Cryptic Crossword answer explanation

Having always being fascinated by cryptic crosswords, and having a passing acquaintance with the rules of same, I finally tried to solve one on a (delayed) flight home recently. I managed to get about two-thirds of the puzzle solved (I guess it must have been an easy one), but there’s one clue in particular that, having looked up the answer, I can’t make head or tail of:

The clue is: “Colour a green sign about stumbling block (7,4)”
The answer, provided on the magazine’s website without explanation, is:PEACOCK BLUE
I’m extremely confused about why this is the answer. Can someone who’s wiser in the ways of cryptic crosswords help me out?

Best I can think of is that Peacock Blue is a greenish blue colour and that feeling blue is a sort of a block.

Or summink

“a green” is PEA
“sign” is CUE
“stumbling block” is OCKBL

“Colour” = clue to the meaning of the final answer

“a green sign” = PEA CUE (“pea” meaning the color, “cue” = sign)

“about” = the preceding term encloses or is wrapped around . . .

“stumbling block” = the letters B L O C K jumbled up, or “stumbling”


Thanks for reminding me why I stick to regular crosswords.

Heh, different strokes. This reminded me why I love cryptics and tend to be bored by regular crosswords.

Yeah. I don’t think I’ve ever solved a single cryptic clue by myself, and I have researched the rules for cluemaking and the sort of tricks involved. Cryptics drive me friggin insane. Gimme a New York Times or patternless puzzle any day.

Heh. But it’s worthing saying that the explanations above are not how people generally go about solving cryptic clues. What you do is look at the beginning and end of the clue for the definition part, so in this case the definition is going to be “colour”, “block”, or possibly “stumbling block”. Then you think of an answer that fits the definition, and see if the rest of the clue, the “wordplay”, confirms it.

There are shortcuts - in this case, the word “stumbling” is, to seasoned solvers, a giant flashing anagram indicator. You immediately think of jumbling the letters of “block”, and it also conveniently rules out two of the three likely definition/wordplay divisions. Likewise “about” is an extremely common container indicator.

Was this a British puzzle, or is there something about Peacock Blue that makes it British (“colour”)?

But I find this kind of “wordplay” – especially when you reveal that it is rather formulaic – precious and uninteresting. It seems a completely different skill than the general knowledge about words and facts skill tested by a crossword puzzle. At least that skill is reflective of day-to-day experience or knowledge about something rather than knowledge about a particular way of encoding.

Well, yeah, but you still have to have a pretty extensive vocabulary and general knowledge to solve the cryptics. For example, you’re not going to get the one in the OP unless you know that “Peacock blue” is a colour, and some of the “theme” cryptics require a fairly good knowledge of a particular subject matter.

It is a different skill, but not necessarily a “lower” or less useful one. The ability to see things from different angles, to break things down into smaller parts, to consider alternative interpretations of words and phrases, strikes me as being at least as potentially useful as remembering French prepositions, Asian rivers, and decades-ago Pulitzer Prize winners. One of the things that some people find appealing about cryptic crosswords is that they don’t rely on esoteric knowledge, but on mental flexibility and “trickery.”

Cryptic crosswords, like standard crosswords and many other things, become easier the more practice and experience you have.

It’s not supposed to be a useful skill, anyway. The puzzles are supposed to fun. If you find them pointless, that’s OK. But for me, a clue like

Colour (7, 4)

is less interesting (not to mention harder) than

Colour a green sign about stumbling block (7,4)
Solving the former is a mere guessing game. Even if you guessed right, how would you know?

I like both kinds of puzzles. In fact, I prefer to solve them alternately. A tough New York times puzzle one day, a good cryptic the next. I find the thought process used to solve them is a little bit different, so it feels like I’m exercising a slightly different part of my brain.


“Useful” wasn’t my word. I said “precious and uninteresting.”

I don’t like either. Leave out the (7, 4). That’s only there because the textual clue itself is marginal.

How about something more along the lines of “Proud Subcontinental feathered friend’s hue”? That makes the clue about the word, its meaning, its connotations, the folklore of the animal, etc.

Whereas, “a green sign about stumbling block” is merely about shuffling letters around and not about the actual solution itself.

Well, it would fit into the puzzle, and if you’ve solved some other clues, they would cross correctly. Which brings me to another complaint about these sorts of crossword puzzles – very often, they either have too many or too few “black” boxes. Either there aren’t enough “crosses” or else everything crosses in the same way.

The New Yorker ran cryptics for a while, and there is a book out of them. Try those - they are smaller and easier than even the ones that run in the Times. I used them to train my daughter.

Avoid British cryptics, like the ones that run in the Financial Times unless you are very up on British culture. (sorry, the names of rugby teams are not on the tip of my tongue.) A friend of mine from New Zealand, much smarter than me, had trouble with them also. If I get them half solved I’m doing well, while I can do American cryptics, even variety ones, fairly quickly.

That’s a feature, not a bug. It makes you solve every clue. I can do the Monday and Tuesday NY Times puzzles looking at the across clues and only a small percentage of downs. Faster, but maybe I miss an amusing clue. Cryptics make you fight for every square.

Every word puzzle has its good points - I like them all.

Actually, the “7,4” is a standard part of a cryptic clue. It’s there as an aid to solving. I suppose leaving it out would be akin to a gridless crossword where you have to figure out where the black squares go as well as solve the clues (ugh, hate those things).

Blah. Boring. This is just the sort of clue that makes me avoid regular crosswords. It just coming up with synonyms, answering definitions. I don’t enjoy word searches for the same reason; it’s just “busywork.”

But it is about the solution. For us cryptic-crossword lovers, we enjoy the twisty logic, trying to figure out which words are clues, which are synonyms of the answer, and which are pieces to be taken apart.

I realize that cryptics are not for everyone. I’m a wordplay geek, and some things that tickle me just make Mr. S roll his eyes. I used to do cryptics all the time, but sadly I just don’t have the time for them anymore.

Canadian, actually. It was in this month’s issue of The Walrus.

Thanks for the help, everyone. I’m a big fan of conventional crossword puzzles too, but I’ve always been fascinated by cryptics; I’ll have to see if I can track down the book of New Yorker cryptics that Voyager mentioned.

Part of my fascination with cryptics stems from the monthly Puzzler that used to run in the Atlantic Monthly. Usually this would involve some particularly daunting special theme, like not knowing where the words would start or end, or having spiral or circular grids, so I never actually attempted one of those.

I believe this is it, and that this same book got bound together with several others to make this volume.

Now those were difficult!

I can usually handle the variety crptic in Games magazine, though, and I end up feeling both proud of myself and in awe of the cleverness of the constructor.