Cryptic crosswords

February 7, 2009


As a parent, there are some things you pass onto your children with pleasure and pride. (Let’s forget the ones that are not such proud legacies). One of my joys which they have all inherited is the love of cryptic crosswords. We often do them together or discuss various clue over the telephone. I have extolled the virtues of global roaming on the mobile phone using one daughter’s request for help with a clue via an SMS while I was overseas as an example.

There have been many occasions when one or other of them have complained about the apparent age of the setters and the opacity of some of the older references in the clues. They do now know what a toff, swell or cove is but only after bitterly complaining about the ancient language.

How is someone in their twenties or thirties expected to associate Bob with hope let alone a shilling or Mae West with a life-jacket?  I am surprised at some that I can recognise from before my era, but another generation on it is a different presumption. There is nothing wrong with expanding one’s store of knowledge, useless or otherwise, from a crossword but some of these obsolete words really need to be retired from the crossword lexicon. 

Clearly I am not alone in this thought. A puzzle setter John Pidgeon wrote in a recent article in the Guardian 

” .. I enjoyed the erudite world into which crosswords drew me. Greek mythology, opera, literature, language, history, concealed in a coded formula that was a challenge to crack: learning made fun. Almost half a century later, however, setters are still marooned in a pre-1960s world. Recent crosswords have clued Alan Ladd and Leslie Caron, whose acting careers peaked in the 1950s, and Leslie Charteris, who created The Saint in 1928.”

He finishes

“ is apparent that unless the crossword nudges itself into the 21st century and updates its references to connect with younger solvers, it will become as endangered a pastime as morris dancing.”

Couldn’t have said it better myself.

The whole article is at

One Response to “Cryptic crosswords”

  1. The short answer with the shilling and life jacket is that you can look them up in a standard dictionary like the Concise Oxford or Webster’s Collegiate. Old film stars can’t be checked this way of course, but it seems a bit rough if people like Bob Hope or Cary Grant are chucked out for good. The key is surely for the setter to use a wise amount of both old stuff and new stuff – the kind of puzzle-making craft that John Pigeon didn’t seem to consider.

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