Dictionaries and thesauri


Word reference tools are a valuable resource to help you develop your solving skills. You can check word meanings that you are not sure of in a dictionary and find synonyms in a thesaurus for wordplay substitutions and the answers to clues.

Some dictionaries are available for free online and provide lists of synonyms for words as wells as their meanings.

This article explains how to use word reference tools when solving and how to choose from the tools available.

Using word reference tools when solving

Checking word meanings
It's possible to deduce the answer to a cryptic clue from the wordplay alone, even though the answer is a word or phrase that you are not familiar with.

When this happens, you can check that your answer is right by looking the entry up in a dictionary — essentially a list of words in alphabetical order with precise definitions of the word meanings based on how they are used.

Here's an example from my own solving experience:

  10 Across. Group of stars interrupted by a bad tempered woman (6)

  Everyman crossword, 3473

I had solved most of this puzzle, and knew the answer to this clue needed to be _I_A_O. The wordplay looked like it was going to be a sandwich of the name of a constellation around the letter A, which led me to VIR–A–GO as a possibility. I didn't know if virago was a word, let alone what it might mean, so I looked it up in a dictionary to make sure.

Finding synonyms
You often have to find synonyms for words given in the clue to form part of the answer. This is generally the case with charade and sandwich clue structures, which are very common, and also deletions and reversals.

Often the substitution required is not one that readily springs to mind, and so it is useful to look possible synonyms up. This can be done using a Thesaurus or an online dictionary that has a synonym facility.

Here's an example, again from my own solving experience:

  25 Across. Pole maiden has to carry at the front (5)

  Everyman crossword, 3388

I needed to solve this one cold, but it looked like a straightforward charade of 'carry' + M (maiden), with 'at the front' indicating the order of the ingredients. The only four letter synonyms of carry I could think of were 'bear' and 'port', so I looked it up in a Thesaurus and found 'tote'. Answer: TOTEM.

Exploring words
Solving cryptic puzzles is going to stimulate your interest in words in general, and a dictionary is a valuable research companion for this. As well as listing the meanings of words, dictionaries provide supporting information on part of speech, pronunciation, inflexions, origin and usage.

Choosing word reference tools

Dictionaries and Thesauri are published as printed books and are also available on line. For many people, the print format provides a nicer user experience but there is a lot to be said for the flexibility of online reference tools and the fact that they are regularly updated.

Printed dictionaries
Printed dictionaries come in different sizes, and this depends on the number of entries they include (words, compound terms and phrases), and the scope of supporting information for each entry.

For example:

 Dictionary  Size
 Pocket OED (Oxford English Dictionary)   120k+ words phrases and definitions 
 Compact OED (Oxford English Dictionary)   150k + words phrases and definitions 
 New ODE (Oxford Dictionary of English)  335k words phrases and definitions

Either of the two smaller sizes would suffice for the easier cryptic puzzles, but you would need the larger one for the daily puzzles in the UK 'Quality Press'. Here is a clue to illustrate this:

  30 Across. It won't work in dry places, unfortunately (9) CLEPSYDRA

  Guardian Cryptic Crossword No 25926

  (This clue is an All-in-one anagram of 'dry places').

Clepsydra isn't in the Pocket or Compact versions of the OED, but is in the New ODE.

Online dictionaries
Nowadays, many dictionaries are available online and provide access free of charge. All of the following sites provide dictionaries that are sufficiently comprehensive for standard cryptic crosswords:

OneLook Dictionary Search will list all the online dictionary entries it finds for a word you enter.

WordWeb is an application that provides a dictionary and thesaurus, and can be downloaded for free. WordWeb Pro offers additional functionality, including a word finder, and is available in a range of costed options.