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I am fond of puzzles related to mathematics, and I am very keen to solve cryptic crosswords. However, the main obstacle is that they seem to require superb linguistics background knowledge/skills. As a non-native English speaker, I might attribute my hampering to the lack of skills any ordinary native English speaker has. Notably, the linguistics skills required by cryptic crosswords seem to be even beyond that! So my question is

  1. Is it true that cryptic crosswords require superb linguistic skills beyond what an ordinary native English speaker has?
  2. 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.
  3. If no, then what am I missing? Why am I struggling?

For completeness, I wish to work out puzzles illustrated in the phenomenal book Bletchley Park Brainteasers by Sinclair McKay. You could see now why this is important for me.

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    $\begingroup$ The Bletchley Park crosswords aren't even solvable by the typical cryptic crossword puzzle solver: they were designed to find those people with an unusual turn of mind, who could be of help to the intelligence services. They were originally published in national newspapers, so as to obtain easy access to the population. $\endgroup$ – Weather Vane Nov 22 '20 at 18:31
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    $\begingroup$ This very site, Puzzling Stack Exchange, has seen an Indonesian-language cryptic crossword successfully solved by people who don't speak Indonesian at all, let alone natively. What they did have was some existing skill and experience with solving English-language cryptic crosswords. $\endgroup$ – Rand al'Thor Nov 22 '20 at 18:58
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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:

  1. 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.
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  • $\begingroup$ Yup! I can definitely add to Deusovi's point that practice is the key to getting better at cryptic clues. The more you practice, the better you get at recognizing different wordplays and how they might work with each other. Ultimately, because of how cryptic clues are designed, it's entirely possible to solve one without even knowing the language itself (see Gareth's solve of the Indonesian cryptic clue puzzle), but it all comes down to practice. $\endgroup$ – Prince North Læraðr Nov 22 '20 at 20:00
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    $\begingroup$ So what does "disaster – media blaming" have to do with the answer? I actually cannot connect the dots even when I read the answers / explanations. $\endgroup$ – Andrew Savinykh Nov 23 '20 at 8:26
  • $\begingroup$ @AndrewSavinykh Media = rag, University = U, so Ragu (which is an Italian course). But why "part of"? And what's "ending" and "disaster" got to do with it? $\endgroup$ – Oscar Bravo Nov 23 '20 at 9:16
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    $\begingroup$ @AndrewSavinykh (and @OscarBravo) It's not that media=rag, it's that the ends of disasterR, mediA and blaminG actually spell out rag. It's worth looking out for little words like 'ends', 'tails', 'beginnings' or 'heads' (for example) to indicate that you may need to take initial (or last) letters of the words which follow. $\endgroup$ – Stiv Nov 23 '20 at 9:35
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    $\begingroup$ @AndrewSavinykh That's part of the challenge for the solver! R, A and G come from the 'ends' instruction, but then a regular cryptic solver would know that University is commonly abbreviated to 'U', which is what you need to realise here. Also you then need to realise that 'Part of Italian course' must be the definition part, so ask yourself which makes more sense: RAGY (using the last letter of 'University') or RAGU, which is a common ingredient in Italian sauces? Knowing commonly used abbreviations is a big advantage but you will also need to discern what actually makes sense as an answer :) $\endgroup$ – Stiv Nov 23 '20 at 10:38
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You may also be missing that the answers to modern "difficult" cryptic clues may require a large vocabulary to recognize them as "words". For example, a recent crossword (no 4630) in "The Listener" magazine in the UK contained the following answers:

almug, anaglyph, dengue, eche, rosti, tromino.

That list contains a word only found in the Bible, a middle English spelling of a common modern word, two words borrowed from foreign languages, etc.

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  • $\begingroup$ Yes. I think the problem with me is that I don't have a rich enough vocabulary $\endgroup$ – Mostafa Touny Nov 24 '20 at 6:20
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From the grammar and syntax employed in your question, your command of English is easily good enough to handle any crossword. As others have noted, it's more a question of recognising certain key words that are clues. For example, if the clue contains mixed up, then it's an anagram. Anything about we hear and its a homonym (e.g. bear/bare).

It also helps to think aloud in English - this was a famous clue once:

  • H,I,J,K,L,M,N,O (5)

It's a list of letters. If you described it, you'd say H to O.

Now, a homynym of to is two, also written as 2...

Think like a chemist.

This only works in English. In French, for example, ahsh à oh wouldn't get you very far.

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  • $\begingroup$ That doesn't appear to be a proper cryptic crossword clue - for one thing, I don't see any definition, just wordplay. $\endgroup$ – bobble Nov 23 '20 at 20:59
  • $\begingroup$ I saw a similarly creative clue, that was a &lit cryptic. It goes like "A,B,C,D,F or G!" (4). The answer was rot13[ABGR (jvgu "Abg r" nf n jbeqcynl cneg)] $\endgroup$ – Thomas Blue Nov 24 '20 at 5:47

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