Cracking Psychology: Understanding the appeal of cryptic crosswords #1 – Puns and misdirection

Nearly all of us enjoy a good joke now and again, but those who do cryptic crosswords seem particularly attracted to verbal humour. In the first of a series unpacking the psychology behind cryptic crossword solving, Kathryn Friedlander explores the many links between puns, verbal ambiguity, misdirection and the solving of cryptic crossword clues.

Please do give us feedback about our research afterwards by taking the brief survey linked to at the foot of the page.

We know that there are individual differences in people’s appreciation of humour – but it seems that cryptic crossword solvers seem particularly attuned to puns and verbal chicanery. For example, in lab trials during the 1980s*, many crossword solvers began to laugh when shown pairs of words such as “strawberry” and “traffic”, because their brains automatically supplied the missing link (here “jam”). This was one of the strongest differences between solvers and non-solvers in the trials – and not something the researchers had anticipated!

We also know from our survey of cryptic crossword solvers that solvers are particularly motivated to tackle cryptic crosswords in order to get that euphoric “Aha!” moment – the Penny Drop Moment (PDM) which ‘makes them smile or laugh out loud‘.

Pun, homophones and cracker jokes

Of course, one of the staple clues of the cryptic crossword is the ‘homophone’ or ‘sound-alike’ clue, which is squarely based on puns. These can be ‘groaners’, like these examples collected by Alan Connor (answers at the foot of the article if you are struggling!):

  • Heard no sound from the stable? (5)
  • Yorkshire beauty queen, we hear, pulls the wool over one’s eyes (8)

Alternatively, they may be punning riddles reminiscent of Christmas crackers:

  • Discovered why electrical equipment was dangerous? (9)
  • Frightened to death? (6,5)

Aha! Eureka! and the PDM

In fact, jokes and puns share a common mechanism with cryptic crossword clues, since they are all examples of ‘insight puzzles’: a form of mental challenge which briefly exasperates the would-be solver, before suddenly resolving itself in a gloriously satisfying “Aha!” moment.

For example, a punning joke is usually based on two alternative interpretations of a scripted feed-line, one more ‘obvious’ than the other. The listener is led down the garden path, following the deliberately laid trap, before the punchline reveals the unexpected, ‘true’ meaning.

Take the following joke, for instance:

‘So, I bought some animal crackers, and the box said:
“Do not consume if the seal is broken”. . . ’

(attrib. Brian Kiley).

Here, the listener is primed to interpret the word “seal” in terms of the intact packaging containing the foodstuff. The punchline doesn’t seem to work: it seems to be a rather banal repetition of the standard wording commonly found on packaged goods, and is not particularly amusing. This makes the listener engage in a rapid form of problem-solving, in order to rewind the joke and reinterpret its components. Only then do they realise that they need to take the word ‘seal’ in another sense (the seal-shaped biscuit), and this provides the amusing pay-off moment – the sudden switch to an alternative (even if slightly nonsensical) meaning.

Exactly the same mechanism is at work in the cryptic crossword. The solver is sucked into a readily available, but false reading of the clue based on some sort of linguistic ambiguity. This approach leads initially to nagging puzzlement, which is only resolved when alternative explanations are explored. As with jokes, this results in a satisfying ‘pay-off’, leading to surprise, laughter and the delight of the Penny Drop Moment.

What does this mean for crossword setting?

The linguists talk about this moment in terms of ‘incongruity resolution‘; but here in psychology we talk about ‘representational change‘, as the solver is suddenly forced to reappraise their whole understanding of how the clue works. The setter can maximise this ‘representational change’ by using ambiguous phonetic, syntactic or semantic forms (for example a noun masquerading as a verb), whimsical definitions and misleading surface readings to send the solver initially off along completely the wrong path.

  • A wicked thing? (6)

So misdirection is a key ingredient in setting cryptic crossword clues that really pack a punch. We have already noted elsewhere that solving a clue to a puzzle can trigger a highly rewarding ‘Aha!’ (or ‘Eureka!’) insight moment, which releases dopamine into the brain. (Indeed some researchers have suggested that this makes cryptic crosswords ‘better than sex‘!). Added to this, studies of jokes and humour have found that laughter is associated with the release of endorphins, creating a sense of well-being, pleasure and satisfaction. From this, it follows that the more the setter can blind-side the unwary solver, the more effective, rewarding and popular their clues will be.

If you’ve enjoyed learning more about cryptic crosswords in this blog article (and any of the other articles we have written before – see links below) please give us some feedback by taking part in this brief survey. Your replies will be really helpful in helping to establish the impact of our research for a Government-led academic review – and it should only take 10 minutes. Many thanks!


Links to other blogs on cryptic crosswords:

Link to our survey here

Answers to the clues:

Heard no sound from the stable? (5) – NEIGH (Heard = homophone indicator; no = ‘NAY’; sound from the stable = definition)

Yorkshire beauty queen, we hear, pulls the wool over one’s eyes (8) – MISLEADS (sounds like ‘MISS LEEDS’)

Discovered why electrical equipment was dangerous? (9) – UNEARTHED (double sense of discovered/electrical wiring) – from this blog

Frightened to death? (6,5) – SCARED STIFF (punning reference to “STIFF” = “corpse”) – from this article

A wicked thing? (6) CANDLE. The clue relies on the two different homographic senses of the word “wicked.” Difficulty is heightened by the distinctly different pronunciation (/wik’id/; /wikt/) and by the non-prototypical sense of “wicked” which is required (= “possessing a wick”)


* Underwood, G., MacKeith, J., & Everatt, J. (1988). Individual Differences in Reading Skill and Lexical Memory: The Case of the Crossword Puzzle Expert. In Practical Aspects of Memory: Current Research and Issues 2. (pp. 301–308).

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