South Africanising the English Cryptic Crossword

South Africanising the English Cryptic Crossword

George Euvrard

George Euvrard majored in African Languages, has a D.Litt et Phil in Psychology, is a qualified psychotherapist and professor of Education, and was previously Dean of Education at Rhodes University. His research interests are widespread, ranging from pilgrimage learning to cryptic crosswords. E-mail:

Ensovoort volume 37(2017), number 10:1


Every major English language newspaper in South Africa carries a cryptic crossword, and these are enjoyed by thousands of people across the country. But all these crosswords come from major newspapers in England – the Times, the Telegraph, the Guardian, the Daily Mail, etc. – and concomitantly every one, by and large, assumes a London-Etonian-Conservative-chauvinist-colonial-centric approach and world-view. In this article I explore the possibility of South Africanising the traditional English cryptic crossword in terms of language, history, geography, culture etc. drawing on my experiences of compiling and publishing what is probably the first South Africanised cryptic crosswords in the classic genre.


South-Africanising, decolonisation, cryptic crossword, English, African languages, culture

South Africanising the English Cryptic Crossword


There are many ways in which one can approach the field of Africanisation, decolonisation, and indigenous knowledge. Over fifty years ago Kwame Nkrumah called our attention to these concepts in his work Philosophy and Ideology for Decolonization (1964, republished 1970) and of late there has been a resurgence of interest. The South African Journal of Philosophy recently dedicated a special issue to this matter (Etieyibo, 2016), and political scientists and sociologists have also been giving it their attention (Sooryamoorthy, 2016). As a psychotherapist I shall position this article in a fairly simple psychological frame, and then go on to explain how the cryptic crossword in South Africa is involved.

A central aspect of psychological, spiritual and existential health is a deep, felt understanding and valuing of one’s identity, and a sense of belongingness to that (Maslow, 2011). Knowing myself, trusting myself, feeling good about myself is all part of becoming myself, and is key to my individual well-being and growth. Psychologists and therapists speak of growing into your potential, of embracing your destiny, of being the person you were meant to be. For humanists this means discovering and being your true self (Rogers, 1995), for Jungians it is the process of individuation (Jung, 2011), and for existentialists it is about living authentically (Yalom, 1980).

Finding this core sense of oneself is a struggle, because so much of life conspires against this happening. From the moment I am born, the world attempts to mould me according to its vision of who and why I am, how I should view and understand the world, and what I ought to believe and to be. It is really difficult to develop my own perspective and to trust my own evaluation when I am constantly – blatantly and subtly – being pushed and pulled into seeing the world and life through others’ eyes and making sense of it according to their standpoint.

If this is true of us as human individuals, it is probably also true of us as human communities, and human nations. How can we gain a sense of who we are and what we believe, and develop a deep trust in this, when we constantly look at the world, at life, and indeed at ourselves, through others’ – often strangers’ – eyes and ears? It is in response to this situation that Mhlambi (2016) introspects on behalf of all of us and asks: Wena ungubani? Exactly who am I – a product of my own birth and upbringing, or a manifestation of something imposed from outside?

It is often argued that if we as individuals, as a community, as a nation, are to be our true selves, if we are to live authentically and meaningfully, if we are to trust ourselves and flourish with a secure sense of belongingness, we need to look at the world from where we stand, to trust our own experience of it, and to develop our own meaning from it. If we are to embrace and live out our Africanism, we need to move away from the colonial notion that the most appropriate and legitimate way of viewing the world, discussing the world, exploring the world, and understanding the world is from the dominant power’s particular vantage point (Gwekerere, 2014). In many parts of our daily living we are tempted to believe that this vantage point is geographically, philosophically, epistemologically and even linguistically, located in the northern hemisphere, usually in Europe. We need to be reminded that we too have a vantage point that counts, and knowledge that is both indigenous to this place and universally valid.

People are speaking and writing about this in a range of different ways, at conferences, in in journals, and in the public arena. In this article I explore the role of the English cryptic crossword in relation to these matters.

The English/British cryptic crossword in South Africa

Every major English language newspaper in South Africa carries a cryptic crossword which is popular amongst many readers. But all (with one exception) of these crosswords are syndicated from major newspapers in England – the Times, the Telegraph, the Guardian, the Daily Mail – and every one, by and large, assumes a London-Etonian-Conservative-chauvinist-colonial-centric approach and world-view. To do the crossword in my daily/weekly South African newspaper, I need to give up my own lived experience of the world and life, and take on that of another person in another culture in another country. And yes, it may be in English which I understand, but a language is bound to a context and a culture, and this English is not always the language I inhabit here in South Africa.

What is a cryptic crossword?

A crossword consists of a grid of squares which needs to be filled in with words. The words intersect (cross each other) and share the intersecting letters. For each word there is a clue. The clue guides you to the word or words to be put into the grid.

The cryptic clue normally consists of two parts: a definition (at the beginning or the end of the clue), and a word-play that guides you to the same answer (MacNutt, 2001). There should be one and only one possible answer. However, the fun and challenge of cryptic crosswords is that the clue usually says what it means but doesn’t mean what it says. You need to look beyond the surface meaning in order to find the answer. The real meaning is hidden, hence it is called a ‘cryptic’ crossword.

