Hackwoody’s Briefing on Cryptic Clue Devices

Hello, Hackwoody here!

😕 English tree is sent crashing — who might know the culprit? (10)

Was that in the news once, up at Hadrian’s Wall?

The answer is at the foot of the page.

If you clicked on the “About” tab on my Patreon page you will know I am a compiler of cryptic crosswords under the pseudonym HACKWOODY.

Some of my puzzles are here. These are freely available to anyone to tackle. Hopefully you also read my first post titled “Hackwoody” explaining what you as a Patreon subscriber may expect from me and what you can expect to get from my content behind the Patreon curtain — commentaries all about dismemberment or dissection of my cryptic clues to help you with your solving and about my clue writing, and subscriber crosswords for you to go at.

Before I get to that, I provide a high level primer on deflection techniques that are generally found in cryptic clues.

This should serve, where needed, as a reminder of the sort of wordplay setters get up to and which I shall illustrate and unravel. All examples are from clues I have written for my cryptics crosswords.

There are plenty of sources around for this information, search engines tell me, so here’s my take on the devices I can utilise when writing a new clue and what you would be looking out for or pick up on to take it apart again!


😕  Dislodge pirate (5, 3) | KNOCK OFF

Short words may tempt me to consider a clue using two definitions of the word which, when read together, provide a deflecting surface reading.

This is because short words are more likely to have multiple unrelated senses. This is important since a clue using the two synonyms of the same sense would be quite feeble!

Think about the multiple senses of the word BANK and how synonyms of these senses could run unhelpfully together as one surface reading. The same with LIGHT or TAKE OFF.

Phrasal verbs are good candidates for this treatment, as in this example from one of my free-to-do puzzles.

In the surface reading of this clue <pirate> is a noun but the solution plays it as a verb (to illegally copy, or knock off, a copyrighted work).

Two-word clues in particular should be good candidates for your attempts to solve, with the main challenge being for you to have a good root around your vocabulary until two senses click as one solution.

Naturally, as in all deflection, there may be double bluff, but in my post here we are looking under the bonnet but not between the spark plugs at each type.


😕  Oat cracker crumbled into bakery item (6, 4) | CARROT CAKE

You are likely to be on the look-out among the clues of a puzzle for “anagrinds,” words that instruct you to anagram or re-order the letters of one or more words in the cryptic part of a clue. Those words form the “fodder” for the anagrind.

Anagrams are opportunities for me to muck about looking for words I can make out of the letters that contribute to a compelling surface reading.

There are innumerable words (and phrases) that qualify as anagrinds but they all give you the feeling that there is something in the clue that is inherently unstable, loose, wrong… an invitation for restoration by you.

Here, with something being <crumbled>, you’re definitely in potential anagram territory.


😕  One US soldier returning to protect male icon (5) | EMOJI

Reversal of a word is routinely useful to me when looking for things to do with it, a way of working towards assembling a clue.

If a clue requires you to spell a word or some part of the solution backwards, it will tell you to do so. <Returning> is one common indicator for you to reverse a spelling and yet another hook for you to start pulling a clue apart.


😕  I’m getting into a state, gesticulating (9) | ANIMATION

Look for situations where a clue is instructing you to put a word in(side) another or a word (a)round another. The picture in your mind is of one word dividing at some point to make a gap for the other to fill.

“Word” here could mean a whole word or some word fragment, based on the attendant instruction within the clue.

I find this a very tempting device and need to keep myself in check!

In this clue, we have one word <getting into> another and when you see that you’re off and running with an idea that might unlock everything.


😕  Tough manoeuvre for aeroplane — I will jump out (6) | TAXING

It’s amazing how often two familiar words differ by one letter and provide a perfect opportunity to form a cryptic clue.

When that letter is “I” a construction around what “I am doing” seems an obvious way of creating a surface reading. As a setter, however, I have to bear in mind that “I” is a letter to be added or removed, not “me”, so to be faithful to “I” as a letter the clue should say “I jumps out…” which would be duff! One way round this is to use e.g. a modal verb because it reads the same if “I” is me or a letter. Hence, “I will jump out,” “I jumped out,” etc, do the job.

More generally, you are looking for a situation that commonly arises where a definition is formed by another word with a letter removed or added. You are looking for indicators of removal, loss, ejection, etc, and of insertion, gain or welcome.

Note that it is perhaps fairer to you as a solver when the definition is separated from the omission or addition, as here, where <tough> has to be the definition and you only need to consider another word needing “I” to be omitted. When the omission or addition is left open to act on the word before or the one after that’s tougher but it could also land the setter in trouble if an alternative solution is accidentally lurking.


