Crossing Words

20 December 2012 Rachel Kelly

Crossing Words

What’s a ‘cruciverbalist’? What are ‘unches’? Do crossword compilers have a secret handshake? The Big Issue’s new crossword setter, Rachel Kelly, explained all about the puzzling world of puzzles.

There are a few fancy words for the people who put together crosswords: ‘setters’, ‘compilers’ and our personal favourite – ‘cruciverbalists’. Which do you go by?
I do like ‘setter’ as it can be a sneaky way to refer to yourself in a cryptic clue. It’s hard to go past ‘cruciverbalist’, though. It’s such a great word – sounds like I should be brandishing a sword or something. It can be used to describe any crossword enthusiast, setter or solver, and I am definitely both.

When did you first discover your love of crossword puzzles?
My mum introduced me to cryptics when I was a teenager. We’d solve the puzzles in the Sydney Morning Herald together after dinner. I think it definitely helps to learn by looking over someone’s shoulder for a while. Gradually the mysteries are unlocked and the secret codes and recipes reveal themselves. Plus, two minds are better than one.

When/how did you make the leap from solving to compiling? Is cruciverbalism a calling?
I read David Astle’s book Puzzled, which so clearly explains all the mechanics behind building a cryptic clue (amid lots of entertaining stories and puzzles). Then I discovered his blog, where he sets fun weekly challenges in devising clues. So I gave it a go and discovered I had a knack for it. I’m not sure that it’s a calling, but it’s definitely addictive.

Do you spend a lot of time solving the puzzles of other compilers? Do you have a weekly routine of crosswords and puzzles you like to solve? I really like the cryptic puzzles from the UK – they did invent crosswords after all. I try to do the Times cryptic most days, and the Guardian crosswords are free online and have a good range of compilers and difficulty levels. I never miss a DA (David Astle) in the Sydney Morning Herald on Fridays.

Do you have any particular compiler heroes?
The British setters John Halpern and Dean Mayer are particular favourites, along with our home-grown David Astle. I like all three for the same reasons – they’re challenging and inventive with a good dose of humour and cheekiness thrown into the mix.

Is there a community of crossword setters in Australia? Do you have peculiar rites, customs, secret handshake etc?
As something of the new kid on the block, I haven’t been taught the secret handshake yet. But I do know there are plenty of amateur enthusiasts on various blogs online trying their hand at clue-crafting and using strange words like ‘anagrind’ and ‘unches’.

What are ‘unches’ and ‘anagrinds’?
An anagrind is the word in a cryptic clue that indicates the solver should make the word(s) beside it into an anagram. It implies some kind of mixing or change is taking place. For example, in the clue Distant meteor exploded (6) the anagrind is ‘exploded’, telling you to mix up the letters of ‘meteor’ giving you a word that means ‘distant’. Unches are the squares in a crossword that only belong to one word. That is, the non-intersecting squares.

As a solver, have you ever committed regrettable acts in a fit of crossword-induced frustration?
I don’t think I’ve ever exhibited violence towards a crossword puzzle. But my two-year-old daughter has scribbled over many a grid to creatively express her frustration at her mother’s attention being caught up in those black and white squares.

Can you give Big Issue readers some tips on solving cryptics?
Cryptics can seem very intimidating and confusing at first, but once you get the hang of what’s going on, they can be so satisfying to solve. The simplest advice I can give is to try not to be drawn into the surface meaning of the clue. In most cases this is totally irrelevant. Each clue generally has two parts – definition and wordplay. If you figure out which is which you’re most of the way there.