EnigMarch 2023

For EnigMarch this year, I’m writing a cryptic clue for the prompt of the day, and running the entire clue thru the AI art rendering system Midjourney. I'm posting these on my Instagram, Twitter, and Mastodon. Then, the next day, I'm walking through how the clue works.

The intent is to expose folks to cryptic clues slowly, and hopefully demystify them. Cryptics are a beautiful art, but they can be a perplexing one. It used to break my brain. Eventually I did enough of them that it didn't feel scary, and then soon after that, I was hooked.

Here's a great primer on cryptics, from the Wall Street Journal: https://s.wsj.net/blogs/html/wsjcrypticguide.pdf

The basics

The main thing you have to know is that every cryptic clue has two parts, and both parts clue the same thing. One part is the definition, which is just like a normal clue you'd seen in a normal crossword. Like "barrier" for DAM. The other part is the wordplay, which is a trickier way to clue the exact same word, like "Angry, backwards", which is a cryptic way of cluing MAD, then flipping it, to get DAM. The final clue will have both parts, smashed together, sometimes joined by a throw-away connector word, to help with the surface reading of the clue. So in the case of DAM you might see this clue:

Backwards, angry barrier (3)

The art of cryptics comes from one's ability to merge the two halves together into a coherent-sounding sentence. This is call the "surface", and it's what I find the most satisfying about writing, and solving, cryptics.

That's enough to get you started on understanding what's going on below. Once you're ready to move on to full grids (which can be easier than solving them out of context, since you often have one or more letters to work with on each entry), visit this list of cryptic crosswords on my Resources page:

Crosswords, cryptics, & word puzzles
A long list of crossword publications. Contact me with corrections or links that you’d like to see included. Crosswords Daily * New York Times * LA Times * Newsday * Wall Street Journal * USA Today Weekly or Biweekly * American Values Club * New Yorker * Brendan Emmett Quigley * Mat…


1. Kentucky accepts extreme lacrosse as a major, for example (3)
2. Spies retreat, concealed by hurricane storm (4)
3. Primary weather in Njörðr's domain! (4)
4. Airy wingless flights (5)
(Note: the ! in #3 indicates that this is an "&lit" clue, which tells you to interpret the entire clue as the definition — and the entire clue again as the wordplay.)

Clue 1 explanation

- "a major, for example" (3 letters)

- Kentucky = KY
- extreme = last letter of what comes next (the E from lacrosse)
- X accepts Y = Put Y inside of X

Put it all together, and the answer to both parts is KEY.

Clue 2 explanation

"spies' retreat". In crpytic clues, punctuation may be added or withheld.

"Concealed by" means look for the answer hidden in the word or words that comes next. Look inside "hurricanestorm" for a 4-letter word.


Clue 3 explanation

"Primary" means "take the first letter(s) of adjacent word(s)".

Njörðr is the Norse god of the wind, and the whole clue is a florid way of expressing that.

Answer: WIND

Clue 4 explanation

"wingless" means remove the first and last letters of the adjacent word(s), "flights"



5. Oddly gleamy masterpiece (3)
6. Thy claim madness be legendary (8)
7. Affenpinscher's gutless before clash with pointer (5)
8. Clown cruise is missing, I swear (5)

Clue 5 explanation

"oddly" means use only the odd letters of what comes next, which is "gleamy"


Put it together, you get GEM 💎

Clue 6 explanation

"madness" is an anagram indicator for the word(s) next to it. Basically any word that implies confusion, mixing, or unpleasantness indicates anagram. Here it is paired with "thy claim".

DEFINITION: "legendary".

CONNECTOR: "be" is a connector word, and can be ignored


Clue 7 explanation

- "gutless" means remove the insides of a word, in this case "Affenpinscher", to get AR
- One synonym of "clash" is "row"

DEFINITION: "a pointer"


Clue 8 explanation

"clown" is an anagram indicator for the next word, "cruise".
"is missing I" tells you to remove the I from CRUISE. Remember that punctuation is just flair, and can (and should) be ignored.



9. Boo-boo is secretly effing lit, champ (6)
10. Danger! Difficult-to-contain pie (6)
11. "Bee Movie, directed by M. Night Shyamalan, is outstanding." (4)
12. Mix two eggs at first, add a bit of rutabaga, then soar (5)

Clue 9 explanation

Wordplay: "secretly" indicates a hidden word in what comes after (or came before). In this case, you're looking for a six-letter word within "effinglitchamp".

Definition: "boo-boo"

Answer: GLITCH

Clue 10 explanation

- "Difficult" = HARD
- "Pie" = ZA (sorry)
- "X to contain Y" = put Y inside X

Definition: "Danger"

Solution: HAZARD

Clue 11 explanation

- "Bee" = B
- "Movie directed by M. Night Shyamalan" = OLD (ignore that punctuation!) 

