What are cryptic crossword clues?

The cryptic crossword is designed to challenge your linguistic skills. It is particularly popular in the UK and a few other English-speaking countries. This is perhaps thanks to the vagaries of the English language, which has absorbed words from numerous other tongues over the centuries. In doing so, it has resulted in a uniquely diverse language with things which can have many words, and words which can mean many things.

What is the difference between a standard clue and a cryptic clue?

A standard or definitional crossword has clues which can be taken at face value. For example, for the answer “Nile”, the clue could be “The world’s longest river”. These sorts of clues test general knowledge and vocabulary. They are widely used in the US and are sometimes referred to as “New York Times style” clues. Even if you don’t have extensive general knowledge, you can quickly find answers to a straightforward clue such as this using the internet. However, if you are looking for more of a challenge, it’s time to tackle the cryptic crossword.

Cryptic clues are used to make a crossword more demanding and require some lateral thinking. They are sometimes referred to as “British crosswords.” A cryptic clue is a kind of riddle or puzzle. In order to solve it, you need to look beneath the surface and analyse the words at a deeper level to discover the hidden meaning.

History of cryptic clues

Crosswords were first published in the UK in 1923 and were originally simple, definitional puzzles. It wasn’t long before several daily newspapers began to include a crossword in their publications. Later in the 1920s, the first cryptic clues started to appear. Today all major UK newspapers regularly publish a crossword, some featuring both standard and cryptic versions.

How to solve cryptic crossword puzzles

In order to solve cryptic crosswords, it helps to be familiar with the types of clues which are used. Cryptic clues tend to follow one of a number of patterns, and as you do more crosswords, you will get to know the different types and will quickly be able to spot the hints which indicate how to solve them.

Features in cryptic clues:

Abbreviations etc

You will often see abbreviations in crossword clues. You may also need to convert numbers into other forms, such as Roman numerals, e.g. 10 into X


Anagrams are a popular cryptic clue. In order to solve the anagram, you need to rearrange the letters from all or some of the words in a clue to form a new word or phrase. In the most basic anagram, there is no link in meaning between the original and final word or words.

A clever anagram will have a connection between the meanings of the original phrases. For example, “moon starer” can be rearranged into astronomer.

You should find a hint that this is an anagram clue, with a word that suggests that the letters have been thrown into chaos. For example, the clue may contain a word such as “disrupted” or “ruined”.


Very short clues may indicate that you need to find answers and combine them to give a word with another meaning. This meaning will relate to another part of the clue.

For example, the clue “wave cereal bowl” can be split into three parts. A type of cereal is “bran”, a bowl is a type of “dish”, and you combine them to form “brandish” – or wave. These clues can be hard as they give you no signposts to get you started.


A container clue is one where a word is hidden inside another word. You may also find the word spanning two words of the clue, taking the end part of one word and the beginning of the next. Look out for words such as “some” or “within”, or even “across”, as these may be indicators that you have a word within a word or two. In some cases, a letter may be removed from the word, and there are some common ways of suggesting this. For example, if the letter “o” is not needed for the answer but is in the clue, it may be referred to as “nothing” being removed.

Double Definition

Many words and phrases have more than one meaning and this is exploited for creating cryptic clues. This type of clue is referred to as a double definition. This type of clue is often short, in some cases as little as two words. These words will be synonyms of the answer. For example, “Ignoble foundation” gives the answer “base”. The word “base” can be used to refer to a foundation or bottom, but it can also be used to mean ignoble or dishonourable.

First or last letters

A clue may guide you to take first or last letters from the words in the clue in order to form the answer. Words such as “initially” can be used to suggest that you need the first letters from some or all of the remaining words in the clue.

Foreign words

You may come across clues which draw on words from other languages. For example, if a clue includes the phrase “the French” you may need to incorporate one of the definite articles from French, such as “le” or “les”.

Homophones or homonyms

Some Cryptic clue crosswords contain homophones, words that sound the same but have different meanings and may have different spellings. They may also make use of homonyms, words which have the same sound and spelling.


In some cryptic clues, you may find the answer within the question, but in reverse. Look for hints such as “going west” or even less subtle ones such as “reverse”.

Cryptic clues may also draw on literature and mythology, using references which will help you to work out the meaning. Having at least a little knowledge of these subjects and a wide vocabulary will help you enormously when it comes to solving cryptic crosswords. Interestingly, you can also find cryptic clues used in literature to enrich it and add interest for the reader with tiny puzzles to work out. Harry Potter fans will be familiar with the Mirror of Erised. Harry stands before it and sees in it his deepest wish. Here JK Rowling has simply reversed the word Desire. This sort of play on words is common in her work.

In effect, cryptic crosswords have a language of their own, and the more you learn of the language, the easier you will find it to solve the puzzle. But be warned, the challenge of solving cryptic crosswords can become addictive!