The first crosswords appeared in the 19th Century, but the first appearance of a crossword in a British publication was in Pearson’s Magazine in February, 1922, and the first Times crossword appeared on February 1, 1930.
Although crosswords appeared first in America, English crosswords developed their own style, and were and usually still are considerably more difficult than their American counterparts. Indeed, the type of crossword we know as ‘cryptic’ is peculiarly English, and so are many of the cultural references and encyclopedic clues used.
However, that is not to say that they cannot be completed by people from other places, and the vast majority of clues are sufficiently universal in construction to be accessible to any user of the English language from any community. As users of words, we are used to dealing with their meanings, how they collocate with other words, their pronunciation and their spelling.
However, when trying to solve cryptic crosswords in newspapers, we are often called upon to look at other aspects of words: what they signify as a whole, or what each of their individual letters signifies, as well as their semantic meaning. The confusion between semantics and semiotics, between meaning and signification, is at the heart of what the compiler does; how he confounds, puzzles, and misleads.
Edward de Bono has coined the term ‘lateral thinking’ to refer to ways of thinking that differ from more ‘normal’ ways. Categorizing items in ways that are unconventional and so leading us to think of alternative possibilities of thinking, is one such way. For example, if we find the item ‘knife’ in the location ‘living room’ it sounds incongruous.
That item is probably more often accompanied by the item ‘food’, or ‘lunch’ or a similar culinary term, and hence more often found in the location ‘dining room’. If neither of these is present, then it might be suggestive of other scenarios. Appearing in a play based on an Agatha Christie novel, for example, it might be associated with the words ‘stab wound’, ‘bloodstain’and labeled ‘murder weapon’. If it does not appear, it may be labeled ‘missing murder weapon’.
Considering the item ‘knife’, it may accompany the item ‘letter to be opened’ in the location ‘living room’, or something akin to ‘makeshift screwdriver’ in the event that the plug on the TV needs a new fuse. And it is precisely this alternative way of viewing items; words and letters that compilers of crosswords utilize to confound and puzzle us in the morning over our tea and toast. Instead of looking for meaning, which is one of the ways we view words, perhaps the main way, compilers use an array of means, more often closer to semiotics than semantics.
They use the constellation of significations and associations as well as using ‘meaning’ in its traditional, semantic sense, to lure us into their traps. As users of words, we habitually look for the meaning of a word, and it this that causes the delicious confusion in the mornings.
Academics traditionally look for some sort of order to the chaos that is their particular universe.There is an order to the confusion in crossword clues that appear daily in the newspapers we read, and to substantiate my claim (something else that academics do) I have included a taxonomy of clue types with examples and explanations below each one.
While it is hoped that would-be solvers and even would-be compilers like myself will find it useful and thought provoking, it is admitted that there is no real substitute for doing crosswords; trying to solve them, and looking at the solutions the next day in order to be able to complete one successfully some day.
Conventions, specific uses of terminology, and abbreviation are all common in any discipline. The discipline of the compiler is no exception, and accordingly a list of the more common conventions is provided to help newcomers.
Generally, anagrams are by far the most numerous type of clue to be found in most cryptic crosswords, closely followed by clues in which the whole word appears. Less frequent, but still popular are clues based upon encyclopedic knowledge, clues geekowear. based around common collocations of words, and clues based upon the sound of a word or letter.
Clues that use symbols other than letters, and those that cross word and syllable boundaries are much more unusual, but still worthy of comment and attention.
Conventions in crosswords
Crossword clues are liberally sprinkled with certain conventions, appearing again and again, making them noteworthy here. This list is not fully comprehensive, and you may find ones to add to it. The main thing to understand in thinking about conventionalized pieces of ‘information’ is that they must be sufficiently universal to be understood.