😕  Friend taking top off embraces shocking without transgression (8) | LAWFULLY

You should try to spot this as an invitation by the setter to remove the first letter of a word and keep the rest. Not more than the first letter unless the wordplay takes you there.

<Taking top off> would be an example. Here, you would understand <Friend> as ALLY then remove the first letter leaving LLY and work this resulting fragment into the solution.

See if you can grasp the rest, which involves a container.


😕  Indian mystic almost crawled, perhaps (4) | SWAM

By docking I mean removing the tail, which is gruesome but these are just words we’re taking a linguistic blade to.

<Almost> serves to invite you to take off the final letter, or stop before you get to the final letter, if that is more meaningful.

Note once more that the operation applies to the one final letter, never more unless instructed.

<Indian mystic> would be understood as SWAMI and when you dock it you have SWAM. <Crawled> is your definition, past tense of a style of swimming.


😕  Show pianist generous almost crazed enthusiasm at first (8) | LIBERACE

Instead of getting rid of the initial letter of a word and retaining the rest, now you do exactly the opposite.

The understanding is that this will be the first letter only unless otherwise instructed.

Seeing <at first>, for example, should switch you on to this procedure.

You are required to take the first letter of the word the device is acting on: <enthusiasm>, so E. You may twig in this case that you need to do likewise to the word before that, too, <crazed>. You get C and E towards the solution: LIBERACE. Docking is also at play here, as you may have realised.


😕  Cooler in Washington? Truth ultimately will out (9) | WINDCHILL

And so, there is a corresponding device where you are required to obtain just the final letter of a word to help build the solution.

<Truth> <ultimately> you may identify as H, being the last letter of <truth>.

This clue otherwise requires general wordplay. See if you can deduce how the H is incorporated.


😕  Barrier to motoring’s centre of excellence being embraced by directors (7) | BOLLARD

As you might expect, I might find it handy when writing a clue to be able to take the middle of a word and work that into the cryptic section and surface reading.

And, you’d be right! <Centre of excellence> the institution is also <centre of> <excellence> the word: LL.

You will appreciate that the centre of a word with an even number of letters comprises two letters, while for a word with an odd number it’s one. As with similar devices like docking, the middle is the “very middle”, either one letter (or two) but never more unless explicitly clued, so you won’t need to wonder how far the middle stretches.

Pick up indicators like “heart”, “core”, etc, and you may be getting to the nub of the challenge.


😕  “I will move to the back in exhibitions,” the Ayatollah’s words (5) | FARSI

I might suggest that this device is harder to immediately pick out than others but see what you think and experience.

The principle lies in an instruction that moves a letter to a different position in the word to form the solution. The letter in question may move to or towards the front or to or towards the end, with the operative indicator possibly acknowledging the clue as being across or down.

You can imagine a letter bubbling up or sinking down, being promoted and relegated, going backwards or forwards, east or west, etc.

Picking up on the explanation of letter omission and addition, we have here another instance of “I” being used but the principle is the same for any letter on the move.

<Exhibitions> is represented by FAIRS and <I will move to the back>.

<The Ayatollah> reckons the speaker as a Persian or Iranian whose <words> are from this language.

It is rarer for anything more than one letter to be moved but the clue should give you a clear instruction if anything else is having its position altered.


😕  Glaswegian departing Kelvinside outwardly conscious (5) | AWAKE

You may see a setter summon you to take the first and last letters of a word as part of the solution. In this way these letters are like a shell that contains the rest of the  word.

They represent the outermost extent of the word however this be conveyed, cryptically or explicitly.

<Kelvinside outwardly> would be an example, giving you the letters KE to work with.

For completeness in this example, with the surface referencing Kelvinside, a district of Glasgow, Scotland, the clue stays in character, requiring a Scottish dialect word for <departing>, AWA’.


😕  Performer’s cadence unsteady — bird’s content to sit outside (3, 6) | ICE DANCER

Complementary to shells, a clue may invite you to pick out the content instead, discarding the shell.

<Bird’s content> is the indicator of interest in this clue, a deflection making you perhaps consider that <bird> is <content> when instead it’s the <content> of <bird> you want.

This gives you IR, once B and D, forming the shell, are discarded.

The rest of this clue brings an <unsteady> (anagrind) <cadence> (fodder), with IR as a container <to sit outside>.


