Puzzle that makes you weep softly and twitch: Cryptic crosswords
January 27, 2003 2:18 PM   Subscribe

Puzzle that makes you weep softly and twitch. Cryptic crosswords are mostly unappreciated on US shores, but those who have learned to seek them out have struck upon perhaps the best wordplay puzzles ever. Instead of rewarding a solver's grasp of trivia, cryptics are truly a battle of wits in which each clue is a riddle that plays by a few simple rules. Part of the riddle is a straight definition of the final word; the rest is subtly disguised wordplay. It's hard to know just why these haven't caught on — it may be that the most readily available ones, such as those in Harper's or The Atlantic, are extra-tricky affairs that cater toward expert solvers. But online, there are plenty of puzzles suitable for those interested in giving cryptics a whirl, including this gem, written for a 12-year-old audience.
posted by blueshammer (37 comments total) 15 users marked this as a favorite
For an example of the kind of riddles I'm talking about, I'll parse the title, which was originally written by the notorious Henry Hook: "Puzzle that makes you weep softly and twitch" is a clue for CRYPTIC. The definition is "puzzle"; "weep" means CRY; "softly," as anyone who's ever take a piano lesson knows, is represented in sheet music as P for piano (as in the opposite of forte, or f); and "twitch," taken as a noun, is synonymous with TIC. So, literally, the clue reads "Puzzle that makes you CRY P and TIC," or CRYPTIC.

Cryptics are more popular in Britain, and most of the major newspapers websites offer a cryptic crossword, but I didn't link to those because they tend to be a little more maddening because they don't necessarily "play fair" relative to what American constructors would consider "the rules."

I know these won't be everyone's cup of tea, but for those that have the necessary bent, they're quite fun.
posted by blueshammer at 2:25 PM on January 27, 2003

I wait anxiously for each Atlantic and Harper's, and in no small part for their cryptic crosswords. My friends all think I'm insane for doing them, and stare at me blankly if I try to explain the rules to them. I toil in solitude.

(Thanks for the links, blues, but I would have died of old age before getting the "p/piano/softly" hint.)
posted by Skot at 2:43 PM on January 27, 2003

I love puzzles, but I'll freely confess that Cryptic Crosswords scare the bejeezus out of me. They make me feel dumb in that "here's something designed for Europeans of below-average intelligence that you, dumb American, can't even begin to figure out" kind of way.
posted by Shadowkeeper at 2:52 PM on January 27, 2003 [1 favorite]

Skot: If you're doing the Harper's or Atlantic, you're bound to come across the soft:p::loud:f thing at least once every few months. That kind of unsignalled abbreviation is, I agree, about the hardest thing in these puzzles — and is just the kind of thing that alienates new solvers — but it nevertheless crops up from time to time.

Shadowkeeper: If you consult the rules link, I'm pretty sure you could work your way through that last puzzle I linked to. You may give your brain a slight sprain doing it, but it'll be worth it in the end.
posted by blueshammer at 3:06 PM on January 27, 2003

I'll freely confess that Cryptic Crosswords scare the bejeezus out of me. They make me feel dumb in that "here's something designed for Europeans of below-average intelligence that you, dumb American, can't even begin to figure out" kind of way.

Heh, I used to think that exact same thing. And I'm a fairly dumb American. If you care, Games magazine often features "tutorial" cryptic crosswords that are pretty easy and spell out all the clues; they're how I learned. [Note: Games Magazine is wildly inconsistent in quality.] Like anything else, you get better at them with practice. However, every now and then, you just stare in abject horror. The current Atlantic Monthly's puzzle is a fucking terror.
posted by Skot at 3:06 PM on January 27, 2003

If you're doing the Harper's or Atlantic, you're bound to come across the soft:p::loud:f thing at least once every few months.

