Cryptic Crosswords: getting started

Solving cryptic crosswords: general

Some overall strategies apply as much to cryptic crosswords as they do to non-cryptic crosswords:

  • Try to identify and solve the easiest clues first – a quick scan of the clues can suggest some which will be the easiest to solve, so start with those.
  • Sometimes the shortest and longest answers will be more distinctive and therefore easier to solve than words of middling length.
  • Clues which refer to multi-word phrases are often easier as they are more distinctive.
  • Don’t work methodically through the clues in numerical sequence – as soon as you have entered an answer, try to solve the clues which cross that answer.

Check out also our growing collection of blog posts on specific aspects of Solving Cryptic Crosswords

How do cryptic crossword clues differ from non-cryptic clues?

Like most crossword clues, cryptic clues normally contain an indication of the meaning (eg a synonym). But this meaning is usually made less obvious by the choice of words. Example:

  • Do the dishes (5). Answer is CATER (which involves dishes of another sort than that at first suggested by the clue.)

In addition, the answer is often suggested by some other puzzle to solve – one of the commonest is by presenting the letters of the answer as an anagram.  Example:

  • A name is troublesome (7). Answer is AMNESIA – meaning a troublesome condition, and which is an anagram of ‘a name is’. Cleverly, the overall meaning is also appropriate – remembering a name will be troublesome if you have amnesia.

Sometimes the meaning part of the clue is inextricably combined. A famous example:

  • H I J K L M N O (5). Answer is WATER – this elegant but perplexing clue involves the letters ‘ H to O’ which sounds like H20 which is the chemical formula for water.

Learning how to solve cryptic crosswords does take practice! But you can learn faster by asking others to explain and give hints when you get stuck. Comments and questions on this site are welcome and answered promptly.

Sometimes the clue will include a hint to manipulate the letters provided in some way – eg:

Examples of clue types

  • Wikipedia has a very detailed page on the sorts of abbreviations used in cryptic crosswords.
  • The names of countries are often used to represent their abbreviations: eg ‘Germany’ in the clue may mean that the letters DE need to be inserted in the answer. There are different ‘official’ abbreviations that may be used, so the code to use may not be clear at first. However, one of the commonest country code systems in use is ISO-3166 – here’s a comprehensive list of country codes. The Guardian newspaper is well-known for its cryptic crosswords, and the page on Crosswords for beginners: foreign affairs has useful examples.
  • A knowledge of roman numerals is often required – for example, ‘six’ in a clue may mean the letters VI are to be used in the clue. The Guardian’s page on Cryptic crosswords for beginners: Roman numerals is helpful.

Solving Kropotkin puzzles

The Kropotkin puzzle appears each Saturday in the New Zealand Herald. Pavlova’s solutions to Kropotkin crosswords are normally posted within a day or so of publication.


  • Kropotkin likes to include the names of films and film actors, but these are often from the early and mid 20th century rather than from recent releases. You’re not expected to recognise these names 🙂
  • Kropotkin likes to include highly obscure words, including non-English and archaic words. These are often quite short words used to fill gaps that would be difficult to fill using standard English. You will probably need to make regular use of a site such as wordnik to confirm that these words exist. You might also find the Crossword Solver useful if you’re really stuck.

Kropotkin puzzle examples

Here are brief explanations of a few clues drawn from Kropotkin 911 that might provide an insight into the range of cryptic clues types commonly used by Kropotkin (and others):

1A. Being free from conflict, a conservative is appeasing (12)
PACIFICATORY: ‘a conservative’ is ‘a tory’.

11A. Mae West vocalised here: women barred, but the old allowed in (6)
MAYEST: ‘the old’ can sometimes be ‘ye’ which happens to appear in the answer. But here ‘the old allowed’ is a synonym of the answer, which is made up of MAY WEST (which sounds like MAE WEST) minus the W of ‘women’ (‘barred’).

7D. Head of Monteith’s involved in unusual decree: men should be on the drink!”
CREME DE MENTHE: Anagram (‘unusual’) of ‘decree’ plus first letter (‘head’) of ‘Monteiths’ plus letters of ‘men’ and ‘the’.

8D. Solicitor in George Town’s walking with the aid of these? (6-7)
PENANG-LAWYERS: These are a type of walking stick. George Town is the capital of Penang. The final S comes from the possessive of ‘George Town’s’.

13D. In Maine the people nominated are Indians (10)
MENOMINEES: The abbreviation for the state of Maine (ME) followed by NOMINEES. Other state abbreviations are also commonly used – eg CA for California, NY for New York

15D. An anomalous liquid allegedly discovered swirling: top lawyer brought in (9).
POLYWATER: anagram of ‘top lawyer’. ‘Swirling’ is one of many words used to signify an anagram!

17D. German in Southern Europe turned out to be Freud’s censor (8)
SUPEREGO: S for Southern, followed by an anagram of Europe (plus G for German)

20D. Go fast in lively dance – fifty take part in it (6)
GALLOP: ‘Galop’ with the Roman numeral for 50 (L) included. Other Roman numerals often used in crossword clues are I (1), IV (4), V (5), VI (6), X (10), XI (11), C (100), D (500), X (1,000). Sometimes the word ‘many’ is used rather than one of the bigger numbers.

23D. Little animals eating large mashes (5)
PULPS: ‘Pups’ with L (for ‘large’, as in a dress size) ‘eaten’ or included.

24D. Passenger just making it in reportedly (4)
FARE: ‘Passenger’ is a synonym for the answer – deliberately not the one that comes to mind first! And the answer sounds like (ie is ‘reportedly’) FAIR, a synonym of ‘Just’

Solving Tossman puzzles

The Tossman puzzle appears each week in the New Zealand Listener. Pavlova’s solutions to Tossman crosswords are normally posted within a day or so of publication. Some observations on Tossman’s puzzles:

  • They are generally easier than Kropotkin’s, with less reliance on obscure or archaic words.
  • They tend to include a high proportion of anagrams.
  • Tossman’s clues can be quite elegantly constructed and generally avoid ambiguity (ie having two equally feasible answers). Once the clue is solved, you know it’s right!

Got a query about how to solve cryptic crosswords? Leave a reply below and we’ll respond promptly…


6 thoughts on “Cryptic Crosswords: getting started

    1. pavlov.a

      Sorry, Ann – we currently only provide solutions for the Kropotkin and Tossman crossword. But if you can post the clue here, along with any letters you are sure of, I’m sure we can help!

      1. Ann Callaway

        Old man heads for power unopposed again with sum of money for nation

        Judge, dry old man with skill in private conversation


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