Decrypting the Cryptic #7: Reversals

Sometimes in cryptics, it’s time to back that thing up.

Welcome to Decrypting the Cryptic #7! 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. Today, we’re taking on double definitions.

Back that thing up, because today we’re taking on reversals! In a reversal, a word or phrase is spelled backwards to create another word or phrase. Unlike with anagrams, the exact text to be reversed does not have to be given to you in the clue — a synonym will do, although sometimes you do get the exact letters to be reversed. And there will always be some kind of indicator word or phrase that lets you know that you’re to reverse the order of the letters. Let’s look at an example.

Example #1: Back-end vessels (4)

The answer is POTS (“vessels,”) which is STOP (“end”) spelled backward; the word “back” indicates that you’re spelling something backwards.

Note that the answer must be POTS, not STOP, because the word “back” appears adjacent to “end” (the synonym for STOP), and not adjacent to “vessels” (the synonym for POTS), which indicates that STOP is to be reversed. So note that the clue “End back vessels (4),” besides being more awkward from a surface sense, is also unfairly ambiguous, because the word “back” is adjacent to BOTH “end” and “vessels” — there is no way to tell which four-letter word is being asked for. 

That being said, you may find the indicator word in the middle of a clue when you’re solving a full puzzle; it’s less than perfectly elegant, but not unfair as long as you have crossings that enable you to choose between the two alternatives. The indicator word can also be in the middle if the word to be reversed is given directly in the clue, as in “Flow back to inhale (4)” for WOLF. WOLF here means “to inhale” in the “wolf your food” sense, and the placement of “back” is not ambiguous because you can reverse the word FLOW to get a synonym for “to inhale,” but so far as I know there is no way to reverse any synonym for “inhale” to get a four-letter synonym for “flow.”

There aren’t THAT many words and phrases that reverse neatly into another word or phrase just as they are, so reversals are frequently paired with some other clue type. Here’s an example.

Example #2: Ran back into sore, chaotic situation (7)

The answer is ANARCHY. Again, the indicator word for the reversal is “back.” Turn the word RAN around to get the letter string NAR, which is inserted into the word ACHY (“sore”) to create ANARCHY, a “chaotic situation.” (Remember those containers we talked about?)

Of course, “back” isn’t the only way to indicate a reversal. Here are some other words that should tip you off that you’re to spell something backward:

  • Sometimes we’ll just be nice and say “backward” or “reverse [in any of its tenses]”!
  • Expressions for turning around, like “turned about,” “about-face,” or “U-turn”
  • Clues about going right to left instead of left to right: “turns left,” “go west”
  • “Wrong way” or other phrases that indicate that you’ve been given the answer in the wrong direction
  • Appropriate gymnastics terms like “somersault” and “backflip”
  • Words that indicate backward motion, like “retreat”

Note that when you’re solving a puzzle, you’re going to have some Down entries. In Down clues, you’ll also get some indicator words that I won’t say NEVER appear in Across clues, but are more likely to appear there than in Across clues:

  • Indications that an answer is to be printed going up instead of coming down: “up,” “going north”
  • Synonyms for standing something on end, like “erect”
  • Expressions for turning something upside down, like “inverted” and “flip over”
  • Words that indicate ascent, like “climb” and “rise” — because the answer is supposed to be going down, but instead the wordplay indicates a word that’s climbing up

That’s it for reversals! Feel free to ask questions 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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