Take a copy of the nearest paper and flip to the crosswords section. More often than not, the crossword is one you’ve seen many times before—rows and columns of boxes with clues that challenge the outer limits of your vocabulary. But, sometimes, you’ll find a cryptic crossword, a whole different breed of crossword whose clues initially scan as gibberish.
Take, for example, these two clues, both of which yield the same answer—“Grid.”
- Toronto publication, The ____.
- Gird excitedly for Toronto paper.
While the first clue largely depends on how much trivia one remembers, the more cryptic second one requires a tricky mind that can parse out normal, everyday words out of a mixture of definitions, wordplay, and puns.
The cryptic-crossword community in Toronto is a small but undoubtedly dedicated one. You won’t see enthusiasts gathering in person in any one place. Instead, they head online to websites such as Crossword Clue Solver and the Saturday Star Cryptic Forum, where one can find the work of The Toronto Star’s Caroline Andrews or The Globe and Mail’s Fraser Simpson dissected, analyzed, and rated with all the precision of a surgeon.
These enthusiasts even have a name for themselves—cruciverbalists, a term meaning “a person skillful in creating or solving crossword puzzles,” according to the Merriam Webster Dictionary. Coined as early as the mid-1970s, the word comes from the Latin roots “crux” and “verbum,” which mean “cross” and “word,” respectively.
According to Andrews, it’s the pure love of wordplay that trumps the job’s low earning potential.
“There are enough people out there that want to try [creating puzzles] that the newspapers will never pay that much—I’m lucky that I’ve got a husband to pay the rent,” jokes Andrews, who has been producing cryptics for The Star twice weekly since 1994.
Andrews says it took her six years to excel at making cryptics. While she used to manage one puzzle every eight days, she can now get one out in two and a half.
“A good solid crossword is one that is neither so easy that you flip right through it and you don’t get any stimulation at all, nor so hard that you feel that you’ve been cheated. You need to make a crossword that’s just difficult,” she says.
The difficulty may derive partially from the fact that cryptic crosswords have a language all their own. Words like “excitedly,” “upset,” and even “nuts” can all indicate that the word preceding it is an anagram and must be unscrambled. “Harbour” or “besiege” may mean that a word or part of a word needs to be inserted in the middle of another. “Westbound” could mean that a word needs to be reversed.
Although there are websites that do help with cryptic-crossword keywords, for the most part, such hints are a tool of the trade that one has to figure out on their own—an initiation for the eager newcomer.
“It does require a certain amount of effort to do a cryptic crossword—it’s not for the mentally lazy,” admits Andrews.
These cruciverbalists also tend to skew older in age, if the fan emails that Andrews receives are anything to go by. Over the years, Andrews has amassed a steady and dedicated following through the Star, and she says that she’s lucky to have the job.
Prior to 1994, Andrews had been sending examples of her work to various papers without much success. That year, however, she won a short-story competition in the Star, where her prize included lunch with current advice columnist Ellie Tesher. When Tesher offhandedly mentioned that the paper was looking to replace the crossword creator they had, Andrews offered her services.
Getting the gig at the Star, she says, was like finding the proverbial golden goose. Most normal crosswords that appear day-to-day in papers are syndicated, usually costing a publication around $25-$50 per puzzle to redistribute in their paper. Commissioned, themed, regular crosswords made especially for a business or a magazine may bump that figure up to a couple hundred dollars. Cryptic ones can cost a few hundred more than that.
“It’s very hard to get into,” Andrews says. “Because of the cost, newspapers aren’t really thrilled with having too many originals, so they restrict the number of original ones they have and buy British ones to sell the rest of the week. There are not that many jobs around.”
British cryptic crosswords, Andrews says, are usually the cheapest to syndicate because they originated in the U.K. and have a much wider market there. While the Star and The Globe and Mail both publish a few new cryptics every week, all of the National Post’s puzzles are syndicated and appear in The Daily Telegraph months before they make it to Canada. In the United States, demand is even lower.
“There would be more if more American newspapers had cryptic crosswords, but [publishers there] keep telling me that their readers aren’t ready for it,” Andrews says. “There is a very strong core of people interested in cryptics in the U.S. but, mostly, they get their stuff from the internet, or from books.
“I’ve got a lot of loyal fans down there,” she adds. “They buy a lot of stuff from me.”
David Fowler, a 65-year-old cryptic crossword puzzle enthusiast from Wainfleet, Ont. (a township in southern Niagara), receives a packet of Andrew’s cryptic puzzles from his wife every year for Christmas. She buys them directly from Andrews through her website.
The puzzles helped him start utilizing his brain again after he suffered a seizure while undergoing a kidney-removal surgery, and now he solves Andrews’ puzzles every week without fail, preferring hers over all others.
“I think part of the process is learning how the author thinks—and I think I’ve done that with Caroline Andrews,” he says. “Once I read a clue, I get where’s she’s going. I’ve tried other cryptic crosswords from other places and I just found I didn’t like it. I always ended up going back to Caroline’s.”
Larry Humber, a Toronto cruciverbalist and journalist who used to report sports for Reuters, theorizes that it’s the faithfulness of crossword fans like Fowler that actually help keep newspapers in print. “People like to have something that they can work on with a pen or pencil, you know? You can do crosswords on a computer, but it’s quite a different experience—people actually like sitting down with a pen and filling in spaces.”
Nowadays, Humber says he makes up to half his income from creating crosswords, albeit the normal kind. Although he prefers cryptic crosswords, the lack of market for them means that he’s stuck to the simpler version to pay the bills.
“The British are far more into them,” he says. “They often have other word games too. The London Times actually publishes a whole section of puzzles every Saturdays—I buy The London Times every Saturday because of those puzzles.”
In fact, Humber’s favourite cryptic clue is one from a British crossword that appeared in the National Post, which read:
c word upset many.
It’s not an inappropriate word, Humber assures. “Upset” is one of those words that indicates that the preceding word must be unscrambled. The answer, he says with a grin you can hear over the phone, is “crowd.”