About Cryptic Crosswords

A Crossword Puzzle, or crossword for short, is a grid of interlocking words or phrases laid out within a framework of black and white squares. In the top left-hand corner of the first square of each word – some horizontal (“Across”) and some vertical (“Down”) – is a number; sometimes these numbers apply to both an Across and a Down entry.

Word games and word squares have been popular pastimes for centuries, but the modern crossword was invented in the USA in the early years of the 20th century. The first, diamond-shaped, “wordcross”, the brainchild of Englishman Arthur Wynne, was published in the New York World on 21st December 1913. It began to evolve into the familiar square or rectangular shape we know, and crossed the Atlantic in the mid 1920’s. The Sunday Express published Britain’s first crossword in 1924; the Daily Telegraph joined the revolution on 30th July 1925, and was followed by the Sunday Times, the Observer, the Guardian and finally the Times in 1930. In the intervening eighty years, the crossword in the USA has retained its original form. American crosswords have straightforward clues and far fewer black squares (or “outs”) than their British cousins. All or most of the letter squares are “checked”, that is they appear in both an Across and a Down word. The crossword in Britain developed into geometric patterns of black and white squares which allowed almost every word in the English language to be entered into one grid or another – awkward letters can be placed in a square which will not be “checked”. A good grid will have anywhere from 25%-30% of its squares as “outs”. Grids can be of any size, from the tiniest (around 7 x 7, or 9 x 9 squares) to the terrifyingly large – one British newspaper regularly publishes a crossword 25 squares by 25; they are usually (but not always) square or rectangular.  The accepted standard is a square crossword consisting of 15 squares by 15, giving around thirty words or phrases per crossword, and this is the size that will be used on this site (with the exception of the first crossword in the Tutorial, which at 13 x 13 is slightly smaller than standard).

Crucially for our purposes, though, over the years the deviously-minded British developed the cryptic crossword puzzle – or more precisely the cryptic clue. It grew slowly at first; early British crosswords show mostly straight definition clues, with the occasional very slightly cryptic one creeping in. Over time the cryptic crossword grew into a form of its own, and British newspapers now offer their readers a choice of “Quick” or “Cryptic” crosswords (sometimes on the same grid, using the same words, with only the two sets of clues being different). The cryptic crossword travelled wherever the British travelled, and can now be found throughout the English-speaking world. North America, however, has remained stubbornly independent and has only recently discovered the delights of the cryptic crossword.

Whether you’re a regular cryptic puzzler or a newcomer to this fascinating pastime, welcome aboard!

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