How I learned to love cryptic crosswords


Gives fish as greeting (9)

“High fives won’t go through bacon.”

These words were directed at me by a visibly distressed third-year student, as I was checking for post in the porter’s lodge at university one morning. Before I could even process them, my friend Alex stepped forward and said: “Not high fives. Handshake. As in hands hake.” The student’s eyes widened, he nodded, thanked Alex and went on his way.

Welcome to the curious world of the cryptic crossword compiler.

I wrote my first ever cryptic crossword in my first year of university. It was rugby-themed for a special edition of our student newspaper. I guess it must have gone down reasonably well because I was subsequently promoted to the giddy heights of Puzzles Editor and started setting weekly crosswords for my fellow students to tackle in the brief moments of respite between hangovers. The lecture notes and essays on my desk were joined by hundreds of post-it notes, scraps of paper and serviettes covered in strange scrawls and jumbled letters, all watched over by a fat English dictionary.

Do mini nude dance more slowly (10)

When you talk about cryptic crosswords, the first thing that most people think of is the anagrams. When I’m solving a puzzle, I tend to attempt any anagrams first – since the letters are there already and it’s just a question of getting them in the right order! That’s not to say that anagrams are always easy – for solvers or for setters. It took me years to hit on my current compiler pseudonym of Maitresse, which is an anagram of my two middle names (answers on a postcard…). I’d tried the same tack before but the best I’d come up with was ‘arse mites’. And that was with just nine letters to worry about.

Roger Squires (aka ‘Rufus’), the world’s most prolific crossword setter, came up with the clue ‘Giggling troll follows Clancy, Larry, Billy and Peggy who howl, wrongly disturbing a place in Wales (58)’, the answer to which is ‘Llanfairpwllgwyngyllgogerychwyrndrobwllllantysiliogogogoch’. John Galbraith Graham (known as ‘Araucaria’), who sadly passed away in 2013, was particularly proud of a clue in which he used ‘O hark the herald angels sing the boy’s descent which lifted up the world’ – as an anagram of ‘While shepherds watched their flocks by night, all seated on the ground’. Me, I was over the moon the day I worked out that ‘schoolmaster’ is an anagram of ‘the classroom’.

Excrement in heaven is eerie (6)

But there’s far more to cryptic crosswords than just anagrams. Words can be cut up into pieces and stitched back together, hidden inside other words, flipped around and turned upside down. ‘Making love with sore back (4)’ would give you ‘Eros’, a straightforward flipped-word clue. Clues don’t have to be horribly complicated. Sometimes something as simple as putting two words together can be the basis for a really slick clue, as proved by Rufus who is famous for ‘Two girls, one on each knee (7)’. The answer – for any of you who are a bit hazy on your GCSE Biology – is ‘patella’.

Sign of agreement in grungy establishment (3)

Sometimes solvers simply have to find a word hidden within the letters of the clue itself. I find this type of clue especially fun to write, as there’s a certain amount of flexibility and it becomes a challenge of trying to find the most satisfying or most amusing sentence to hide the answer in. So the clue above could equally have been ‘Sign of agreement in eyesight testing centre’ or ‘… in hair dye salon’ or ‘… in trippy Escher artwork’ or ‘… in mooky escapism’. You get the idea.

Bad photograph (8)

In other clues, I might focus less on the letters and more on the meanings of the words themselves. Rather than breaking a word down into its constituent parts, I might look for double meanings. So ‘Pleasant resort (4)’ would give you ‘nice’ (as in Nice, France) and ‘Enjoy condiment (6)’ would lead you to ‘relish’. Other clues could play on definitions that might not be immediately obvious. If you see the word ‘flower’ in a clue, you’d probably think of daisies or tulips or whatever. But in a cryptic crossword ‘flower’ could equally be used to describe a river or stream (i.e. something that flows).

These clues can be particularly tricksy, because different people might see different meanings first and so these clues can seem maddeningly difficult or deceptively simple depending on your thought process. I was recently confused by a clue which used the word ‘driver’ – my Dad is a big fan of golf so I immediately thought of the golf club. It was only later on that I remembered that to most people the word ‘driver’ means ‘person behind the wheel of a car’. (As it turned out, the golf-related meaning was the right one to use so I found the answer pretty easily – hey, there have to be some perks to being 28 and still unable to drive.)

Dullard cut short is Mr Johnson (5)

And cryptic crosswords can be much more than just fun puzzles. They can be political, they can be sexy, they can send out certain messages. Private Eye’s crossword, for example, is a riotous mixture of innuendo and digs at politicians. I think themed crosswords are particularly fun to write – in my time as a compiler I’ve worked in themes including Christmas, the history of the Labour party, and feminism, the latter kicking off with ‘Strange rants etc follow advocate of women’s rights (14)’ for ‘Wollstonecraft’.

The late great Araucaria announced his own terminal illness in a crossword he published in December 2012, with answers including ‘cancer’, ‘chemotheraphy’ and ‘sunset’. After so many years spent perfecting his art, he said that it seemed “the natural thing to do” when he decided to tell his readers that he was ill. Other setters have encrypted happier messages. While I was at uni, I used to pop in the odd reference to whichever guy I fancied at the time. I thought I was pretty original, until I read about a guy who proposed to his girlfriend via the cryptic in The Times.

Bug scoundrel in intelligence service (6)

I wouldn’t claim to be the world’s most brilliant crossword compiler, but it’s incredibly good fun and when, every now and then, I construct a clue that I’m really genuinely pleased with, it’s such a satisfying feeling. I remember how proud I was when I saw a clue almost identical to the one above appear in The Telegraph’s puzzle, just weeks after I’d printed my version. (Actually – please don’t hate me – I felt smug because I thought my clue was better than theirs. They’d used the word ‘insect’ which seemed totally incongruous, when they could have gone for ‘bug’ with its alternative meaning of ‘eavesdrop on’).

A well-constructed crossword clue is a thing of joy, somewhere between a mathematical formula and a Christmas cracker joke, with a punchline all the funnier for the calculation needed to get there.


Cryptic crosswords are word games and compilers are the gamesmasters, playing tricks and laying traps, throwing you off the scent with one hand and feeding you tips with the other. You know that famous picture, the one that some people see as a duck and other people see as a rabbit? Well, the cryptic crossword compiler has to see both the rabbit and the duck – and then make a bewilderingly delicious stew out of the pair of them.

Cryptic Crossword Answers

Do mini nude dance more slowly (10) = DIMINUENDO (anagram)

Excrement in heaven is eerie (6) = SPOOKY (‘poo’ in ‘sky’)

Sign of agreement in grungy establishment (3) = YES (hidden word)

Bad photograph (8) = NEGATIVE (double meaning)

Dullard cut short is Mr Johnson (5) = BORIS (‘bore’ cut short + ‘is’)

Bug scoundrel in intelligence service (6) = CICADA (‘cad’ in ‘CIA’)