Wednesday, December 12, 2018

Cracking the code: the world of crosswords

There is a common misperception that the 'quick' crossword is easier than the cryptic crossword. Yet a moment's reflection should be sufficient to dispel this myth. The so-called 'quick' crossword – which is perhaps better referred to as 'straight' – is neither quick nor easy. The fact that people believe it is simply suggests that they have been lucky.
Cryptic crossword, by Terry Freedman
Cryptic crossword, by Terry Freedman

This type of crossword relies on two things for its completion: a knowledge of synonyms, and mind-reading. While it is true, as someone put it, that there are no synonyms in English, there are certainly enough near-synonyms to choose from when it comes to crosswords.

Take, for instance, this clue:

Achieved (3)

What answer is the compiler looking for? Won? Got? Did? Any of these is possible. Indeed, a colleague told me in 1979 that a man he'd met in the pub the night before was having trouble getting the very last clue of his (straight) crossword. It transpired that the reason for the impasse was that, incredibly, answers to all the other clues were wrong.

This could almost certainly never happen with a cryptic crossword because each clue consists of two parts rather than one: the definition of the answer, which is equivalent to the clue in the quick crossword, and a secondary indicator which tells you how to arrive at the answer. You just have to understand the strange mangling of the English language that comprises the crossword code. As the compiler Afrit put it:

"You need not mean what you say, but you must say what you mean."
Let's take a few examples. First:

Egyptian flower (4)

You might be wondering, what kind of flower grows in Egypt? A Rose? An Iris? And in so doing you would get precisely nowhere. But think of flower as rhyming with lower, you realize it is something which flows, ie a river, and you deduce the answer immediately: Nile.

Having mentioned the word 'lower', perhaps we might try this:

A little lower on the farm (4)

If you start thinking in terms of height, you may as well abandon all hope. Just as a flower in the first clue referred to something that flows, so a lower in this clue refers to something that lows, ie a cow or a bull. Clearly, a little lower is a calf.

Before we leave this farm, consider this:

Farm butter (4)

As you may have surmised, a butter in 'crosswordese' is something which butts – in this case a goat.

These are examples of the compiler deliberately setting out to draw you into making a false assumption, from which point it is all downhill unless and until you can step back and realise that is exactly what you've done.

Other clues have more obvious indicators. For example, "all over the place" or "disconcerted" would indicate an anagram:

Such an event would disconcert astronomers (2,4,5)

The word "disconcerted" indicates that the answer is an anagram of "astronomers". The answer is: No more stars.

Other indicators include:

Detailed – meaning the end of the word has been cut off ie de-tailed.

Beheaded – the first letter of the word has been chopped off.

Midnight – that is, the middle of the word "night", ie "g".

Finally, crossword compilers have a great sense of humour. Some years ago the Daily Telegraph crossword featured the following clue:

What an incompetent deep sea diver must do to get rid of an irritation? (4,2,2,7)

(A question mark at the end of the clue, by the way, indicates a mangling of the language that will cause the solver to groan.)

The answer? Come up to scratch.

It has been said that the job of the cryptic crossword compiler is to lose the battle gracefully. The 'battle' is one of wits between the compiler and the solver, and there is little that is more pleasurable than solving a really good clue. 

Except, of course, solving the whole puzzle.

Sunday, June 03, 2018

House of Lords Terrace

Elaine and Terry on the terrace of the House of Lords