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Obscure Words In Cryptic Crosswords

As a general rule, quick crosswords tend to have words in them that are fairly common. It is rare to have a quick crossword that uses more than one word you won't have heard of, and in most cases you will know all words in this genre of crossword puzzle.

With cryptic crosswords, however, pretty much anything goes. And some authors delight in using words that are, no matter how you dress it up, just downright obscure, and that you probably won't have heard of.

The other thing that some cryptic setters may do is use definitions of words that are obsolete or really stretch the concept of what counts as a fair definition in the first place.

This is one of the things that puts some people off solving cryptic crosswords, or putting effort into thinking of the answer: if you don't know what the answer word is even when you have it, then that understandably can be quite intimidating and possibly frustrating for many crossword solvers.

So how should you treat an answer that is unfamiliar to you - whether it is an obscure word or a proper noun that you've never come across before?

The best attitude to have is to treat it as an opportunity to learn something new, even if you don't think you will ever use it again, you never know.

Generally setters try to be fair when using proper nouns, for instance if they refer to a town or city in another country, then it is considered fair game to use, say, one of the 10 or possibly 20 largest cities (depending on the country) whilst referring to a village in a relatively remote country that is not particularly well known in Britain is not considered a fair thing to do.

As for why setters use obscure words, then there are few reasons: it may be the only word that fits a particular set of letters, and whereas with a quick crossword the setter would probably amend the grid at that point, the cryptic setter may well just plough on and clue the relatively unknown word.

Secondly, it could be that there is a particularly nice way to clue the obscure word, even if a more common word would fit but would entail a fairly dull or anodyne clue.

Thirdly, it is considered 'fair game' by some setters because they will usually compensate for an obscure word by having the word play part clearly to that answer, whether via an anagram clue or some other device that will lead you to the answer. If you can work out the answer purely from the cryptic part of the clue - in a way you can't do with a quick crossword - then it can be seen it is, in that sense, fair.

What do you think about obscure words in cryptics: do you enjoy them and the opportunity to learn, or do you feel it puts you off solving cryptics as a puzzle type? Please do let us know your thoughts in the comments section.
Date written: 29 Mar 2015

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