This is the hint.
In this book is assembled a selection of the most difficult Times crosswords, spanning nearly thirty years.
On a day-to-day basis, The Times crossword is not, nor is it intended to be, particularly hard. It does not compare in difficulty with the Listener puzzle,
which, since the demise of the organ of that name, has been rescued by The Times and published therein each Saturday. Nor is it comparable with the
Observer puzzles composed by the dynasty of Torquemada, Ximenes, and Azed, all appropriately named after Grand Inquisitors of the Spanish Inquisition
(Azed being derived from Don Diego de Deza).
Judging the difficulty of crosswords is notoriously difficult, so I have relied on a pool of puzzles for which some objective evidence is available, namely those
that have been used in the Times Crossword Championship. This competition was launched in 1970, and until 1996 began each year with regional finals in
venues such as Glasgow, Edinburgh, Leeds, York, Birmingham, Bristol, as well as London. In each such event, competitors solved four crosswords, points
being awarded for correct answers, with bonus time points for correct solutions within 30 minutes. About 20 of the top finishers then proceeded to the national
final, organized with the same structure.
Traditionally, Championship puzzles were later published in The Times, together with the figure of the number of contestants correctly solving them
within 30 minutes. This tradition has not been universally welcomed. In 1994, Bill Sanderson wrote to the Editor as follows:
Sir, My psychiatrist agrees that if you occasionally fibbed to note that, say, “99 per cent of the competitors at the 1994 Bristol/London/Edinburgh regional
finals of The Times Knockando Crossword Championship took all day to solve just several of the above 30-odd clues”, it would benefit me greatly.
Be that as it may, I have used the data on the number of successful solvers within 30 minutes to select 65 puzzles from regional finals, and 25 from
national finals as the most difficult.
The last 10 crosswords are the real stinkers. For each championship, contestants began by solving a relatively straightforward qualifying puzzle. As a result, it
frequently happened that more qualified than the space available would accommodate (in most cases, this happened for the two regional finals held
each year in London). For this reason, aptly named Eliminator puzzles were used. These crosswords were intended to be ferociously difficult, in order to cut
the field to the required number – and they succeeded. Relatively few could complete an Eliminator within the time available, so those who came closest
went forward to the regional finals.
From the setter’s point of view, how does one make a crossword difficult? There are two main ways, namely using obscure words and references, and
making clues exceptionally oblique or subtle. Apart from the Eliminators, obscure words are relatively rare in this collection.
As a rule of thumb, the first 90 puzzles use few words that are not to be found in either the Concise Oxford Dictionary or Collins English Dictionary (the
latter having the advantage of including many proper nouns). You will not encounter, therefore, such outlandish specimens as “taghairm” (inspiration
sought by lying in a bullock’s hide behind a waterfall), “mook” (a book produced in magazine format) or “topinambou” (another word for the
Jerusalem artichoke). For such words, the solver may turn to Chambers
Dictionary or the full Oxford English Dictionary.
Likewise, for the first 90 puzzles, obscure references should be relatively rare. Times solvers are expected to have a broad education, including familiarity with
the Bible and much of Shakespeare, English poetry, (Western) classical music (not too much that cannot be hummed), mainstream art, history (“1066 and all
that”), classical mythology, and much else besides. They are assumed to have a competent knowledge of the works of Kipling, A.A. Milne, Lewis Carroll,
Edmund Lear, Gilbert and Sullivan, to name but a few. On the other hand, the knowledge of mathematics and science that is assumed is minimal; references
to Nikolai Lobachevski or James Clerk-Maxwell, to the Fitzgerald-Lorentzcontraction or Fourier transforms, are unlikely.
The more interesting and challenging way of turning up the difficulty level is by deviousness in the clueing. A famous example from an Eliminator used in
the very first Championship is:
They hang from trees in the book of Jeremiah (6)
Even with the intersecting letters A-E-T, the answer is not easy to find. Edmund Akenhead, the perpetrator, gleefully reported that many solvers eager
to qualify for the Championship read through the whole of the book of Jeremiah. However, in the Times crossword, nothing should be taken at face
value. The book of Lamentations was also written by Jeremiah, and hidden within “Lamentations” is “amenta”, the plural of “amentum”, meaning a catkin.
A more recent example is the following:
The inane brain child? (6)
With intersecting letters –T-E-E. To understand the solution, one has to decipher “the inane” as “the” in “ane” and to recognise the allusion to Athene,
the Greek goddess whose unorthodox method of birth involved springing (fully armed) from the head of Zeus, her father.
