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Secrets of Understanding Cryptic Crosswords 2

Secrets of understanding Cryptic crosswords

by Elaine Khan


Professor Ralph Martins, Director of the Sir James McCusker Alzheimer’s Disease Research Unit says this about Cryptic crosswords, "Keeping active in both body and mind has positive results for everyone as they age.  Your brain can be likened to a muscle and as such, it will be strengthened by regular exercise.  Physical and mental exercise is essential for brain health, mental agility and memory.  In fact, medical research has shown that such exercises increase brain activity and activate neurons to make connections. What does this do? It enhances memory.


Puzzles and thinking in different ways is a great way to exercise your brain.  Cryptic Crosswords are particularly beneficial because you have to approach and inspect clues in different ways; therefore you’re constantly challenging your brain.  It’s not as simple as looking at a thesaurus or dictionary for the solution; you have to crack the code through mental work and concentration.  These crosswords are never boring!

Work at it until you have conquered the cryptic clues.  Aside from the satisfaction you’ll get from solving the puzzle, you’ll also be giving your brain a better chance at warding off diseases that attack memory.”


In the last article we began to uncover the secrets of cryptic clues, in order to help you to tackle these fabulous puzzles with more confidence.

Last time we covered synonym use in crosswords and how to spot anagrams.  In this second article I would like to introduce the most powerful and regularly-used, secret code.  In fact it is not truly secret, but compilers use many ordinary and accepted abbreviations and shortened synonyms to build up words for the answers.  Answers are built up one or two letters at a time.  The best way to explain this is by giving examples.

Here is a short list of some of the commonly used expressions and abbreviations.

Letters of the alphabet can be represented in a number of ways for instance N, S, E, and W are points of the compass and denote bridge positions, so are regularly referred to as such.  The letter L in an answer can be represented in clues by a number of words such as learner, student, new driver, fifty (Roman numeral), head-louse, left, end of internal, Capital of Luxembourg and even more.  That’s why it is called cryptic, I suppose! 

In the same vein, morning, before lunch and the early part of the day all mean AM, but could be hard to spot as such.  A simple word like ‘way’ can be used deviously to mean ST, RD, or AVE, but could equally refer to PATH, MODE, LANE OR FASHION as part of the answer.  The tricky bit is thinking through any clue in many ways to decide which seems correct for that clue only and not get stuck in a rut, thinking of any word as having just one meaning or use.  You have to assume that every word in a cryptic clue is part of the hidden code. 

Here are a few to start with, but the full list is too long for one article!

Account or current = AC                                                        Body smell, odour, pong = BO

Church = CE; RC                                                                   Doctor = MB; GP; DR

Each = EA; PER                                                                     First = IST

Iron = FE                                                                               Like = AS

Mistake = ERR                                                                       Note = NB; A; B; C; D; E; F; G

Old; previous; former = EX                                                    Particle, atom = ION

Small hesitation = ER; UM                                                     Tin = SN; CAN

So you can see that these are all things you may recognize, but in a clue you have to look for them consciously.

I will now give two examples to help with this idea:-

ü  Berths mean low circles. (8) should be considered this way. 

Berths (for boats) MOORINGS, while low (a cow noise) can be MOO, followed by circles meaning RINGS. 

ü  Cuts vehicle against two bridge players. (6) = CARVES

{vehicle (CAR) against (V) two bridge players (E S)}

ü  Measure Elizabeth with empty guy to E in E = MC2.(6) = ENERGY

{Measure (EN) Elizabeth (ER) empty guy (GY)}


I hope that this is now somewhat clear to you.  If not then feel free to drop me a line by visiting


That is all for this time; so till next time, happy solving!

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