A Collection of Cracking Crossword Clues

Someone recently asked me about my favorite crossword clue, and after mentioning four or five off the top of my head, I cut myself off and tried to explain that it’s impossible for me to pick one.

So many clues are out there that surprised me, or outwitted me, or made me laugh, or made me think in an unexpected way. I could never narrow it down..

Regular readers who have seen my reviews of various crossword tournament puzzles will recall I like to highlight favorite clues.

I actually keep track of clues from constructors as I solve various crosswords. Not only are they often witty, hilarious, and/or impressive, but they inspire me as a puzzler to always try to find entertaining, engaging new angles for these crucial crossword elements.

So today, I’d like to pull some favorites from my personal clue vault and give them some time in the spotlight.

(I’m crediting the constructor listed on the byline for each clue. These clues may have been created elsewhere and reused, created by the constructor, or changed by an editor, I have no way of knowing. So I’m just doing my best to give credit where credit is due.)


One of the most engaging aspects of crossword cluing is how constructors can accomplish so much with just a few words.

I love a good misdirection clue, because it not only has a straightforward meaning that sends you one way, but it has a true secondary meaning that usually only emerges once you’ve considered the clue for a bit.

The word ANTE lends itself to this sort of cluing — particularly given the meaning of “house” with regards to casinos and cards — and I think Janie Smulyan’s “House payments” clue was the best one I’ve seen in a while.

Similarly, Peter Gordon is a whiz at making a few words speak volumes, and his clue “Foot in ‘the door'” made my mind go in a few directions before you finally land on IAMB.

Of course, it’s not just concise phrasing that lends itself to wordplay. Patti Varol led solvers down a delightful garden path with the clue “They may be called on account of rain,” which cleverly clues the answer CABS.

You can also use multiple examples to mislead solvers. Neville Fogarty accomplished this with the clue “Org. with Magic and Wizards,” which no doubt has people pondering Hogwarts or the Ministry of Magic before realizing the answer is NBA.

Patrick Berry offered another terrific example with the clue “Time or Money,” where the capitalization is the only hint to the true answer, MAG.

Another genre of cluing that doesn’t get enough love is trivia cluing. I love learning new things, and crosswords don’t just teach you peculiarities of language like variant spellings. They also teach you the names of European rivers, organizational abbreviations, and even silent film stars.

And when a clue offers some trivia I didn’t know, that’s just a solving bonus.

Aimee Lucido is very good at keeping her trivia clues topical, and she’s previously used “127 congresspeople, as of last month” for WOMEN. In a similar vein, she taught a little bit of gender history with the clue “All the students at Dartmouth, until 1972” for MEN.

Evan Birnholz offered some musical information with the clue “1986 #1 hit ‘On My Own,’ e.g., ironically,” slyly cluing the answer word DUET.

Paolo Pasco snuck this very peculiar nugget of information into one of his crosswords, explaining that “Coconut oil has one of 4.” This clue is almost impenetrable until you realize the answer is SPF. (Was this covered in an episode of Gilligan’s Island or Survivor or something?)


[Image courtesy of Collider.]

Howard Jones managed to incorporate both trivia and an act of misdirection with the clue “This might begin with E,” deftly making it hard to see the answer EYETEST.

Craig Mazan and Jeff Chan presented some movie trivia with the clue “Word cried 15 times in a row by Meg Ryan in ‘When Harry Met Sally...'” Anyone who has seen the film instantly recognizes the answer here: YES. But the thought of the constructors actually counting for this clue tickles me greatly.

As we pointed out above, multiple examples can really enhance a clue, and that counts in trivia clues as well. Peter Gordon played with capitalization with the clue “Santa Fe and Tucson, e.g.” for the answer SUV. Terrific misdirect here.

Bryan Betancur, meanwhile, drew a nice character parallel with the clue “Pixar hero or Verne antihero” for the answer NEMO.


[Image courtesy of Disney/Pixar.]

I know some crossword outlets aren’t fans of using clues that specifically reference each other — “With 21-Across, name of Charlie Chaplin film,” for instance — but other publishers are completely fine with this style of cluing.

And naturally, that allows constructors to have some fun making connections and using clues to reference each other.

Matt Gaffney had two clues that offered information on each other with the pairing “33-Across, in a lab” and “30-Across, on the kitchen table,” which clued NACL and SALT respectively.

Peter Gordon had a doozy of a clue in a themeless puzzle with HARRY ANGSTROM as an answer, where he tied that entry into a clue with a mathematical twist.

The clue “Film character whose last name is roughly 95 septillion times longer than 23-Across’s?” for BUZZ LIGHTYEAR is a stroke of genius. Having two characters with units of size/distance for names really works here, and the science/math nerd in me thoroughly enjoyed.

Finally, a trick I don’t see too often — but very much appreciate — is a clue that references ITSELF in order to play with the solver’s expectations.

Rebecca Falcon nailed this idea with her clue for 46-Across: “With 46-Across, comforting words.” The answer? THERE.

Gotta love it.

What are some of your favorite crossword clues, fellow puzzlers and PuzzleNationers? Let us know in the comments section below! We’d love to hear from you.

Thanks for visiting PuzzleNation Blog today! Be sure to sign up for our newsletter to stay up-to-date on everything PuzzleNation!

You can also share your pictures with us on Instagram, friend us on Facebook, check us out on TwitterPinterest, and Tumblr, and explore the always-expanding library of PuzzleNation apps and games on our website!

Putting Clever Cluing to the Test?


As a puzzler, there are few article titles that serve as more efficient clickbait than “6 CHALLENGING CROSSWORD PUZZLE CLUES THAT WILL LEAVE YOU CLUELESS,” so when I saw that title, fellow puzzlers, you know I clicked.

