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This article is a discussion of a unique and fascinating type of crossword clue.

A cryptic definition is, as the name suggests, a definition of the answer which is (or should be) an accurate definition when interpreted in the right way, but is worded in such a way that it is intended to mislead. Common examples are “flower” for river, “number” for a painkiller or anaesthetic, and “driver” for a golfer. A river flows, a painkiller numbs and a golfer drives, but if the clue is cleverly worded, the solver will be misled into thinking of plants, integers or motorists. Cryptic definitions came into being quite early in the history of the crossword, when clues were straight definitions or synonyms like in today’s “quick” puzzles, because setters and solvers alike grew weary of things like “Fruit (5)” and “Girl’s name (6)”. As crosswords developed into the cryptic form we recognise today, things like this started to appear:

Wicked luminary lanced boils (6)

The surface reading suggests some immoral but prominent member of a group practising medicine, but that’s of course irrelevant. The answer is an anagram of LANCED to give CANDLE. The definition “wicked luminary” is cryptic – not only does it play on the fact that a luminary can also mean a source of light, but also it uses “wicked” in a fanciful way. The idea is that if someone with money is moneyed, or someone with a title is titled, then something with a wick is wicked. The clever thing about this clue is that the solver is almost certain to hear “wick-id” rather than “wickt” internally when reading it.

I need to make some distinctions here. A cryptic crossword consists entirely or mostly of cryptic clues. A cryptic clue is a clue which expects the solver to look past the surface reading and unravel some verbal sleight of hand before solving it. I have defined cryptic definition above, but just so there’s no confusion, let’s compare my example clue

Wicked luminary lanced boils (6)

with this one:

Declan possibly will provide source of light (6)

The first clue is a cryptic clue containing a cryptic definition. The second is a cryptic clue too, though rather a dull one, containing a straight definition. There is nothing cryptic about “source of light” – it could appear in its own right in the coffee time puzzle. But what about a clue like this:

Wicked source of light (6)

This is a cryptic clue, and a cryptic definition, for CANDLE, but it contains none of the wordplay we expect to find in cryptic puzzles – anagrams, reversals, second definitions etc. A clue like this breaks the cardinal rule of cryptic clues: there is only one way to get to the answer, rather than the standard two (definition and wordplay). Yet we see clues like this quite often in modern cryptic crosswords and many (not all, we’ll come to that later) solvers love this sort of thing. But isn’t this the same thing as “Bird (5)” and “Capital city (6)” and suchlike?

The clue works on the same principle, yes, but there’s a difference. Once you’ve gathered that you’re looking for a source of light with a wick, and not some kind of really cool, funky lighting (as per the modern use of “wicked”) there is only one possible answer. Let’s look at another example, and we need to imagine that this is a clue from before the year 2002.

The capital of France (5)

It’s not hard to imagine some novice solver saying “Duh! I thought cryptic crosswords were supposed to be hard!” and confidently writing in PARIS, then not getting any further because this incorrect answer is hampering progress with intersecting answers. In a definition-only puzzle PARIS would indeed be the right answer, unless the setter was in a mischievous mood and had decided to throw in a cryptic definition for FRANC, which pre-2002 was the capital, in the monetary sense, of France.

The arrival of the Euro, whatever its economic pros and cons, was a damned nuisance for setters, as European currencies offered wonderful opportunities for wordplay. The above idea only really works well when the currency and capital city of a nation have the same number of letters, so the best version of this now is probably

The capital of Russia (6)

A clue like this is unlikely to give the experienced solver much pause for thought, but it’ll still catch out the unwary novice and the beauty of it is that it looks like an insult to the solver’s intelligence when, of course, it is not.

What do we call these clues? The most logical term would be “cryptic definition only” clues and that is used by some people, but many others refer to them simply as cryptic definitions or CDs. I’m quite happy with the latter, and from here on “cryptic definition” will be the term I use to describe a clue which is simply a definition presented in a misleading way.

I am a great fan of this type of clue, but before I expand on that I would like to mention what I see as the main pitfalls of cryptic definition clues.

The first pitfall is that since the solver has only one way to arrive at the answer, they can be very frustrating if you know what you’re looking for but don’t know the word. This happened to me on the first of the two occasions I attended the Times Crossword Championship. In order to reach the final round, contestants had to solve four puzzles of 30 clues each. I got 119 rather than 120, and the clue I failed to solve was the cryptic definition clue 

It needs to be left running for a time (9)

I worked out quickly enough that this had nothing to do with jump-starting cars with flat batteries, and that the answer required was the name for a water clock. Unfortunately, even with the letters C_E_S_D_A towards it I had no idea what the answer was, and guessed at CRESSIDIA as that looked like a plausible word. The correct answer, CLEPSYDRA, was a new one on me. I’m not calling unfair here as more than enough solvers got it, but using cryptic definitions for obscure words is unlikely to endear the setter to his or her solvers if it happens too often.

