Decrypting the Cryptic #2: Anagrams

Welcome to the second edition of Decrypting the Cryptic! In this series, we’ll be taking apart common cluing conventions used in American cryptic crosswords to build your confidence in solving a puzzle variety that can be, as its name implies, especially challenging.

In Decrypting the Cryptic #1, we explored one of the simplest and most common types of cryptic clues, charades. This time, we get into another ubiquitous clue type — anagrams.

In an anagram clue, all or some of the answer is anagrammed and put directly into the clue. A word or phrase in the clue will indicate, in an oblique way, that the answer is to be anagrammed. Hey, this is cryptic-dom, so you’re never going to be told directly, “anagram these words”! Let’s look at an example:

Example 1: Say, “well, actually,” perhaps destroying main plans (9)

The answer is MANSPLAIN, which is an anagram of “main plans.” (The straight definition is “Say ‘well, actually,’ perhaps”.) The word “destroying” indicates that the phrase “main plans” is to be “destroyed,” or rearranged to form an entirely new word.

You can often spot anagrams because there’s a phrase in the clue that seems slightly awkward or off-kilter. If that phrase contains exactly as many letters as the enumeration in parentheses, bingo! You’ve probably found the anagram. Even if it doesn’t, but the “off” phrase is shorter than the enumeration, keep thinking along those lines — the constructor may have anagrammed only part of the answer, and is cluing the remainder of the answer in some other way.

Example 2: Kim Jong Un’s bestie made a hash of nomads’ dinner (6,6) (Clue credit: Me, April 28)

Hmmm. “Nomads’ dinner.” That’s odd, isn’t it? And it happens to have exactly 12 letters; the enumeration indicates that the total number of letters in the answer is also 12 letters total. Coincidence? I think not! And if you anagram, or “make a hash of,” the phrase NOMADS’ DINNER, you get DENNIS RODMAN, who is “Kim Jong Un’s bestie”.

You can also often spot anagrams by learning to recognize common indicator words, like these:

  • Synonyms for “confused” or “confusion,” like “chaotic,” “addled,” or “disoriented”
  • Words that indicate motion or arrangement, like “moving around,” “arranged,” “ordered,” or “wandering”
    • This can include words like “vigorously,” which implies motion even though it is not itself a verb
  • Indications that something (the original arrangement of the letters in the clue) is bad or strange: “ugly,” “weird,” “stupid,” “oddly,” etc.
    • Beware! “Oddly” can also mean that you’re to take the odd-numbered letters in a word and use those as all or part of the answer! They are called “cryptics,” after all.
  • Synonyms for “crazy,” like “bananas,” “berserk,” or “nuts”
  • Verbs that indicate something is breaking (because you’re breaking the letters apart and putting them back together): “exploded,” “destroyed,” and “smashed up,” to name a few
  • Words that indicate a disturbance, like “messy” or “muddled”

Long entries in a puzzle — say, those of 9 or more letters — often are wholly or partially anagrammed. That’s because longer entries are harder to clue with one of the other clue types without having the clue become a paragraph. So when you see a long entry, look for words in the clue that are good anagram targets.

Pretty sure you’ve figured out which words in a clue should be anagrammed, but you’re stumped on what the anagram is? I like to solve cryptics on paper, so that I can write the word or phrase that I want to anagram and strike out any crossing letters I know to see what’s left. Or you can use a tool like the Internet Anagram Server (note: it tends to be more successful at shorter phrase lengths) to help you out. If this feels like cheating, you don’t have to, of course, but I won’t judge at all. Hell, if I wrote the cryptic, I almost certainly used that site to make the anagram in the first place.

That’s your anagram explanation. Feel free to ask questions or discuss in the comments!

And don’t forget to check out #crypticclueaday on Twitter. I post a new clue each day using that hashtag (other constructors have been adding their own as well), and every week on #explanationfriday I give the solutions and a brief explanation of how to derive them. These clues are a great way to hone your cryptic solving skills and build your confidence up to solving a full puzzle.

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