary writing is a guide telling the reader where and how long to pause. But the clue-writer, instead of trying to make the true meaning clear, is trying to hide it.

There are seven basic kinds of clues, according to Ximenes, the current Dean of British puzzles.

1. Anagrams. These are indicated by some word or phrase such as "bad," "torn," "confused," "erratically," "naughty," etc., words which imply that a mixture of letters is to take place. The anagram is of the word or words actually printed, not of synonyms. E.g., in "Wed a silly admirer (7)," "silly" is the operative word. A "silly" treatment of the letters in "admirer" would lead to MARRIED, which is defined by "wed." Simple? Yes. Tricky? Yes. Fair? Yes. Try this one: "American confused by wide-screen movie (8)." (Solutions to these examples are at the end of the article). And don't forget, an anagram can be of more than one word. Like "A snit is the most foolish basis for disagreement (10)."

Current Issue
Subscribe to New York

Give a Gift