Another problem is that of ambiguity, which the setter may not notice. I had to clue ACROPHOBIA for the Independent a while ago, and used the cryptic definition

Rising alarm? (10)

which, to tell the truth, I thought was rather clever. Alas, I hadn’t reckoned with AEROPHOBIA (I’d never heard of it) which one commenter on the message boards pointed out would have been an equally good, if not better, answer. Some people do love to pick holes in cryptic definitions (more later), but in this case the criticism was justified, especially as the second letter had no intersecting answer. There is always a danger with this type of clue that there may be other plausible answers than that which the setter intends, especially if the only available intersecting letters are something like _A_E_.

There’s a danger too that the cryptic definition may not actually be very cryptic, if at all. Experienced solvers see through even the best cryptic definitions very quickly, but one hopes that they will still get some enjoyment from them. But what about a clue like

It could be covering someone’s wound (7)

for BANDAGE, which I’ve just made up? The idea is that the solver will read this as “it could be a covering (piece of material) which someone has wound (around something).”  I can’t see even the most inexperienced solver falling for it for long, if at all, as the actual meaning of the clue leaps out at you. In any case, even the “misleading” meaning is a plausible clue for a bandage! This sort of thing usually happens when the setter tries to force a cryptic definition on to a word, perhaps because the word doesn’t break down easily into component parts or an anagram.

Finally, there’s the risk that the brilliant cryptic definition you’ve thought of has been done before, maybe several times. We all know that great minds think alike (or fools seldom differ!) and that there are only so many decent clues for any given word. So nobody really complains when more than one setter sees STUN as NUTS backwards or exploits an obvious anagram like ESTRANGE/SERGEANT, especially as the wording of the clue is likely to vary. On the other hand, cryptic definitions are a bit more individual, so anyone offering

Bank of Scotland (4)

for BRAE is likely to get some stick, as it’s been done so many times before, even if the poor setter didn’t know this. A long while ago I came up with

Charge of the Light Brigade? (11,4)

for ELECTRICITY BILL, and despite being really chuffed with it I had a feeling that it was too good to be true that a novice setter, as I was then, could think up a gem like this. It was, of course – as I found when I included it in the puzzle I sent to various publications in the hope of becoming a paid crossword setter. One well-known figure in the crossword world, who is crossword editor of a publication to which I’d sent the puzzle, tore me a new one (to use the vernacular) for stealing old chestnuts from other setters. Perhaps I’d seen the clue ages before that and it had stuck in my mind, though I honestly don’t remember it. Or maybe I really did think of it independently. I don’t know. There’s no way of checking every puzzle from the past to see if your clever cryptic definition has been used before, and the last thing one wants is for setters’ creativity to be cramped by fear of plagiarism. My own policy is to use any idea I come up with so long as I don’t remember seeing it elsewhere, and hope that it really is original or, at the very least, hasn’t been used for a long time.

So, when I had the idea

A pair of braces (4)

for FOUR, I didn’t hesitate to use it in an FT puzzle. I really like this clue – there’s a nice misleading surface and there’s no doubt about the answer. Is it original? I don’t know – it seems like the sort of thing that many setters would think of, but nobody complained when the puzzle appeared so perhaps it was my brainchild after all.

That’s the pitfalls dealt with, so let me now nail my colours firmly to the mast and state that the cryptic definition is by far my favourite type of clue. To me, a neat cryptic definition is far more what cryptic crosswords are about than an anagram of a word without its first and middle letters put around a reversal of another word, which in turn contains a smattering of first and last letters of yet other words.

But hang on, I hear you say, don’t I write far more of the latter type of clue than the former? If I love cryptic definitions so much, why do I write so few of them? The answer to that is simple.

I am rubbish at writing cryptic definitions.

That’s not false modesty. I mean it. My “pair of braces” was pretty good and so was my clue for ELECTRICITY BILL, if I really did come up with that on my own. But it doesn’t go much further than that. Cryptic definitions, let alone good cryptic definitions, rarely occur to me and the times I do use them tend to be either when I can’t find any convincing way to break the answer down, or when I’ve included some common phrase in the grid for which I’m sure I’ll later find a brilliant cryptic definition (and usually don't). The result is often rather forced. I like to think I’ve done a few good ones, and I don’t think I’ve come up with anything quite as awful as my BANDAGE clue above, but generally I leave cryptic definitions to the setters who write them better than I do, of whom there are many.

