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How to solve the Irish Times Crosaire crossword: A beginners’ guide to cryptic codes

Like any skill, solving cryptic puzzles can be learned with practice, repetition and perseverance

The Crosaire is a very special puzzle indeed, though its seemingly zany clues and apparent lack of logic can be off-putting to beginners. I started learning to solve the Crosaire as a teenager and have been honing my skills ever since.

I now run a social media page where my mission is to democratise cryptic crosswords, one clue at a time, taking viewers through common codes and indicators while generally demystifying the enigmatic process of solving cryptic crosswords.

Learning to solve cryptic crosswords is like learning a new language. It is a slow and frustrating process at first, punctuated with the odd eureka moment.

Cryptic puzzles have their own unique grammatical structure and spelling rules, which cannot be learned out of context. Each puzzle is different, and each setter will set clues in their own style, tinged with their unique and nuanced take on the cryptic algorithm. As with language learning, fluency takes practice, and mistakes are commonplace in the beginning and beyond.


Most cryptic clues can be broken down into two parts. One part is the wordplay, or building blocks with which to construct the solution letter by letter, piece by piece. This is the encrypted part of the clue, that requires us to have some knowledge of common codes and indicators to translate the clue into layman’s terms. Not only does the wordplay tell us which letters we will need for the solution, but it usually also guides us as to how to arrange these letters; ie which go first, whether they should appear backwards or jumbled up in the solution, and so on.

The second part of the clue is the literal definition of the solution. This part is usually quite straightforward, and does exactly what it says on the tin. Both parts of the clue corroborate each other, helping us to be doubly sure that we have accurately translated the clue. The tricky part lies not in learning a long and boring list of acronyms and abbreviations, but rather in deciphering which section of the clue is which, a skill that requires patience, practice and a whole lot of brainstorms.

The Crosaire, along with other puzzles of its kind, includes a variety of styles of clue. Some examples include double definition clues, which contain no wordplay, but rather two contrasting yet corroborating definitions, for example: “Even so, each and every one is indistinguishable” (3,3,4). “Even so” can be translated as the informal, conversational definition, while “each and every one is indistinguishable” acts as its more literal counterpart. The solution is “All the same”.

Another example of this style of clue from the Guardian Cryptic crossword is “Maroon hair” (6), for which the solution is “Strand”, meaning both to “maroon” someone (on a desert island perhaps), and also a lock of hair.

Hidden in plain sight clues are perfect for beginners, as the solution is written in front of our eyes, simply disguised as part of the clue. A Crosaire example of this is: “A number of those caught up in fortune-telling” (3). “A number” acts as our literal simplex definition of the solution, while “caught up in” tells us that the solution is written backwards (up) and inside (caught in) the phrase fortune-telling. The solution is “Ten”.

Languages other than English, including Irish, feature heavily in the Crosaire, and always add an extra challenge for the solver. “Man born in December, most likely, sends negative response to the Spanish” (4) is a recent Crosaire example of this type of clue that might seem thoroughly perplexing at first to someone unfamiliar with the pattern. “Man born in December, most likely” is our literal definition of the solution; so think of a name that a male person born around Christmas time might typically have. “Negative response” is simply “No”, while “the Spanish” is asking us to translate the word “the” into Spanish, leaving us with “El”. When we combine our two morsels of wordplay, we are left with “Noel”, a man who was most likely born in the 12th month of the year.

The anagram is the headline act of the cryptic world. Setters use a variety of anagram indicators, which are words or phrases that indicate change, movement or action of any kind. Though there is no exhaustive list (despite the pleas of my followers), some recent anagram indicators that I have encountered include “messy”, “scrambled”, “confused”, “ran amok”, “redesigned” and “regrettably”, all of which are instructing us to rearrange or reorganise a word or phrase into its translated, solved format.

