How to Do a Real Crossword Puzzle

Photo: New York Magazine

This article appeared in 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).”

2. Multiple meanings. This form of clue combines two or more definitions (and not always the primary or most obvious definitions) of the answer in a misleading way. E.g., “Fight enclosure in the theater (3)” may look baffling but is simply two meanings of a single word strung together to make a peculiar set of associations. The answer, as you’ve guessed, is BOX. In this type of clue, watch out for words that look like one part of speech but turn out to be another. “Deliver from bar (4)” leads to SAVE in two senses: “deliver from” and “bar” (as a preposition meaning “except”).

3. Reversals. These clues lead to words which, when read backwards, form other words. Indications like “reflex,” “looking back,” “from East to West” (in the case of Across words), and “upwards,” “doing a headstand,” “rising” (in the case of Down words), are what you should be on the alert for. E.g., “Emphasized trifles — in a roundabout way (8).” Here there is a small extra deception in that “trifles” doesn’t refer to trivia but to desserts, which, when looked at “in a roundabout way” are STRESSED, which means “emphasized.” Two or more words may be reversed, too, of course. As in “Push through the District Attorney — otherwise he lies back (8).” Get it? Well, first try to decide which is the definition part of the clue. Still don’t get it? Look at the answer at the end of the column.

4. Charades. These lead to words which fall into convenient complete parts. Here’s an example from Ximenes: “Remains precisely how he is (5).” You probably wouldn’t think of “remains” as a noun in this context, but that’s the definition. And the answer is ASHES. “How he is” becomes “As he’s” — the whole word is a phrase in itself. Here’s another: “One in flames made a landing (4).” “One” = a, “in flames” = lit, “made a landing” = ALIT. Here’s one: “Sinister purpose of an auction? (10).” (Question marks and exclamation points at the ends of clues usually indicate some form of pun or outrageous misuse of meaning).

5. Container and contents. This type of clue resembles the Charades type in having wholes and parts, but the parts are outside and inside instead of side by side. Words in the clue like “in,” “around,” “holding,” and “embraces” are signs of Containers. E.g., “Crooner takes clarinet inside — good manners (8).” What crooner? Bing, of course. A clarinet is a what? A reed. Let BING take a REED “inside” and you get BREEDING. Good manners.

Both Containers and their Contents often employ symbols and abbreviations, as in fact do all sorts of clues. But only well-known symbols and abbreviations are used and, in the Americanized puzzles on these pages, only those known to the American reader. There are dozens which pop up continually. When you see North, East, West or South or “point” (meaning compass-point) in a clue, think of N, E, W, or S. For “nothing” or “no” or “love” (as in a tennis score), think of O. For “about,” keep in mind “re” (meaning “concerning”) or “c” (abbreviation for “circa”). “Note” often refers to notes of the scale — ”do,” “re,” “mi,” etc. “One” may mean “a,” “an,” or “I.” Other Roman numerals, too: V, X, L, C, D and M might be indicated by their arabic equivalents. “Steamship” for SS, “saint” or “street” for ST, “glamor” for IT or SA (abbreviation of Sex Appeal), “acceptable” or “high-class” for U (as opposed to non-U), “first-rate” for AI (A1), “soft” or “loud” for P or F (musical dynamics) — these are a few of the devices to watch for. Unusual abbreviations will always be hinted at by “briefly” or “in short.” “General, in short” could indicate GEN as part of a word.

Here are some Container clues that use these devices: “When Peg holds a note, it comes out clear (5).” Look for a word meaning “peg” that holds a word meaning “note” that will make a word meaning “clear.” How about “High priest seen in the morning in Los Angeles (4)”?

6. Puns. Some clues deal with homonyms — words of different meaning which have the same sound. Indications of them usually consist of phrases like “we hear” and “sounds like,” as in “We hear the new musical is German (4).” The new musical is “Hair” and we hear it as HERR (German as a noun). Two-word puns are even lower and more frequent, as in “Ethyl alcohol is one way to kill a fish if you listen closely (6).” Ethyl alcohol is SPIRIT (yes, “spirits” can be singular) — listen to it closely.