Included with the solutions for the Eliminator Puzzles are notes on each, providing explanations for those answers that I judge may prove particularly
difficult to construe. In most cases, the background information on these explanations can be found in one of the following key reference works (besides
the dictionaries already cited): Brewer’s Dictionary of Phrase and Fable, the Oxford Companion to English Literature, and the Oxford Dictionary of Quotations.
Crossword Editor of The Times
A special millennium selection by Brian Greer of 100 of the more challenging
Times crosswords over 30 years
Cryptic crossword compiling is a deceptive art. Humpty Dumpty in Lewis Carroll’s ‘Through the Looking-Glass’ sums it up when he says, “When I use a word…. It means just what I choose it to mean – neither more nor less.”
May I recommend, particularly to newcomers to the crossword, a simple approach taught me by my father, which is to study the solution and then examine the clue to work out how all the pieces came together to mean what the compiler chose them to mean! The method is particularly apt here because the solver is spared the agony of waiting for the next day’s paper.
Here are a few sample clues to give you a flavour of what lies in store, followed by an appropriate introduction penned by my late father.
Grateful acknowledgment to former crossword editors: – Richard Browne, Mike Laws, Brian Greer, John Grant, Edmund Akenhead, Jane Carton, Ronald Carton, and never to be forgotten our founding father, Adrian Bell.
David Akenhead, Author of the Computer Crosswords
Often does badly but gets decorated (9) FESTOONED
Convention: anagram of “often does”. Indicator: “badly”
Unlike Dogberry’s comparisons, not to be sniffed at (9) ODOURLESS
Convention: antonym. In Shakespeare’s Much Ado About Nothing “Comparisons are odorous”. The opposite of odorous is odourless
“Whist, brother”, one need not say to him (8) TRAPPIST
Convention: association – silent order of monks
He may stop playing! (8) ORGANIST
Convention: cryptic definition – obvious when understood
But can these cakes sell like hot ones? (4) ICED
Convention: conundrum (or riddle)
Plain spoken guide (6) DIRECT
Convention: double meaning or two meanings
Policeman calls at the theatre (9) INSPECTOR
Convention: dramatic assoc – refers Priestley’s The Inspector Calls
Telephone about the duck – dry and going bad (7) ROTTING
Convention: envelope – O (duck) and TT (teetotal or dry) inside RING
Champion golfer’s casual request to caddie? (3,3,4) ANY OLD IRON
Convention: familiar – iron as in scrap and iron as in golf; song of music hall comedian, Harry Champion
Hair in distressing condition (5) TRESS
Convention: hidden – disTRESSing
Time and relative dimension in space vehicle. Who told you? (6) TARDIS
Conventions: initials or acronym – refers Dr Who, fictional time traveller
Last of the girls named as story-teller (8) TUSITALA
Conventions: lit. and surgery – “last of the girls” reveals RLS, initials Robert Louis Stevenson, alias Tusitala, “story-teller” of the South Seas
One might be the sum of two equal squares (9) RECTANGLE
Conventions: logic or conundrum
Artist’s punishment of careless kittens (4) OPIE
Conventions: nursery rhyme and word division – refers Three Little Kittens – “they shall have no pie” read O/PIE
A drinking man upset about a heroine of opera (5) TOSCA
Conventions: opera, word division, reversal – “A drinking man” is a sot, “upset” it becomes TOS plus C (about) plus A
Even both ways (5) LEVEL
Convention: palindrome – reads both ways (also double meaning)
Jane is heard to offer a wider view (7) SEYMOUR
Convention: pun or sound – Jane Seymour (third wife of Henry VIII) sounds like “see more”
Roman dictator given total American backing (5) SULLA
Convention: reversal – ALL US for “total American”. Indicator: “backing”
Changed a hundred to six hundred (9) RECTIFIED
Convention: Roman numerals – read instead AC to DC (alternating current to direct current)
A bardic spelling of the last saint (8) CRISPIAN
Shakespeare – in Henry V this is the Bard’s spelling of the patron saint of shoemakers (last saint)
He painted Miss Martin topless (4) ETTY
Convention: surgery – the painter is BETTY minus B (All my eye and Betty Martin)
Sad outcome of rent reduction (8) TEARDROP
Convention: word division – TEAR/DROP read “rent reduction”
Strain to find way about the ship (6) STRESS
Convention: word division – ST (way) plus RE (about) plus SS (ship)
Transport as is right and fitting by river (7) RAPTURE
Convention: word division – R (right) plus APT (fitting) plus URE (river)
Inset paragraph or it has a divisive effect (9) SEPARATOR
Conventions: word div/envelope – SET plus PARA (inset – in set) plus OR
The state of one had rejected love (5) IDAHO
Conventions: word div/reversal – I (one) plus DAH (had, rejected) plus O (love)
Maybe either state is unorthodox (9) HERETICAL
Conventions: word div/anag – HERETI (anagram of “either”; indicator, “maybe”) plus CAL (state – California)
Eating corn, perhaps, each appears to transgress (8) ENCROACH
Conventions: envelope/anag – EACH envelopes (indicator, “eating”) an anagram of CORN (indicator, “perhaps”)
The devices used by a cryptic crossword compiler are so many and varied that an introduction such as this can only give the beginner a glimpse of them. Experience will prove the best teacher, but I hope that the following tips will help the beginner in his or her first steps towards mastering ‘The Times’ (and similar) crosswords.
