Cryptic acrostics are one of my favorite leisure activities, but there aren’t many around. Yesterday I finished one that I particularly enjoyed in Simon & Schuster’s Super Crostics Book, Series #4. Many people don’t understand them, or at least don’t know how to solve them, so here is a short explanation with some examples from the puzzle I just did (puzzle by Thomas H. Middleton). First, in case you don’t know what an acrostic puzzle is, Wikipedia explains it here: Acrostic (puzzle).
It is the cryptic part I want to explain. The clues for cryptics are just that: cryptic, and at first unintelligible. But every clue actually contains a real definition or synonym along with secondary information which serves both to obfuscate the definition and to provide another way to identify the answer word, usually by describing characteristics of the words or letters in the word. Very often the information makes total sense when proper punctuation is added or changed. The best of them are witty and clever, providing a nice chuckle or smile when you finally “get it.” Here are some typical techniques used:
- Anagrams: One or more words in the clue are anagrams of the answer.
All the way, it’s deadly (6 letters) Answer: LETHAL. Deadly is the definition; All the is an anagram of LETHAL. Often anagrams are hinted at by words like strange, crazy, broken, awkward, etc. These indicator words area called anagrinds. “Strange times” might mean “EMITS”, for example. The example of LETHAL is a direct anagram, i.e. the letters of the word are the same as the ones in the clue. Other times it may be indirect in that you are looking for an anagram of a clued word such as Chew honeydew fruit (5) where Chew is the anagrind and the word to be anagrammed is MELON to get the answer LEMON. This is more common in British cryptics since it is considered bad form by many American puzzle fans.
- Hidden word: The word appears in the clue, but is buried in another word, or across two or more words.
Fixed part of Carmen dedicated to bullfighters (6 letters) Answer: MENDED. Fixed is the definition. The word mended appears across “CarMEN DEDicated”. Additionally, the phrasing “part of” tells you that what you’re looking for is contained in the word or phrase immediately following.
- Double definition: The word is defined in two different ways.
Stuff to count (6 letters) Answer: MATTER. “Stuff” defines matter as a noun; “to count” defines matter as a verb, as in “That doesn’t matter.”
- Alternative letter use: The clue uses letters in the answer in a different way, such as a Roman numeral, an acronym, etc.
Stuff of froth; for example, the wig is askew. (2 words, 8 letters). Answer: EGGWHITE. The EG is used as the Latin acronym “e.g.” meaning “for example”, and the GWHITE is an anagram of “the wig”. Egg white, of course, is the frothy stuff of meringue. Be alert for the letter O being used as a zero, especially when words like “nought,” “zip,” or “nil” appear in the clue.
- Internal words redefined: A part of the answer is defined as a separate word.
Hindu greeting sat awkwardly in title (7 letters). Answer: NAMASTE. Hindu greeting is the real definition; “Sat awkwardly” means “sat” (anagrammed as “ast”, i.e. awkwardly written) inserted in the word “name” (which is one definition for “title”). Prepositions are often key clues. Back, backward, comeback, etc. will usually mean to spell something backward.
- Initials: The initials of words in the clue are used, almost always hinted at by using the word “initial” in some form.
Teams stuck in depressing early slump initially (5 letters). Answer: SIDES. Teams is the definition, then the initials of the next 5 words.
You get the idea. There are no rules, although in my experience, all the published ones are fair. Once you finally get the answer, the clue makes sense, usually in two ways. For this reason, cryptics are sometimes easier to solve than regular acrostics because every answer has a built-in confirmation method. With regular acrostics, you might think of several possible words that could fit a definition, but you have no way to be sure which is the correct one until you’ve solved enough of the grid to provide feedback.