This article by the crew at Wealth Words claims to offer “the trickiest clues that have ever existed.” That is quite a bold statement. Shall we try our luck and see how we do?

Now, before we start, it’s worth noting that we’re at a huge disadvantage here, because any clue, easy or tough, can be made easier if you know some of the letters in the word thanks to words in the grid you’ve already placed that cross this particular entry. We don’t have any of those helper letters, so we’re going to have to rely solely on our sharp wits, wordplay skills, and love of punnery.

Okay, let’s get to it.

Clue #1: Leaning column? (9 letters)

Most crossword fans know that a question mark virtually always means there’s wordplay afoot, so you know you can’t take this clue at face value, which means anything relating to Pisa is probably out. If you focus on “leaning,” that could take you anywhere from Jenga to drunkenness, so let’s play with “column.” Other columns appear in graphs, Excel files, and newspapers.

A-ha. Newspaper column. And some of those “lean” to either the left or the right, depending on the author. This train of thought leads us to the intended answer OPED PIECE.

Grade: A- (It’s a solid clue where the answer doesn’t necessarily immediately jump out at you, but makes total sense once you’ve puzzled it out.)

Clue #2: Strips in a club (5 letters)

[Now, to be fair, “club” was capitalized in the clue on the webpage, but I felt like that was misleading, so I fixed it here. After all, capitalization can be used to great effect in crafty cluing — particularly if you conceal the capital word by making it the first word in the clue, which is always capitalized regardless — but here, it becomes an unnecessary red herring.]

This one is slightly harder, because you don’t immediately get the hint that there’s wordplay involved, since there’s no question mark.

This is one of my favorite kinds of clever cluing, the sort where our preconceived notions of word forms works against us. (Also, it sounds naughty, but isn’t, which I also quite enjoy.) At first glance here, the phrasing makes it sound like “strips” is a verb, when it’s really a plural noun.

And once you get into that mindset, you realize that we’re not talking about that kind of club, and the intended answer emerges: BACON.

Grade: A (Misdirection plus a tongue-in-cheek bit of lewdness? Great stuff.)

Clue #3: Group of crows (6 letters)

I have no idea how this one made it onto the list. Anyone who knows their animal groupings knows that a group of crows is a MURDER. There’s no tricky cluing or misdirection here, just something that might not be in the common knowledge. (But again, I think people are more likely to come up with this one that “exaltation of larks,” “smack of jellyfish,” or “parliament of owls.”)

Grade: D- (Could be difficult for some solvers, but only for unfamiliarity, not style.)

Clue #4: “Yep, perfectly clear” (7 letters)

Okay, this one has quotations around it, which both means it’s a spoken line and it’s likely non-standard, so you won’t find it in a dictionary. It’s probably a phrase, and used in casual conversation.

The answer, as it turns out, is I HEAR YA, which I don’t think any solver would come up with unless they had a few crossing letters filled in for them. The slangy spelling of YA and the informal wording altogether pretty much precludes this from being a “see-it-and-get-it” sorta clue.

Grade: C

Clue #5: [Boo-Hoo] (5 letters)

Brackets are used less commonly than quotation marks or question marks in crossword clue, so it’s more likely that a casual solver wouldn’t immediately recognize what to do with this clue. Usually, brackets indicate this is a non-traditional clue, either making an oblique reference to something or indicating it’s a non-verbal clue like a cough.

In this case, this is meant to be the actual sound of someone crying or something of that nature. So it could be something informal like CRYIN’ or TEARS (as opposed to the more traditional “in tears”) or something like that.

As it turns out, they were looking for I’M SAD. Which is pretty blah. It’s not a standard phrase, and comes off as a cheaply constructed way out of a bad corner, not a solid bit of fill to keep the puzzle interesting.

Grade: F

Clue #6: They come in last (3 letters)

This clue is fairly tough, because it’s both vaguely worded and has a curious letter count. It’s plural phrasing (with “they”), so that immediately makes you want to tack an S onto the end of the word. But it’s also such a short entry that a two-letter word plus S doesn’t seem to fit the clue.

So what comes in last? “End” would fit, if not for the plural phrasing. “P.S.” comes in last, but “P.S.’S” is really clunky, and I don’t recall ever seeing that pluralized.

So what were they looking for? XYZ. Ah. Alphabet entries. You’ll usually see entries like this centering around the first three letters (ABC) or a random string (“RST” seems to come up more often than most), and XYZ certainly fits the bill. But, in the end, it’s not a real entry, and it feels a little cheap, despite the decent wordplay involved in the cluing.

Grade: C-

So, what did I think of the Wealth Words “6 CHALLENGING CROSSWORD PUZZLE CLUES THAT WILL LEAVE YOU CLUELESS” challenge?

I thought it started off very strong with two clever, slippery clues that required you to play with the words and come at them from several angles before stumbling upon the correct solution, and I quite enjoyed those clues.

But the quiz took a real nose dive in quality starting with Clue #3, which had no wordplay at all. #4 and #5 relied heavily on being slangy non-standard verbiage rather than adept cluing or creative fill, and #6 was a bit of a cop-out, even if the cluing quality rebounded nicely.

All in all, I thought the specious entries outweighed the clever cluing on display early on, making for an underwhelming set of clues.

Final grade: C+.

What did you think of these group of challenging clues, fellow puzzlers and PuzzleNationers? Did you enjoy them or find them wanting? Let us know in the comment section below, we’d love to hear from you!

Thanks for visiting PuzzleNation Blog today! Be sure to sign up for our newsletter to stay up-to-date on everything PuzzleNation!

You can also share your pictures with us on Instagram, friend us on Facebook, check us out on TwitterPinterest, and Tumblr, and explore the always-expanding library of PuzzleNation apps and games on our website!