Could a non-native speaker work out cryptic crossword puzzles?
Cryptic crosswords require a fair amount of fluency in English, but being a native speaker is certainly not required! Kishore Rao is a setter for The Hindu, and his native language is Konkani. And of course, one of PSE's most prolific creators, jafe, is from Finland.
Is it true that cryptic crosswords require superb linguistic skills beyond what an ordinary native English speaker has?
It's not inherent ability that's the major barrier, but understanding the rules, and practice. Many cryptic crosswords use entirely common English words, and the trouble is in getting past misleading wording. For instance, in this puzzle by jafe, there is the clue:
- Part of Italian course ends in disaster – media blaming university (4)
To solve this, you must realize that:
In "Italian course" the word "course" doesn't mean "class you take in university", but instead means "part of a meal". (The word "university" just gives you the letter U.)
Cryptic crosswords require that solvers look for alternate meanings of words, and re-interpret sentences in an unusual way. The word "point" could mean "purpose", "tip", or "direction on a compass" -- or it could be a verb meaning "indicate"! And if it looks like it means one of those things in the surface, that will almost certainly be the wrong interpretation for actually solving the clue.
If yes, what is the point of these puzzles if working them out requires background knowledge? Puzzles are great as anyone could immediately understand their problem statement and immediately start producing solutions.
Cryptic crosswords have a set of rules that you need to learn - just like other puzzles such as Sudoku or Minesweeper, if you don't know the rules, you won't be able to do anything. The fun in cryptic crosswords comes from clever wordplay, and the 'vehicle' for this wordplay is the two-part structure of a cryptic clue.
If no, Then what am I missing? Why am I struggling?
There are several possibilities:
- You may be entirely unaware of what a cryptic crossword is. You mention that you enjoy puzzles based on mathematics, but cryptic crosswords have no relation to mathematics.
- You may be unfamiliar with the rules of cryptic crosswords, or some of the words may be using synonyms that you aren't aware of.
- British cryptics often refer to British culture; you may not be familiar with the references.
- You may not have practiced enough to be able to parse the tricky, misleading clues.
- British cryptics are often more "libertarian", willing to bend the usual rules for the sake of more interesting or misleading clues.
- This puzzle was made in 1942 -- about 14 years before Ximenes published his set of rules for clue fairness. This means that they were even more willing to bend the rules, because "the rules" didn't exist in even a semi-codified form yet. As this blog post notes, they have anagrams without indicators, and clues that are completely missing definitions: things that would be unthinkable today.
- These specific puzzles are meant to be even harder than usual, because their goal was to pick out a very small subset of people.