The Times is well known for regularly including ingenious cryptic definitions in its puzzles, but the absolute master of them, who merits a special honourable mention, is Roger Squires, who sets as Rufus for the Guardian (also as Dante for the FT, and in other guises too). Rufus puzzles are definitely in my top five, mainly due to the brilliance and abundance of the cryptic definitions which appear in them. There’s a Rufus puzzle almost every Monday and unfailingly Roger manages to come up with several cryptic definitions, all of which fizz with fun. His Dante puzzles are the same. None of his cryptic definitions fall into the traps I’ve described above – very much the opposite, certainly where originality is concerned. His best is arguably the wonderful

Bar of soap (6,6)

for ROVERS RETURN (the pub in Coronation Street). If that’s not brilliant I don’t know what is, but I do know I’d never have come up with that in a thousand years. A more recent one is

He's been known to pot the white (8)

Forget about bad snooker players, the answer is CANNIBAL. Terrific stuff! Predictably there were a few murmurs from po-faced PC types about this one but it was appreciated by all those with a sense of humour and a love of good clues.

A much more recent (at the time of writing) Rufus clue is

One step up from the gutter (9)

The surface imagery here so strongly suggests someone whose behaviour is sordid but not beyond redemption that the actual meaning of the clue is hidden in plain sight. If you know what you’re looking for it’s easy but if not, not. In this case you need to take the clue absolutely literally; if you step up out of a gutter in the street, you step on a KERBSTONE. I could quote many more fine examples of Roger Squires’s genius at writing cryptic definition clues, but in the interests of brevity the above three will have to suffice.

I mentioned earlier that some solvers actively dislike cryptic definitions. I’ve never understood why, as they are the basis upon which the modern crossword has developed. But fair enough, chacun à son goût and all that, and there’s certainly no reason why a solver should like all aspects of clue writing. I have an aversion to anything more than the occasional use of obscure Scottish, Shakespearean and Spenserian words in Listener puzzles, for example, and I’ve mentioned this a few times here on my own pages. But I wouldn’t dream of turning up without fail every week on crossword sites which review the Listener and carping whenever Jock, Will or Edmund make an appearance, not least because I’m aware that quite a few solvers do like exploring these regions of vocabulary and I don’t want to look like a selfish bore.

Unfortunately, there is a small number of regulars on Internet crossword forums who make a point of moaning about cryptic definitions so much that they appear to be on some sort of crusade. I’ve already said that this type of clue has a few pitfalls and it’s true that one comes across weak cryptic definition clues from time to time (many of them mine, probably) and there’s nothing wrong with pointing this out. These complainers go further than this, though; they pick holes in cryptic definition clues as a matter of principle. If they get the answer quickly it “wasn’t cryptic enough” – arrogantly dismissing those solvers who aren’t quite as experienced as they are, and who may have had a pleasant tussle with the clue before solving it. On the other hand, if the clue defeats them it was “unfair”, irrespective of whether other solvers got it without any problems. Predictably, Rufus puzzles get much of the flak as they contain a lot of cryptic definitions. Every time a Rufus puzzle appears, at least one of the moaners makes a comment like “another Rufus puzzle with too many cryptic definitions” which, to me, is about as pointless as going to Pizza Hut every week and complaining that the pizza’s always got cheese on it. Worse still, this has degenerated in a few cases into tiresome and sometimes spiteful digs at this setter’s work in general.

I could say a lot more about this, but will leave it there, as I think I’ve made my point without, I hope, alienating my entire crowd of fans (maybe they won’t both read this piece anyway).

I’ve said all that I wanted to say, so I’ll finish with one final observation. The advent of computers has made it much easier for setters to find new and interesting ways to break words down into component parts or find anagrams. There’s still a lot of skill involved in creating fluent, deceptive and fun clues from a crossword program’s suggestions, and I’m aware that some of the top setters prefer to create their clues without computers, but modern technology is undeniably a very useful resource. WEST HAM UNITED doesn’t look like a very easy answer to clue, until you enter it into your anagram finder and discover that it’s an anagram of THE NEW STADIUM. Bingo! I am aware that this remarkable coincidence is now widely known and soon will be as old hat as the tricorn, but it serves to exemplify how useful software can be.

Computers work out the possible wordplay for an answer by breaking it down into all possible permutations and comparing these permutations with lists of words. Impressive though this is – not least the speed at which it is done – the computer doesn’t actually understand words in the way humans do. That’s why crossword programs can’t suggest cryptic definitions. These are 100% from the human brain, and show a love and understanding of language which no computer will ever be able to emulate. At least I hope not. If there ever comes a day when a computer can think of a cryptic definition clue such as Roger Squires’s magnificent offering for ROVERS RETURN, that will be the day mankind loses dominion over machines!