Often there will be two types of crossword that you’ll see in an English newspaper. One is fairly straightforward with clues like a long orange vegetable (answer: carrot).
The other is the cryptic crossword. Its clues will seem impossible at first, but with guidance you’ll be able to solve them.
Many cryptic clues play with the sounds of the English language. Deciphering them can help us appreciate and learn things about English pronunciation!
Let’s tackle a clue
In cryptic crosswords, one half of the clue is usually the definition and the other half is a hint. The number in brackets tells you how many letters are in the answer. Here’s an example:
Pronouncedly feeble for a time (4) source
Definition:a time. The answer is a word that signifies a time.
Hint:pronouncedly feeble. This suggests that if you pronounce a word meaning feeble, you’ll get the answer. In other words, the answer sounds like a word meaning feeble.
Answer:WEEK /wiːk/. This word describes a period of time and sounds exactly the same as the word weak /wiːk/ (which means feeble).
The symbols between slashes // are International Phonetic Alphabet (IPA) symbols representing pronunciation. You can find an interactive chart on my website for the vowel and consonant IPA symbols and sounds in English.
Homophones /ˈhɒ mə fəʊnz/ are words that sound the same – like week and weak. English has many of them! Discovering homophones can be fun for both native speakers and English learners alike.
Words like hears and sounds in a cryptic crossword clue indicate that the answer is probably a homophone.
The answers to the following clues are all homophones:
The words Hungary and hungry are usually homophones and pronounced /ˈhʌŋɡri/. However, some speakers may make a distinction between Hungary /ˈhʌŋ ɡə ri/ (3 syllables) and hungry /ˈhʌŋ ɡri/ (2 syllables).
Pretty part of a plant sounds like a cake ingredient (6)source
PARE/pɛː/. The verb to prune means to trim or cut back and this is what to pare means as well.
Another fruit is pear /pɛː/. This is pronounced the same as pare, which means that pare and pear are homophones.
In the previous clues, the answers were homophones. But some clues may have heteronyms /ˈhɛ trə nɪmz/.
Heteronyms are words that are spelled the same but pronounced differently with different meanings. For example, the metal lead /lɛd/ (rhymes with head) is pronounced differently to the verb lead /liːd/ (rhymes with heed).
The answers to the following two clues are heteronyms:
RAW DEAL. This phrase is used to describe unfair treatment.
A synonym for shouted out loud is roared. (A synonym /ˈsɪ nə nɪm/ is a word that has the same or a similar meaning to another word.)
A type of fish is an eel.
If you read raw deal out loud /rɔː ˈdiːl/, it sounds very similar to (or the same as) roared eel /rɔːd ˈiːl/.
Of course, this works in a Standard Southern British English accent. But if you’re American/Scottish/Irish, then this clue won’t work. In these accents, the words raw and roar are pronounced quite differently (they may have different vowels and the the final R will be pronounced in roar).
A Crossword Aside
In 1922, an English reporter noted that medics believed the dazzling patterns of the crossword would lead to neuroses and eye trouble. From my experience, it has mainly caused brain pain.
The following clues are phonetics-related! Credit goes to Professor John Wells who solved these and shared them on his Twitter account.
SOFT PALATE /sɒft ˈpalɪt/. This term is used to describe the fleshy, flexible part towards the back of the roof of the mouth. It is also known as the velum /ˈviːləm/.
A synonym for dim is soft.
A synonym for friend is pal.
A synonym for put away is ate (for example in the phrase they put away vast quantities of cake between them, the verb put away means ate).
Putting those words together gets soft palate.
The word ate (past tense of to eat) can be pronounced /ɛt/ (more old-fashioned) or /eɪt/ (more modern). But these letters at the end of soft palate are pronounced /ɪt/ or /ət/. This means the clue works better written down rather than spoken out loud.