The best known device is the anagram. “Terribly angered” is a definition of the answer “enraged”, which is also an anagram of “angered”, the word “Terribly” being used in the clue as an anagram indicator. The solver should always be on the look-out for words suggesting arrangement, change, wrongness, confusion, strangeness and the like which may point to anagrams in the clue: “new” is sometimes used, also “sort” and “out” (in the sense of “wrong”), while “perhaps”, “maybe”, and “possibly” will probably indicate anagrams.
Then there are words which have different meanings: “refuse” in a clue may appear to be a verb meaning “decline”, but it may really mean the noun describing “rubbish”: “tent” may mean not a canvas shelter, but a Spanish wine: “saw” or “gnome” may mean a maxim. Solving crosswords certainly helps to enlarge one’s vocabulary. All sorts of words have hidden meanings in crosswords with “do” clued as a party, “letter” as a landlord, “number” as an anaesthetic (that which numbs) and so ad infinitum, the oldest chestnut being “flower” as a river, while “sewer” may mean a sempstress and “cover for a sewer” will mean not a manhole but a thimble, and “tour de France” is not a cycle race but the Eiffel Tower.
Many a crossword answer is made up of other words indicated by the clue. “Loudly disapprove royal skating display? Some reservations here (7-5)” is solved by joining up Boo-king off-ice, while Mild-red is well known as a girl with slightly communist sympathies. A word may consist of one word containing another (Envelope), and there are many other ways in which words (including abbreviations) may be combined either in their normal, or in anagrammatic or reversed forms to make the answer. In such “build-ups” the word “river” may refer to one of the compiler’s favourite British waterways – Dee, Exe, Fal or Ure (tributary of the Yorkshire Ouse).
Solvers should be familiar with many common abbreviations, such as e.g., i.e., the points of the compass N.S.E.W. (sometimes clued as bridge players), musical notes A to G (or doh, re, mi etc) and Roman numerals M, D, C, L, X, V, I. The clue ” 1,200 less 200 (10)” needs conversion into Roman numerals “MCC less CC” and anyone interested in cricket will know that the M in MCC stands for Marylebone. Chemical abbreviations for elements are sometimes used such as “au” (gold), “ag” (silver), “fe” (iron) etcetera. The letter L could be clued as money (pound sign), 50, lake, or as student, tyro, novice or learner (driver with L Plates. Solvers are also expected to know simple words in the more familiar foreign languages, particularly the articles, e.g. el (clued as “the Spanish), der (“the German”) un (“a French”) etc.
Finally, to mention four other types of clue:
(a) Hidden answer clue “Something more in the next race (5)”, here the answer EXTRA appears in consecutive letters in the clue (nEXT RAce”).
(b) Surgery, which requires a certain amount of doctoring of words to produce the desired effect. Associated words like “beheaded”, “curtailed”, “reduced”, often indicate this type of clue: “Humperdinck in turn to some extent a singer (6)” answer TREBLE is one of my favourites. Engelbert (“in turn”) gives in reverse form TREBLEGNE and “to some extent” indicates a need for surgery or reduction.
(c) “Sound” clues with sound-indicators such as “say”, “we hear”, “it’s said”, or “sound” telling the solver to look to the sound of the words used. “Some measure of spirit? I say! (5) gives the answer OPTIC (optic measures used in bars). “Say” in the clue tells the solver to look to the sound of “I”, that is “eye” revealing an alternative meaning.
(d) The acronym or word made up from the initial letters of other words. “Paddy as the normal agriculture initially here (5) PATNA.
An ounce of practical demonstration being worth a pound of theory I leave the rest up to you.