Less Elvis, more Taylor Swift: a clue for ‘dated’ cryptic crossword setters

<span>Young people sometimes struggle to complete cryptic crosswords because the references are so dated, said one expert.</span><span>Photograph: Linda Nylind/The Guardian</span>
Young people sometimes struggle to complete cryptic crosswords because the references are so dated, said one expert.Photograph: Linda Nylind/The Guardian

When presented with the word sailor, would your thoughts move to able seaman, and from there to the abbreviation AB?

If the answer is yes, then you may have a knack for cryptic crosswords. If not, you may struggle – or just have frames of reference that are different from those of cryptic crossword setters, who tend to be older, white and male.

It is this tension that is leading some to question the future of cryptic crosswords, which experts argue must adapt to stay relevant to a younger, more diverse generation.

“The general knowledge that comes up in the national broadsheet puzzles tends to be baby boomer territory. If it’s a singer it’s more likely to be Elvis Presley than Taylor Swift even though today she is massive,” said Henry Howarth, author of the book Learn How to Solve Cryptic Crosswords.

He has found that young people, no matter how bright they are, sometimes struggle to complete cryptic crosswords because the references are so dated.

“Gradually, new linguistic uses do start to be incorporated in cryptic crosswords, but it’s a fairly slow evolutionary process. I don’t think there’s evidence of radical changes,” he said, noting that some are starting to incorporate elements of textspeak – a mere two decades after this became mainstream.

Crosswords have come a long way since the 1960s, when they were full of Latin and Victorian poetry references that often required a private school education, said Mark Goodliffe, the 12 times winner of The Times cryptic crossword championship who runs the Cracking the Cryptic YouTube channel.

“Cryptic puzzles have become much more democratic in the sense that everybody can have a go at them now. That doesn’t mean there aren’t aspects of the culture that tend to skew older or maybe more conservative with a small c,” he said.

In the US, there has been a growing movement of Gen Z crossword constructors, who bring diverse perspectives, internet meme literacy and contemporary cultural references.

But, said Goodliffe: “British crosswords are not progressing in that way or at that pace.”

He noted that crossword setters at the national newspapers tended to stay in post for a long time, though he felt the average age had declined in recent years – albeit still above 40.

“There are forces trying to keep the crosswords a bit older as well as well as trying to drag it kicking and screaming into the modern world. I don’t think it’s impossible there will be a push for it, though I don’t think it will be as aggressive or as likely to take root. But obviously I’m pale, male and stale enough that I’m likely to be wrong.”

Steve Mossberg writes quiptic puzzles for a US audience after falling in love with British cryptic crosswords but finding the clues too culturally specific, as well as not inclusive enough.

“I do think the humour you see, often there’s a lot of misogyny and a very male gendered viewpoint. That can put people off,” he said, citing jokes about people’s bodies as an example.

“In the US regarding non-cryptic crosswords in the last 10 years we’ve seen a really big shift away from that sort of thing, and a shift towards inclusivity. The puzzle itself is better because we see a diversity of voices and viewpoints.”

Dr Kathryn Friedlander, a lecturer at the University of Buckingham who specialises in the psychology of puzzles, said there was a desperate need for more female setters. Her last survey, in 2012, found that just three out of 49 setters were female, and just 10% of people who achieved success in competitions were women.

“There’s always been criticism levelled at cryptic crosswords that they’re cricket focused or it’s an old boy sort of feel – school is always Eton,” she said.

According to Paolo Pasco, a 24-year-old who won the American Crossword Tournament this year and writes cryptic crosswords for the New Yorker, the high barrier to entry can be off-putting for young people. “If you’re a person trying to pick them up for fun, if you have to decode a whole language of references, shorthand that might not immediately be intuitive, it’s something you have to learn, it might be discouraging,” he said.

But he added there was a small and growing community online, including people posting TikToks of how they solved clues, or live-streaming their games on Twitch. “I’m seeing something I never thought I would see,” he said.

John Halpern, who writes cryptic crosswords for UK national newspapers, including under the moniker Paul in the Guardian, is conscious of the need to appeal to both older and younger audiences. For example, he might write a clue using Taylor Swift’s name because she is popular among younger people as well as in the news because she’s touring the UK – not to mention the fact her name is an anagram of “a flirty swot”.

Ultimately, he is guided by “something that can make me laugh, is a bit fun or a nice pun”.

“If you find out Presbyterians is an anagram of Britney Spears you’ve got to use it,” he observed.

• This article was amended on 19 June 2024. In giving the anagram of Taylor Swift’s name, an earlier version omitted the indefinite article.