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Cryptic Thoughts – 100 years of the Crossword


It is 100 years since Liverpool born Arthur Wynne first published the ‘Word-Cross’ in the New York World Newspaper (21 December 1913). This is considered to be the moment when the ‘Crossword’ was born.

Crosswords are very popular amongst Mensans and feature regularly in regional newsletters and Mensa Magazine. They are often a challenge even for the sharpest minds due to their cryptic nature.

Mensan John Lester has complied many crosswords over the years and here gives you a handy insight into how they are created:

“I have been solving cryptic crosswords for about 70 years and compiling them for around 60. For a while I was even paid for my crosswords but I was sacked when the magazine felt that too few people were attempting them in spite of prizes being offered. If you intend to create cryptic crosswords, it helps if you have already solved a few hundred, and all aspiring compilers should read “Ximenes on the Art of the Crossword”, a book full of wit and sound advice. (Ximenes was D.S.Macnutt 1902-71, classics master at the Bluecoat School, Horsham).

“You might think that filling a grid with words was difficult but this is the easier part of crossword compilation. The more difficult the crossword, the easier it is since you can freely use any of the half million words in Chambers Dictionary, the compiler’s bible, without worrying about the extent of the solver’s vocabulary. (Try TAGHAIRM or NAHUATL). You can even use a computer program to do the job, but that is cheating. With a little forethought you can avoid writing yourself into a corner and having to find a five-letter word beginning with Q and ending in J.

“Writing the clues is the difficult part. They must be sound, logical and amusing, a combination I find very hard to attain. Every cryptic clue must include a definition of the answer: rarely, it may form the entire clue, e.g. “Die of cold (3.4)” or it may be equally misleading as in “Article in French newspaper shows what the public will swallow from the yellow press (8)”. As Ximenes put it, you must say what you mean but you don’t have to mean what you say. There is a wide variety of cryptic indications such as anagrams, multiple definitions, reversals, hidden, charades, container and contents etc – see Ximenes for definitions of these. If you can achieve an ‘and lit’ clue, that is one in which the cryptic element and the definition are one and the same, that is a triumph.

“Azed (Jonathan Crowther, successor to Ximenes) in his book “A-Z of Crosswords” gives as an example; “Room temperature’s favoured for this” (10). Clues should be as short as possible and contain nothing but the essentials. One of the shortest I have seen was the winner in an Azed competition in which the solver had to submit his own cryptic clue to a specified word in the grid and it was “Ire-lander” (10). The winner was a Walsall man and I once invited him to join one of my Mensa meetings which was on the topic of crossword puzzles. Another of his winning clues was, “No Double Diamonds? In the sun one grows weary without one. (10)”.

“Why not have a try at composing a crossword yourself? You might enjoy the challenge and discover that you were good at it.”




John’s Cryptic Thoughts were originally published in Spaghetti, March 2013 edition (the Regional Newsletter for the West Midlands).


P.S. “In case you didn’t manage to solve any of the clues quoted, the answers are: ICE CUBE, LEMONADE, CHAMBERTIN, and PADDYWHACK and SOLITAIRES.”