Cross Words

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By Mary McConville


Last year David Astle gave a short talk at my local library. He’s a very nice man but is responsible  for a lot of pain and frustration. David Astle is a cruciverbalist, a crossword maker and he specialises in the cryptic kind. He was nice enough to warn us that The Age’s forthcoming crossword was going to be a horror. I tried it. It was.

He explained that there are several tactics used to put together a cryptic crossword:


  1. Anagrams – Letters can be re-arranged to make a new word. Let’s go to the posh shop.


  1. Double or multiple meanings – To act can mean to do or to pretend to do. The multiple meanings for jack can be a leather mug, a tap for a beer barrel, a man’s name, a device for lifting a car, a male donkey or a rabbit.


  1. Homophones – Words that have a similar sound but a different meaning. On the shelf sits an idle idol.


  1. Charades – A long word can be split into shorter words. The word attribute can be split into at tribute.


  1. Spoonerisms – We can copy Professor Spooner and change around the words’ first letters. He famously told a lazy student “You have tasted the whole worm and must leave by the next town drain.


  1. A relatively easy trick is to use word reversals. No evil shall live.


A crossword compiler can work in literary or cultural references but they do need to know just how common this knowledge is  and where we might find the suppository (sic) of all this wisdom.

David  reported that Aboriginal word puzzles often need special knowledge to fill in the missing word. The puzzle would act as a social filter, indicating who was a trusted initiate and who wasn’t.

As indicated earlier some puzzles require special knowledge. The cultural background and sometimes the gleefully sadistic personality of the compiler can show through after you’ve done their puzzles a few times. One famous crossword compiler called himself after a torturer in the Spanish Inquisition. And “No one expects the Spanish Inquisition …” to get involved in crossword compiling.

We need some tips on how to actually solve these wretched things. David Astle recommended that we write the word clue in a circle so that the mind is absorbing information in a less linear fashion and is more likely to make the unusual connections needed. On the other hand sometimes it works to put down every fact, every part of the clues and laboriously analyse and make connections.

Sometimes I try the tactics I used in school exams. I limbered up the mind by doing the easy bits and getting them out of the way, then using the mental momentum to power into the harder parts. Sometimes I use Zen tactics – detach, relax and let the solution wander in. The unconscious mind can solve a problem while the fore brain is doing something else. You ask yourself “How did I figure that out?” and work backwards to make the connections.

It’s amazing how these difficult problems are considered fun. Just sit down with paper and pencil, maybe some reference books and a headache powder as these words can make you quite cross.

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