I am now committing this to memory.
posted by Skot at 3:10 PM on January 27, 2003

I was really hoping to post on this, and am glad it came up. I just started doing them recently, being saddened by the empty cryptics in the bottom half of the NYT Magazine. For starts, I recommend the New Yorker's 101 Cryptic Crosswords with the best introduction ever to the various clue types, 2 good starter puzzles, and 101 more, still accessible to the beginner. Online, I do the puzzle at the Dispatch every day but Sunday (click on Entertainment, then "Dispatch Online Cryptic Crossword." Requires Java).
posted by whatzit at 3:11 PM on January 27, 2003

To add on to what Skot said: GAMES has an adjunct publication called World of Games, and the current issue (labelled "March") has a special cryptics section, including a beginner's puzzle. It's not available in as many bookstores as GAMES itself, but it's definitely out there at your nearest Borders, etc.

To toss out another example: The special section in the WoP is titled "Cryptic Treats with Sampler," and this itself is a sneaky cryptic clue. In this case — and I promise this would seem less abstruse if you visit the link to the Atlantic's hints page — the answer is TASTER, where "sampler" is the definition and "cryptic treats" really means "cryptic 'treats'" — i.e., the letters TREATS are encrypted, and you need to unencrypt (that is, rearrange) them.

You may feel like you're head's about to explode, but I swear: If you read the thing in the Atlantic, you'll be able to muscle your way through the kids' puzzle, and find it satisfying.
posted by blueshammer at 3:17 PM on January 27, 2003

Thank you for finally explaining how those work. My reaction was/ is exactly the same as Shadowkeeper. Now I'll have to give them another shot.

Henry Hook and I have a love/ hate relationship. I think he loves that I hate him.
posted by yerfatma at 3:18 PM on January 27, 2003

I used to be completely baffled by cryptics, but then one day the Times (London) gave away a pamphlet explaining the basics of cryptic crosswords, and I was hooked.

I couldn't find a copy of that online, but here is a basic guide from the Guardian, which as well as explaining the basic forms and how to spot them also has a link to a list of often used abbreviations.

For me the real joy in cryptics isn't just getting the answer (sometimes you can guess them if you have enough letters and a rough idea of what the question is), it's working out why it's the answer. If you're going to try the ones in the Guardian may I suggest trying the ones by Rufus, he's the most straightforward. Don't make yr first cryptic crossword one by Arucaria, he's fiendishly difficult. If you can find them (they don't appear to be online) the Observer (sunday sister paper of the Guardian) does a really good cryptic, hard enough so you enjoy getting the answers, but no so hard that you can't finish it in an afternoon.
posted by ciderwoman at 3:29 PM on January 27, 2003

The idea of cryptic crosswords has always appealed to me but attempting them has always frustrated me. Having looked through the hints linked above I feel like I was trying to watch TV in a foreign language - I vaguely knew what was going on and picked up a few snippets here and there but I never really knew how to translate what was presented to me.

I think I'll buy me a nice broadsheet tomorrow and see what I can do in my lunch hour.
posted by MUD at 3:36 PM on January 27, 2003

HIJKLMNO (5 letters). Answer in the title here. My favourite cryptic clue ever.
posted by Zootoon at 3:57 PM on January 27, 2003

Jesus that was tough, but I completed most of it. I managed to choose a username, and a password, and enter my name and address and gender... after that it all got a bit much, you know?
posted by Pretty_Generic at 4:13 PM on January 27, 2003

Cryptic crosswords have always been on my lifetime to-do list, along with jazz and classical music, but my grandparents were tremendous fans of cryptic crosswords, and my understanding is that the Sunday Times crossword is the bitch of the bunch.
posted by nthdegx at 4:27 PM on January 27, 2003

A really nice introduction to how crosswords can become an obsession appeared in last Saturdays Guardian here.
It includes short interviews with both Rufus and Araucaria.