Definition: "Outstanding" 

Solution: BOLD

Clue 12 explanation

- "Mix two" = Anagram TWO
- "Eggs at first" = Take first letter of EGGS
- "a bit of rutabaga" = Take first letter of RUTABAGA

Definition: "soar" (as in soar over something)

Answer: TOWER

13. Time to break a computer with hot stick on fire (5)
14. Codes (rot-n) added in backup (6)
15. 8th century invader heads west for more space (4)
16. Disguise using the tops and bottoms of Medusa & Shrek (4)

Clue 13 explanation

- "Time" = T
- "X to break Y" = put X in Y, in this case
- "a computer" = MAC, in this case
- "with" = append
- "hot" = H

- "stick on fire"

Solution: MATCH

Clue 14 explanation

As always, you must ignore the punctuation.

- "rot" is an anagram indicator, in this case for CODES
- "N added in" means to put the letter N int the mix somewhere

- "backup" as in a duel, or as a copy of one's hard drive.

Solution: SECOND

Clue 15 explanation

- "8th century invader" = MOOR
- "heads west" means write it backwards (right to left, in a westward direction)

- more space

Solution: ROOM

Clue 16 explanation

- "tops and bottoms" = first and last letters of what follows, i.e. MEDUSA & SHREK

- "disguise"

Solution: MASK

17. The lady will unhusk a pea (5)
18. TV’s Logan, Al, Charles, or Harry, for example (5)
19. What’s found nine times in this clue about English hats? (5)
20. worm_eater.gif is hilarious in parts (4)

Clue 17 explanation

This is a double definition: the two sides of the clue are definitions for the same word, but with different meanings (and in this case, different punctuation).

  1. "The lady will" = SHE'LL
  2. "unhusk a pea" = SHELL

Solution: SHELL

Clue 18 explanation

- TV's Logan = ROY (he of Succession)
- Al = AL

- "Charles or Harry, for example" are members of the British royal family

Solution: ROYAL

Clue 19 explanation

- "about" means reverse what follows (or precedes)
- "English" is an abbreviation for E
- "hats" are CAPS

- "What's found nine times in this clue". There are 10 words in the clue, but only nine spaces between them.

Solution: SPACE

Clue 20 explanation

- "in parts" means to look for a string inside what's before or after, in this case, "gif is hilarious"

Definition:- "worm eater"

Solution: FISH

21. Possess around 50%! (5)
22. Prediction: I appear between Venus's poles, Jupiter's moon, and the far side of Saturn (6)
23. Bones from 501 A.D. (4)
24. Sob near middle part of triptych in church cellar (5)

Clue 21 explanation

- "Possess" = HAVE
- "X around Y" = Put Y in X
- "50" = L

- "Possess around 50%" is to HALVE

Solution: HALVE

Clue 22 explanation

- "I appear between…" = Put I inside what comes next
- "Venus's poles" = V & S, the first and last letters of VENUS
- "Jupiter's moon" =a IO
– "the far side of Saturn" = N

Definition: "Prediction"

Solution: VISION

Clue 23 explanation

- "501" in Roman numerals is DI
- Another way to represent A.D. is C.E.

- "Bones" is a slang term for dice

Solution: DICE

Clue 24 explanation

- "Sob" = CRY
- "middle part of triptych" = the middlest letter(s) = PT

Definition:- "church cellar" is a crypt

Solution: CRYPT

25. “Twist and Shout”? Just kidding! (4)
26. Go right inside the entrance to Wonderland to get larger (4)
27. Ref goes ballistic over final point of Miami Heat (4)
28. It goes from corner to corner in LA, doing a dance (8)

Clue 25 explanation

- "Shout" is a homophone indicator
- "Just kidding!" is another way to say "not!"

Definition:- "Twist"

Solution: KNOT

Clue 26 explanation

- "Go" = GO
- "Right" = R
- "X inside" = put X inside what comes before or after
- "the entrance to Wonderland" = W

- get larger 

Solution: GROW

Clue 27 explanation

- "Ref goes ballistic" = anagram the letters in REF
- "X over Y" = X surrounds Y
- "final point of Miami" = I

- Heat

Solution: FIRE

Clue 28 explanation

- "dance" is an anagram indicator for the preceding 8 words, "LA doing a"

- "It goes from corner to corner"

Solution: DIAGONAL

29. Something that’s said in Pamplona: "What possessed gutless torero to run backwards?" (5)
30. Pick up some healthy starters for a Labor Day activity? (4)
31. Some never, ever seriously go back (7)

Clue 29 explanation

- "In Pamplona" = translate the adjacent word, "what", to Spanish: QUE
- "X possessed Y" = put Y in X
- "gutless torero" = TO (remove the guts)
- "to run backwards" = flip it = OT

- "Something that's said"

Solution: QUOTE

Clue 30 explanation

- "starters" means take the first letters of adjacent words, "Pick up some healthy"

- "a Labor Day activity?"
- the ? means this is a punny clue

Solution: PUSH

Clue 31 explanation

- "Some" means take some of the letters out of what follows, "never ever seriously"

- "go back"

Solution: REVERSE

Where to go from here

To try your hand at cryptic crosswords, visit our repository of links here:

Crosswords, cryptics, & word puzzles
A long list of crossword publications. Contact me with corrections or links that you’d like to see included. Crosswords Daily * New York Times * LA Times * Newsday * Wall Street Journal * USA Today Weekly or Biweekly * American Values Club * New Yorker * Brendan Emmett Quigley * Mat…

Subscribe to Signals

Get puzzles and links delivered weekly to your inbox.