😕  Separate part of city Royal Institution must be in (8) | DISTINCT

I find these hard to spot, but you may be a dab hand at it. What’s going on is that a word gets a letter or word removed and another letter or word (not necessarily of the same length) put in its place.

The kind of structure involved might have the word that comes in expressed as a preference for the word taken out, but whatever the substitution process or requirement it must be indicated in the clue.

In this example, you will have to identify the starting word DISTRICT (part of a city), then take out <RI> (Royal Institution) and exchange it with <IN>!

If you can see something like a switch being instructed in the clue, well done!


😕  Gotcha! Ostrich hides confusion (5) | CHAOS

We’re getting back to a type of device that is handy when you spot it as you browse the clues, as the solution should drop straight out.

You are looking for an indicator that says the solution word is embedded within a longer group of words.

Importantly, within this group, the solution word must begin within the group’s first word and end within its last word. The setter is not permitted to add other words before or after the group except those that are genuinely needed in the clue.

Here, the letters forming the word CHAOS are embedded in <Gotcha! Ostrich>, <hides> is the indication for a hidden word, and <confusion> is the definition. Neat and tidy, nothing extraneous, as it should be.

And don’t be put off by punctuation marks in any clue, which are almost certainly there to support the surface reading only.


😕  Odd ingredients of the grainy dark rib sauce (8) | TERIYAKI

Quite possibly this is an easier device for you to spot than a hidden word, but unlike hidden words it is just as likely to arise as a fragment of the solution as the entire answer..

The words “odd” and “even” often crop up and will jump out at you, meaning (only) the odd or even letters from a word, but other indicators can occur to indicate a requirement to pick out every other letter and disregard the rest.

As with hidden words but more strictly, the letters you want should be within one or more consecutive words with no leader or trailer within those words allowed for the setter. You won’t have to try and pick out the 4th, 6th, 8th…letters, for example. Your first letter will be the first or second of the containing word(s), and your last will be the last or penultimate.

When the setter uses this device as just part of a solution, it is often because the idea the setter really wants to use leaves maybe a couple of letters left over that don’t easily provide simpler wordplay. What could I do with “th” in “dearth”? Perhaps “itch now and then?”

This device is definitely fun from my viewpoint to make the effect happen, as in this case with an 8-letter solution, and still come out with a good clue.

As a complete aside, I had a go at applying this technique to the word CRYPTIC, and ended up with this:

😕  Some curry up at disco from time to time (7)

Suddenly, I were in’t city centre in Yorkshire of a Saturday night.


😕  Ensemble may be something boring to the ear (3) | ALL

This is the cryptic equivalent of “sounds like” in the game charades. The word you want sounds like the word you’re given.

You should find that the word you want really does sound like the word in the clue regardless of regional accent. If not, that is unfair, or you will want to quibble with the setter.

Common ways to use this device will lean on auditory sensing.

<Something boring> <to the ear> gives us AWL — a hole-making tool not something tedious.

Setter beware once again! It should be unambiguous which outcome is needed, especially when the options are of the same length. Is it ALL or AWL to be entered in the grid? Here, the clue puts the “sounds like” requirement at the end and not in the middle, ruling out ALL.


😕  Woman thought to be not smiling? | UNAMUSED

This approach is about substituting words for those appearing in the clue and glueing them together in sequence with no surgery to those words individually.

Facing this clue, what would you make of it? There are no indicators acting on words in the clue. The answer is relatively plain: UNA <woman> + MUSED <thought>.

There could be several “daisies,” not just two as here.

A common variation requires you to put the daisies in some other sequence but daisies they remain.


😕  Time taken to settle issue (9, 5) | MATERNITY LEAVE

One option a setter has is to use “none of the above.” What the setter is looking for here is an opportunity to give a definition only, but one that is indirect, a single curve-ball.

This kind of definition will still be fair but fun — oblique, deviant.

What you should be able to do to pin down the solution is to locate at least two things in the clue that give you confidence that you are not guessing, like two or more data points forming a clear line of thought, or anchors you can grab on to.

In this clue, <time>, <settle>, and <issue> are those anchors, and the one that is most telling is <issue>, which is (e.g. in Chambers) offspring or children. A handy word for cryptic clue setting.

The idea of a time to settle offspring will ideally lead you to MATERNITY LEAVE, a period of time made available for that purpose as a new Mum.

A cryptic clue setter may use any of the above deflections on their own or in combination —  and I am putting in a caveat that there will surely be others! A case in point is when the setter resorts to French, German, Latin but perhaps not Swahili.

I hope this has helped.

Thank you for reading.



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