I haven't seen the Observer in a few years, but either their crossword has got easier or you are a true crossword ninja - "no so hard that you can't finish it in an afternoon"
Wow - that one used to have me in tears of frustration.
posted by thatwhichfalls at 4:38 PM on January 27, 2003

I get Games magazine and every issue there are 2 of these thing. I hate these thing because i cant do them;)
posted by MrLint at 4:53 PM on January 27, 2003

What shadowkeeper said. I have to exercise my flabby mental muscles on the more tame regular xwords by Merl Reagle, as cryptics are too much of a brain buster. However, my mother rawks at cryptics, so I'm sending this post on to her! Thanks, blueshammer!
posted by Lynsey at 5:34 PM on January 27, 2003 [1 favorite]

The Economist does a cryptic every year, and they're often enjoyable; plus the New York Times Crossword Forum has a whole collection of them, and a discussion group around them. I like both the American (NY Times) and British (cryptic) styles, though I do American ones much more often. One way to think of the difference is that the American style has two clues for every letter; and the British style has two (or more) clues buried in each clue. Either way, a fun combination of vocabulary, reasoning, and persistence. (I dispute that the American puzzles rely solely on the solver's "grasp of trivia"! If you stick only to guessing trivia you'll neither solve nor enjoy crosswords of any style.)
posted by precipice at 5:35 PM on January 27, 2003

Zootoon: Geg (9,3)?
posted by carter at 6:07 PM on January 27, 2003

You're making me show off, carter, aren't you?

I agree that the two magazine majors are fiendishly difficult, not the least because they also tend to show off the puzzle designers' originality in introducing a visual design feature or a complicated theme. One that enthralled me for days, but ultimately stumped me, involved a series of swirled six-letter words, where each word had three "hidden" letters, and three that intertwined with the next swirl. <keanu>Whoa.</keanu> I actually prefer the more straightforward design, no matter how challenging the clues. Anyway, I've been working my way through Theresa's cryptics (the 'wordplay' link) -- and I was actually thinking of doing a cryptics post. Damn you, blueshammer!

The thing I like about them, as opposed to regular crosswords, is that the latter seem more a matter of holding lists of words in your head, especially certain words that are very crossword-friendly -- like all those two or three letter Scrabble words that nobody ever uses. Cryptics, on the other hand, maintain a level of abstraction -- or perhaps two or three -- beyond picking the word that fits. Of course the best Xwords -- like the one in the Sunday NYT -- remain challenging. But the mental exercises required to do a cryptic are the kind that stave off Alzheimer's. At the same time, I prefer clues that play by the rules; those British ones just overlap too much. I like ones where you can figure out the dividing line and work from there.
posted by dhartung at 7:04 PM on January 27, 2003

Timely post-- I just finished the seven cryptic puzzles in the March Issue of World of Puzzles and was wishing for more. My favorites are the ones that start with a cryptic answer and then you have to further manipulate the word-- such as dropping or adding a letter-- before entering it into the grid. If you are interested, then the March "special bonus section" is a good place to start. The section begins with a complete description of the eight common types of wordplay: Anagrams, charades, containers, hidden answers, homophones, reversals, deletions, and double definitions. It really only takes awhile to get the hang of solving them and soon key words such as "clutches" "headless" and "destroying" start leaping out at you.
posted by Secret Life of Gravy at 7:10 PM on January 27, 2003

showing off because dhartung is too humble to: scrambled egg ;)

I just printed the Atlantic monthly one, never done an Atlantic cryptic before and can't wait! Thanks so much for these links. Cryptic crosswords are the most devilish and the most rewarding to solve. The deviousness of the clues is half the fun. I too cut my cryptic teeth solving the ones in Games Magazine. Someday I hope to attend (and take part in) an honest to goodness puzzle convention - the last refuge of the ultranerdy ubergeek. There's pocket protecters alplenty at puzzle conventions, baby. And everyone has lots of sexy mechanical pencils and freshly sharpened #2 Dixons.