7. Hidden. These clues are both the easiest to solve and the most deceptive. They involve burying the answer in the letters of the clue — either within a word or as a bridge between words. In point of fact the answer stares you so innocently in the face that you often don’t see it. Watch out for indications like “seen in,” “within,” “containing,” “found in,” “some of.” E.g., “This girl appears in black at every party (4).” Can you see KATE there staring out of “black at every”? Or “Beg for a piece of an apple a day (5).” Which piece? The core — that is, the core of “apple a day,” which is PLEAD.

Those are the basic types of cryptic clues in their simplest forms, but you will encounter many which are combinations of two or more types: clues, for example, which contain anagrams and reversals within the container, like “Return to look around the dilapidated tavern for tires (9).” This is a characteristically complex clue. In attacking it, you should first off suspect the word “return” and connect it with “to look.” “To look” is to see, so “return” it: EES. “Around” suggests that EES is “around” another word: E … … ES. What word? A “dilapidated tavern,” of course — and your now-warped mind should tell you that “dilapidated” indicates an anagram. There are six letters missing still in the answer and “tavern” has six letters, so your hunch is confirmed. EntreavES? Check the dictionary to see if it’s an obscure word for rubber wheels (“tires”). No — I told you there would be very few obscure words. Ah — EnervatES! “Tires” as a verb, meaning “weakens.”

One more complex example should suffice before you plunge in or throw your pencil down in disgust. “The Last of the Mohicans is my composition paper (6).” Looks like a needless piece of information instead of a clue, but take it apart. Literally. Suppose that the answer, the word itself, is speaking. Then you could repunctuate the sentence something like this: “The, last of the Mohicans, is — my composition; paper.” The first part is what composes “me”: i.e., THE, S (last of the Mohicans in the sense of the last letter of “the Mohicans”), IS. THESIS. And what does it mean? Paper (in the sense of a doctorate or term paper). Note two further devices used in this clue: first, that “I” or some other form of the first person may refer to the word itself. “I run,” for example, might be the definition part of a clue to MILER or RIVER or even POLITICIAN. Second, part-words are often trickily spliced into a clue. Just as “The Last of the Mohicans” indicated S, so a “tailless bird” might be BIR, “half a sixpence” might be ENCE or SIXP, and a “beheaded King” might be ING. Always look for the possible literal meaning of a clue.

Well, if you’ve slogged through the undergrowth of all this logodaedaly (a word worth going to the dictionary for) and are still unruffled, it should give you a start (pun meaning both “beginning” and “unpleasant surprise”). In the Listener-type puzzles which will appear on these pages, the solving of clues is only part of the task. Each of the puzzles has a gimmick of some sort which is fully explained in the Instructions accompanying the diagram. Be prepared for odd shapes, sizes and problems. Sometimes, for example, the words you enter into the diagram (or “lights,” as the British call them) are not the same as the answers to the clues. The light may be a word associated with the answer (e.g., the answer may be ABERCROMBIE but the light may be FITCH) or it may be the answer in code or the answer with all vowels omitted or whatever the composer of the puzzle has in mind to torture you with. Most often, however, the light and the answer are one and the same, and always there are Instructions if some device is involved, so don’t worry. Not this week, anyway.

The puzzles will employ as few East Indian betel nuts as possible and they will hopefully be more challenging and rewarding than those which do. The rewards, by the way, will be material as well as intellectual: each week copies of Chambers 20th Century Dictionary (published by Hawthorn Books, Inc. and available at bookstores at $5.50) will be awarded to the senders of the first three correct solutions opened (we will open submissions not in order of receipt but all at once on the day of deadline — some contestants would otherwise suffer from living in outlying postal districts, such as The Bronx). If no solutions are received, the prizes will be held over, accumulating as in a sanitation strike, and the offices of New York will eventually open a gift shop.

Send completed diagram with name and address to Puzzle Editor, New York Magazine, 207 East 32nd Street, New York, New York 10016. Entries must be received by Wednesday, April 14, at which time they will be opened.

If you haven’t ripped these pages up by now, clip them out and keep them as a guide for future weeks. And as for “Banta hartebeest,” I say it’s “lebbek” — and I say the hell with it.

Answers to clues unsolved in the text above:
1. Anagrams: CINERAMA (American) ANTITHESIS (A snit is the …)
3. Reversals: RAILROAD (D.A./or/liar)
4. Charades: FORBIDDING
5. Containers: PLAIN (p-la-in) LAMA (L.-A.M.-A.)

Stephen Sondheim on How to Do a Real Crossword Puzzle