Cracking Psychology: Understanding the appeal of cryptic crosswords #2 – Rebus-type clues (‘Say what you see’)

In this second part of a series unpacking the psychology behind cryptic crossword solving, Kathryn Friedlander explores the connection between cryptic clues and the ‘rebus’ or ‘word-picture’ puzzle form.

In the first part of this series, we explored clues which use punning misdirection to entrap and entertain the solver. Here we are going to take a look at clues which slice, dice and recombine components of the wordplay to arrive at the solution. By this we mean clues such as reversals, substitutions, deletions, hidden words, containers, acrostics or charades, in which the elements of the clue are decontextualised from the surface reading, either abandoning meaning altogether, or taking on a new meaning of their own.

‘Say what you see!’

One clue type of this nature is the ‘charade’ clue: a type of riddle where the answer is made up of a number of words strung together. Of course, in cryptics we no longer need to follow strict dictionary rules: for instance the word ‘discourage‘ would be segmented linguistically as ‘dis-courage‘, but in a cryptic crossword might be clued as ‘Di (girl’s name) + scour + age‘.

  • Somewhat swollen condition of female diving bird? (9) – Times 24451, Feb 3rd 2010
  • Oinking tendency? (8) – (Aarons, 2015)

[Answers to all puzzles can be found at the foot of the page.]

The trick for solving these clues is to ‘say what you see’: to sound or write out the separate components together, no matter how impossibly unrelated they may initially appear to be. ‘Say what you see‘ was also the tag line used by the host Roy Walker in the British TV programme “Catchphrase”, which was based upon the solving of pictorially displayed rebus-type puzzles (such as the image of Mr Chips in the left panel).

Straight-forward rebus puzzles: visual, spatial, verbal, or numerical cues

Other types of rebus puzzles rely on the literal or quirky manipulation of words or word fragments to suggest common phrases. They often play on features of the words such as the spatial layout in relation to each other; typographical trends such as growing or shrinking letter size, font size or colour and the use of letters as words. These can be straightforward challenges such as the three puzzles featured below:

Interestingly, all of these devices could appear in a cryptic crossword, as part of routine wordplay fodder in clues such as:

  • Part of it ’it an iceberg (7) – (Moorey, 2009)
  • Spies bring silverware back (6) – (Aarons, 2015)
  • Pins, superfluous without a tip (7) – (Aarons, 2015)

“It’s good, but it’s not right!”

Other rebus puzzles have a lateral thinking aspect to them, which can be trickier to solve. As with cryptic crosswords, the solver has to relax the ingrained rules of reading in order to overcome their automatic understanding of word-form and contextual interpretation. So rebus puzzles such as these:

and cryptic crossword clues such as these:

  • Player with only one leg? (4) (Guardian Crossword No. 25351, by Tramp; 17 June 2011)
  • Must’ve? (5,7,2,3,3) (Guardian Crossword No. 25351, by Tramp; 17 June 2011
  • GEGS (9,4) – (A well-known but unattributed clue, see Aarons, 2015)
  • H,I,J,K,L,M,N,O (5) – (Another old chestnut of uncertain provenance, see Aarons, 2015)

will require the solver to restructure their understanding of the problem space, possibly after initially reaching a solving impasse. For this reason, both puzzle forms are likely to trigger the insight experience.

As is the case for jokes and punning cryptic crossword clues, the solver has to reappraise their whole understanding of how the clue works, exploring alternative explanations for the puzzle components in a process known as ‘representational change‘, The more abrupt, hard-won and unanticipated this sudden enlightenment is, the more powerful the exhilarating ‘Penny Drop Moment’ will be – so the task of the setter is to bamboozle the solver as much as possible, while continuing to write a ‘fair’ clue.

Of course, what is perceived a ‘fair clue’ is often down to the taste of the solver, with some claiming that rebus-type cryptic clues can occasionally go too far. Perhaps one of the most extreme crosswords to exploit the rebus theme was the memorable Listener crossword puzzle by Waterloo from 2005 ( #3829: OO! Spectacles?) in which every clue’s wordplay contained at least one example of reference to a letter or combination of letters by approximate visual resemblance – e.g.

  • “pylon” = A
  • “costermonger’s barrow” = TO
  • “parcel” = EEI
  • “knuckle-duster” (as a down clue) = BB


In his last published Listener puzzle, following his death in December 2019, Waterloo was still producing similarly quirky gimmicks. This final puzzle (Listener #4598 Xword ) involved some rebus-type symbolic substitutions, so that (for example) CARETAKER was entered as ^AKER, NEUROLOGIST as N€LOGIST and TICKETY-BOO as ✓ETYBOO. His innovative and entertaining style of clueing will be missed by many.

If you’ve enjoyed learning more about cryptic crosswords in this blog article, do dip into any of the other articles we have written before – see links below). You can also click on the ‘cryptic crossword’ category in the right hand panel of the home page.

Links to our other blogs on cryptic crosswords:

Answers to puzzles:

  • Somewhat swollen condition of female diving bird? (9) = PUFFINESS = “Somewhat swollen condition” . Wordplay = a quirky charade of PUFFIN + “-ESS” suffix, often indicative of a female in an animal species (e.g., “lioness”).
  • Oinking tendency? (8) – Aarons (2015) = PENCHANT (‘Pen chant’ – the pigs oinking in their pen)
  • Catchphrase image: EGG ON (HIS) FACE
  • Triple rebus panel: (a) SLICE/PIECE OF CAKE; STAY BACK; CUT/HALF PRICE
  • Part of it ’it an iceberg (7) = TITANIC Wordplay: substring(A+B+C+D) leading to a hidden word, indicated by the instruction “Part of.” The Titanic did indeed hit an iceberg, making this an “&Lit” (or “all-in-one”) clue: the clue as a whole functions as both the definition and the wordplay
  • Spies bring silverware back (6) = SNOOPS (reversal of SPOONS)
  • Pins, superfluous without a tip (7) = NEEDLES = ‘Needless’ without the final letter (the tip) – a truncation clue.
  • poPPd – ‘Two peas (‘P’s) in a pod
  • TIMING TIM ING – ‘Split second timing’
  • M CE /M CE /M CE – ‘Three blind mice’ (they have no ‘I’s = eyes)
  • Player with only one leg? (4) = IPOD, a type of music player. The clue works by comic analogy to “TRIPOD,” with the letter “I” standing in for the numeral “one.”
  • Must’ve? (5,7,2,3,3) = THINK OUTSIDE OF THE BOX. = MUSE [think] outside of TV [“the box”] – a rebus-like construction, also telling the solver what he must literally do to solve the clue. The punctuation is a highly distracting feature.
  • GEGS (9,4) = SCRAMBLED EGGS. There is no guidance in the clue: the solver must literally “say what they see.”
  • H,I,J,K,L,M,N,O (5) = WATER. Wordplay: “H to O”, if spoken aloud, sounds like H2O.

Image credits:

1 thought on “Cracking Psychology: Understanding the appeal of cryptic crosswords #2 – Rebus-type clues (‘Say what you see’)

  1. Pingback: Cracking Psychology: Understanding the appeal of cryptic crosswords #3 – Anagrams | CREATE Ψ

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