I love the sweet smell of lead and paper in the morning.
posted by iconomy at 7:13 PM on January 27, 2003

I precede a swindle that gasps possessively!

the return of a restless april dog

eb ... doog
posted by vacapinta at 8:22 PM on January 27, 2003

Canada's Globe & Mail has one in each issue. You can even do them online. To be honest, I've always had problems with their weekday puzzles; too many puns. The Saturday puzzle, set by Frasier Simpson, is much more to my liking.
posted by Monk at 8:30 PM on January 27, 2003

Can I please change my username to I precede a swindle that grasps possessively, Matt?

I hope you're back to stay, vacapinta.
posted by iconomy at 8:55 PM on January 27, 2003

The idea of cryptic crosswords has always appealed to me but attempting them has always frustrated me.

I subscribed to The Nation for a long time and felt the same way about their puzzle for a long time, trying it out every once and a while, giving up often…but once I actually finished my first one, I was plenty hooked.
posted by sherman at 9:13 PM on January 27, 2003

A strain after convened: weep softly and twitch.
posted by taz at 10:06 PM on January 27, 2003

I give up carter!
posted by Zootoon at 1:21 AM on January 28, 2003

I used to do cryptics quite a bit, but the "true" cryptics always defeated me. As an example, my favourite:

27. ! (4,3,3,1,4)

Answer: Have not got a clue.
posted by BigCalm at 1:30 AM on January 28, 2003

I give up carter!

puzzle: otonozo
answer: confused zootoon

puzzle: egg
answer: unscrambled egg

puzzle: eb .. doog
answer: good to be back
posted by vacapinta at 1:37 AM on January 28, 2003

thatwhichfalls: Thanks for the great link.

For people looking at geg and getting dizzy: That's the sort of thing (geg itself representing a scrambled egg) that you're much more likely to see in a non-American cryptic. An American cryptic clue that wanted to use the same wordplay trick would put "scrambled egg" in the clue itself and have you rearrange it into GEG, for, say, a clue for SA(GEG)REEN.
posted by blueshammer at 8:57 AM on January 28, 2003

Nice link(s), blueshammer. After getting into cryptics, I find 'regular' crosswords completely uninteresting. Most fun to me are the rare times when you find an answer and it's not what the puzzle maker intended. For example, in the current Atlantic I was sure that "Sound from a horse thief (6)" was "rustle," but it turned out to be "nicker."
posted by LeLiLo at 11:39 AM on January 28, 2003

This is why I don't do crosswords. "Nicker"? I can see that in British useage, to "nick" is to steal, and thus, a thief would be a "nicker". But the rest of it? I like your answer, rustle, much better.
posted by salmacis at 5:12 AM on January 29, 2003

But the rest of it?

Horses nicker.
posted by redfoxtail at 5:56 AM on January 29, 2003 [1 favorite]

Apologies for going away, Zootoon: I should have included the answer!.ns
posted by carter at 10:35 AM on January 29, 2003

There's a nice guide for how to do cryptic crosswords

If anyone's itching to try one, the Guardian crossword page has a funky Java version and a plain printable version of its daily cryptic crossword.

The Guardian crosswords tend to be pretty tough though, for my meagre brain anyway. I usually only get a handful.
posted by TheophileEscargot at 8:31 AM on January 30, 2003

The new issue of The Atlantic (March 2003) arrived, which reminds me of something I meant to say before. To me the whole thing boils down to this: when you solve the clue, can you write it into the puzzle or not? In a lot of cryptics, you have to solve at least 15 or 20 clues before you can enter anything.

It's easy enough to say, about 25 across this time, that "Look pleased, and leave with unloved Yank (6)" obviously is Grin + go. An unloved Yank, a gringo. But what the puzzle makers ask you to fit into the puzzle (according to its particular rules), is "GNGRI."

Now that's entertainment!
posted by LeLiLo at 10:47 AM on February 9, 2003

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