The formula for an anagram-based clue will typically include a word or phrase (sometimes nonsensical) that matches in length the number of letters in the solution; an anagram indicator as described above; and a literal definition of the solution. “Doctor had a nice big estate in Latin America” (8) is a recent Crosaire anagram clue, with the anagram indicator here being “Doctor” as a verb, meaning to change or amend something. The letters that the indicator “doctor” tells us to unscramble are “had a nice”, and the literal definition of the solution is “big estate in Latin America”. The solution here is “Hacienda”, which is the letters in “had a nice” rearranged, as ordered by the anagram indicator, and as guided by the literal definition.

The most common thread in my TikTok comment section echoes the sentiment that “my brain doesn’t work like this” or “I could never in a million years have solved that clue”. Learning a new skill as an adult opens us up to natural vulnerability we thought we had outgrown. The lack of instant understanding can make us feel discouraged or even stupid.

Like any skill, however, solving cryptic puzzles can be learned, with practice, repetition and a bit of perseverance. Take a look at my top tips for beginner solvers and give it a go – I promise your brain does work like that.

Aifric Gallagher is @crypticaf on TikTok

Top tips for beginner Crosaire-solvers

1. Start with a Saturday puzzle and work from the outside in: The Saturday Crosaire is a great confidence builder, as each corner clue shares a word or theme in common. This means that if you can solve 1 across, 34 across, 8 down or 9 down, you open up the whole puzzle.

2. Brainstorm, brainstorm, brainstorm: Go through each clue with a fine-tooth comb and jot down every acronym, abbreviation, synonym or associated word you can connect to every word or phrase in the clue, no matter how outlandish or tenuous the link. Look out for indicators or codes you’ve seen before and apply these to the rest of the clue. If this comes to nothing, scratch the first brainstorm and start again.

3. Work backwards: Look at the answers to yesterday’s puzzle the following day and challenge yourself to reverse-engineer an understanding of the clue. The Crosaire blog will give more context here and is an excellent insight for solvers at all levels into the minds of the setters.

4. Solve with a friend: Nothing beats fresh eyes for seeing a word in a different context, or spotting an indicator you were sure was a definition. Share a pot of coffee with a like-minded enthusiast and compare brainstorms for greater solving success.

5. Practice makes perfect: Like learning a new language, practice is the only way to develop fluency in this game. Though it may be frustrating at the beginning, keep the faith. The satisfaction that comes with the solution is unmatched.

Cryptic codes ... and possible Crosaire solutions

Father: PP (Parish Priest), Fr, Da

First Lady: Eve

Ten: IO, X

Thousand: K, M

Fifty: L

Lawyer: SC (Senior Counsel)

Irish Ship: LE (Long Éireannach)

Former partner: EX

Party: DO

The French: LE, LA, LES

A French: UN, UNE

The German: DER, DIE, DAS

A German: EIN

Left: L

Right: R

Assistant: PA

Trendy: IN

Ring: O

Worker: ANT, BEE

Non-drinker: TT (teetotaller)

Sailor: AB (Able Seaman)

Nothing: O

Article: AN, THE

Alien: ET (extraterrestrial)

Time: T

Cryptic indicators ... and actions to take

Primarily, firstly, at first, for starters, initially: First letters of surrounding words or phrases

Ending, finally, concluding, ultimately: Final letters of surrounding words or phrases

Middle, centre, essentially: Middle letters of surrounding words or phrases

Up, back, in retreat: Turn word/part of word backwards

Erupting, confused, crazy, etc. Jumble up letters of surrounding words or phrases

Banks: Edges of surrounding words or phrases

Gutted, vacuous: Take middle out of word

I hear, in conversation, on the radio: Equivalent to “sounds like” in charades

Regularly: Alternate letters in surrounding word or phrase

Oddly: Odd letters in surrounding word or phrase

Even: Even letters in surrounding word or phrase

Ordinal numbers (first, second, third): 1st, 2nd, 3rd letter of a surrounding word

Slice of, piece of, some: Section of surrounding word or phrase

Ignores, removes: Take letters out of surrounding word or phrase