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Are You a Cruciverbalist? 

There are certain joys in language. One of them, for example, is discovering the meaning of a word you don’t know with reference to other words (or etymology). If you have never seen Season 20, Episode 6 of The Simpsons, when Lisa becomes a ‘cruciverbalist’, you might not know what that means. You could easily, though, piece it together. 

Cruci, as in ‘crucifix’: cross-. Verbal, could be: spoken, i.e. “put into words”: word(s)-. Ist, not the German ‘is’, but as in violinist (person who plays violin), dentist (person who fixes teeth), and racist (person who is stupid): a person who does-. So, approximately, you get “person who does crosswords”. More precisely, a person who either enjoys or creates crosswords. Fun, right? 

Which leads me to another joy I find in language. Crosswords. Particularly, cryptic crosswords (in the British fashion). Standard (British) crosswords require the solver to use general knowledge and synonyms to find the answer. Cryptic crosswords, on the other hand, require a bit of lateral thinking. There are rules that, once known, open up the possibilities of these crosswords. (I think perhaps American crosswords combine the two types but confess I’m not entirely sure. Doubtless an American reader can clear that up.) 

For years, I stuck to the standard crossword. These are plenty of fun in themselves. My reason for not venturing on the cryptic puzzles was simple. Clues like this: “Game devised by a holy man in Galilean town (7)” To the uninitiated that looks like a test not of general knowledge, but quite specialised knowledge. Of course, it has to be thought of more abstractly – and the satisfaction one gets from discovering the answer is immense. 

I learned to do cryptic crosswords from an unlikely place. An episode of the BBC dark-comedy series ‘Inside No. 9’ (Season 3, Episode 3 ‘The Riddle of the Sphinx’). Not, of course, that I watched that one episode and became an expert, but it provided me with the foundation. It taught me how to read the clues. Not all of them, there are variations, but the bog-standard cryptic clue consists of: a definition (much as would feature in the standard crossword) and the so-called “subsidiary indicator”. 

In the above clue: “game” is the definition – our answer will either be ‘a game’ (applying general knowledge) or another word for ‘game’ (synonyms). The “subsidiary indicator”, everything else in the clue, leads us to the answer. “Devised by” forms a bridge of sorts between the definition and indicator. The really important parts are “a holy man in Galilean town”. There are a few steps, but always bear in mind, our end product should be “(a) game”. 

You take an idea and run with it – and sometimes you’re wrong. I know the answer so we’ll abolish the suspense. “A holy man” becomes “a st”. “Galilean town” is “Cana”. Put “a holy man” in “Galilean town” and you get “can a st a”. Canasta! That’s a game. The beauty of cryptic clues is that they’re self checking. 

So, there’s your crash course but my purpose here isn’t really to tell you how to do cryptic crosswords. There are more qualified people out there. But, hey, I learned from a TV show, why can’t you learn from a hastily written blog post? What I really want to do is share some recently solved clues that I had fun with. These all come from The Telegraph’s Big Book of Cryptic Crosswords 1 (2017). 

Russian poet put pressure on family (7) – Def: “Russian poet” – Answer: PUSHKIN. 

Compete with life in Paris (3) – Def: “Compete” – Quite simple, knowing that the French word for life, though pronounced differently, is spelled the same as an English word for compete, as in la vie en rose – Answer: VIE. 

American disaster within private chambers (2,6) – Def: “Within private chambers” – Ooh, legal terminology that comes from an anagram (a “disaster”, i.e. a misspelling) of “american” – Answer: IN CAMERA. 

Just show (4) – Def: this is a double definition clue, “Just” and “show” – Answer: FAIR. 

Yet three sevens turn out to be around fifty (12) – Def: “Yet” – Yes, this huge clue just leads to another word for “yet”; likely, you’ll be in the position of only using the indicator to check your answer. Take an anagram of “three sevens” and put it around “fifty” (L, Roman numerals are a mainstay of cryptic crosswords) – Answer: NEVERTHELESS. 

Beg good bloke to translate jargon (12) – Def: “jargon” – just another anagram, here (of “beg good bloke”) and clearly the setter is not fond of “jargon” – Answer: GOBBLEDEGOOK. (Apparently, it originated in 1940’s USA, in imitation of a turkey). 

Mother stayed on and played hookey (10) – Def: “played hookey” – In Scotland, “playing hookey” is called “dogging”, not to be confused with the other kind. “Mother stayed on” becomes “ma lingered”. My ma lingers on the phone for too long, the word “bye” loses all its meaning. – Answer: MALINGERED. 

The voters choose to speak (10) – Def: “The voters” – just synonyms here: “choose (to)” becomes “elect” and “(to) speak” is, of course, “orate” – Answer: ELECTORATE. 

Indian leader, also mentioned in three consecutive letters (6) – Def: “Indian leader” – Absurdly easy because, really, who’s the first “Indian leader” you’re going to think of? The fun part is in the checking: “three consecutive letters”? Oh, “G and H I”! Wonderful – Answer: GANDHI. (The real stumper, though, is which Gandhi the setter meant: Mohandas or Indira?) 

Parent lied, is out of order, like Bush? (12) – Def: “like Bush?” – Got to love the question mark here. “Parent lied is” out of order gives a quality that might be descriptive of Bush and Bush – or perhaps one and not the other? Does being president automatically make one “presidential”? – Answer: PRESIDENTIAL. 

So what do you think? There are much better clues out there – ones that really fill you with pride on solving them – but I haven’t noted what they are so couldn’t easily find them. Perhaps, I’ll have to do that from now on. Thanks for reading! 

3 thoughts on “Are You a Cruciverbalist? 

  1. I tried joining a class/group led by a friend who learned about cryptic crosswords when she was living in England. “Try” is the operative word because I gave up pretty quickly! I don’t think they are common here in the States, though I understand that some publications out of NYC (i.e. New Yorker, NY Times, Wall Street Journal) may include some.

    Liked by 1 person

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