Whether or not you do crosswords – or even other word games – the anagram will be familiar.  Someone will tell you that ASTRONOMERS is an anagram of NO MORE STARS (or MOON-STARERS), or that Lewis Carroll turned FLORENCE NIGHTINGALE into FLIT ON, CHEERING ANGEL.  Some others:




Other places where anagrams turn up include those 3×3 grids in newspapers, challenging you to make words from the nine-letters included, always incorporating the one highlighted letter, and always with at least one nine-letter word to be found.  The TV show Countdown dispenses with the making of shorter words and asks you to get the nine-letter Conundrum straight off.

So the propensity to jumble letters is wider than the crossword circle, but it’s hardly to be wondered that that group would pick up on anagrams as a component in their arsenal.  The crossword first appeared  with clues that were definition-only, but it didn’t take long for things like ‘Sectional (anag.) (9)’ to appear as a clue for COASTLINE.  You might also see clues with a definition and an anagram such as ‘Poet – stake (anag.) (5)’ – though that example would have had to be aimed at a distinctly prosaic audience, I think.

From there it isn’t such a large step to the full cryptic clue, with an anagram component and a definition.  Arguably that should make it easier – instead of getting:

Shore (9)


Sectional (anag.) (9)

you get both

Collapse of sectional shore (9)

OK, you don’t get the little abbreviation ‘anag.’ to help you along – instead you get an ‘anagram indicator’ – a word or phrase that serves the same purpose by telling you that a section of the text is to be jumbled up.  Occasionally people get tired of typing out ‘anagram indicator’ and shorten it to ‘anagrind’, as in ‘the anagrind is ‘collapse of’…’.

Basically, in return for getting a second hint at the answer, you get something that slightly obscures the trail again.  The sneaky part is that anagram indicators are many and various – someone with their tongue some way into their cheek once opined that almost any sequence of words could be construed as an anagram indicator (in much the same way, presumably, as adding ‘as the actress said to the bishop’ converts anything into a double entendre).  That’s an extreme position, but anagram indicators come from a wide range of sources.

You need to be looking out for

  • words that imply brokenness or malfunctioning;
  • words to do with motion of any kind – shaking, flying and so on;
  • words for drunkenness (including ‘on’ – see Chambers for why);
  • words for emotional upset (there’s a lot of anthropomorphism in anagram indicators – anything that upsets or disturbs or moves you can upset, disturb or move a sequence of letters on a sheet of paper!);
  • words indicating a degree of potentiality

This wide range is what makes the cryptic clue more difficult.  In effect, you don’t just have the two components – the definition and the anagram.  You have a third component as well – a component that says ‘the letters immediately preceding or following me are what make the anagram’.  Back to the example:

Collapse of sectional shore (9)

which can be read as

[what follows makes up the anagram] + [SECTIONAL] + [definition of COASTLINE].

In this case, ‘collapse of’ comes from the range of words covering brokenness.

Let’s have a few examples plus commentary from puzzles on the site.

  • Reference book could make an idiot cry (10)
  • This utilises what might be the most basic anagram indicator of all: “could make” (or its sibling “could be”).  We have [definition of DICTIONARY] + [indication of potentiality] + [AN IDIOT CRY].  It’s not a terribly credible image in the clue (the thing about a dictionary most likely to make you cry is dropping it on your foot, and that effect isn’t restricted to idiots), but it’s passable.


  • Treatment for hip – deal offered by operating theatre? (7)
  • This is the very first Phi clue in The Independent, with the answer ADELPHI (no, not a coincidence!).   Here the anagram is indicated by “Treatment for”.  This is a rather bland indicator, but treatment applied to something usually brings about change.  There’s then the little phrase “offered by” – a very overt way of saying what the anagram fodder is doing.  And finally ‘operating” is slightly shoehorned in to give a misleading impression.  The clue doesn’t need it, but I justified it by noting that the Adelphi was in business – back in 1990 it was showing Me and My Girl.  And in 2013 it still is in business, so the clue remains valid!

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