Here are four examples:

* Garden implement found in Windhoek (3)

Explanation: If you look in the word Windhoek (the word, not the place) you will find HOE which is a garden implement.

We shall complete good show (4,4)

Explanation: we shall can be written as we’ll, complete also means done, which gives WELL DONE which is a way of saying ‘Good show!’

Hope, except confused (6)

Explanation: except confused means that the word except is jumbled, to give you EXPECT which means hope.

Not even duck survived flood in the end

Explanation: duck = O (as in scoring no runs in cricket) + surviveD flooD (signalled by in the end), gives ODD, which is not even.

Examples of British cryptic crossword clues

Here are some examples of the kind of British-centric cryptic crossword clues and answers that can appear in our South African newspapers: Best to use examples that have actually appeared in SA, if you can find them.

History and language

Ex-prime minister happy to put on weight (9) (The Guardian, 2001)

Explanation: happy = glad, and onto that put weight = stone (old British measure), which gives you GLADSTONE who is an ex-British prime minister


Lies spread-eagled on river enjoying it? (6) (The Daily Mail, 2014)

Explanation: lies spread-eagled i.e. anagram of lies = leis, + Ure (British river) gives LEISURE, which is what you might be enjoying if in that position.


Painting left artist with sex appeal (8) (The Telegraph, 2012)

Explanation: left = port, artist = R.A. (member of the Royal Academy in Britain), and

sex appeal = IT (British idiom), giving you PORTRAIT which is a painting


Sheep on the motorway – into it goes one woman (6) (The Telegraph, 2007)

Explanation: sheep = ram, on (i.e. after) motorway = M1 (British road), into which you

put one = 1, giving you MIRIAM who is a woman


More than one tea dance (6) (The Times, 2014)

Explanation: tea = cha (British slang), so more than one tea = CHACHA which is a dance

Oral literature

Difficult situation, temporarily, for ten thousand men (6) (The Times, 2011)

Explanation: To solve this, you need to know the British nursery rhyme that goes:

Oh, the grand old Duke of York,

He had ten thousand men;

He marched them up to the top of the hill,

And he marched them down again.

And when they were up, they were up,

And when they were down, they were down,

And when they were only half-way up,

They were neither up nor down

From this you are meant to work out that the answer is indeed UPHILL!

The challenges, questions and dilemmas

Cryptic crosswords didn’t exist in Africa before colonisation. The first crossword appeared in the New York World newspaper in America in 1913 (Balfour, 2004). It was a very simple grid of small squares called a Word Cross. The phenomenon only took off in the 1920s, though, when Simon and Schuster published the first Crossword Puzzle Book which became a best-seller in both America and Britain. Within five years, all British papers published a daily crossword, and since then the cryptic crossword has developed a quintessentially British character (Moorey, 2008).

So what does ‘South Africanise the English cryptic crossword’ mean in this context? Cornwell (2006, p. 120) makes a simple but profound suggestion: “What is at stake in Africanisation is what Ngugi (1993) has called ‘moving the centre’: replacing Eurocentrism with Afrocentrism”.

If we apply this to the cryptic crossword, at least three questions arise. Firstly, can we indeed ‘move the centre’ from British-centrism to South Afrocentrism with respect to the classic cryptic crossword?

In their article Challenging the hegemony of English in African education and literature: The case of Zimbabwe, Charamba & Mutasa (2014) reflect on Mazrui’s (1978, p. 35) question “To what extent is it possible to import Western technical and technological skills without at the same time importing also such aspects of the Western way of life as are relevant and necessary for the use of such skills?” We are posing a similar question here: To what extent can we import/replicate the classic British cryptic crossword without at the same time importing/promoting a British-centric way of thinking about them and solving them?

But the very history of the development of the classic cryptic crossword suggests that it can be done. The British have successfully taken an American creation and turned it into their own. The cryptic crossword, epitomized by The Times Crossword, was recently nominated in a UK poll to select icons of Britain, alongside other much-loved features such as Rolls Royce, Sherlock Holmes and the Oxford English Dictionary (Moorey, 2008).

Secondly, even if a South Afrocentric move is possible, how is it to happen? And thirdly, would it work i.e. would it appeal to existing and potential cruciverbalists (crossword solvers and compilers)?

South Africanised cryptic crossword clues

In an attempt to explore these questions, I have been exploring what a South Africanised cryptic crossword could look like. Over the past couple of years I have compiled over 75 cryptic crosswords which have been published in the historical local Grahamstown Grocott’s Mail. I have excluded any British-centric references in my clues, choosing instead to adopt a uniquely South African perspective. Here are a range of examples:

People and history

Tutu finds himself in some confusion (7)

Explanation: Tutu = the arch, is inside some/any, giving ANARCHY which is confusion


Joint leaders of East London give a curtsy (5)

Explanation: leaders of East London = EL, plus curtsy = bow, gives ELBOW which is a joint


Stage captured in visual, like Princess Magogo, for example (8)

Explanation: stage = era, within visual = optic, which gives OPERATIC which is like the South African production of Princess Magogo.


Typical! A B.A. shuttle-jet includes a holder for amasi (8)

Explanation: The answer is found/included in typiCAL A BA SHuttle, giving CALABASH, which holds amasi.

These were all South Afrocentric in the clue, but not the answer. Here are some which are South Afrocentric in the answer:


Catch return or one- way to city (8)

Explanation: catch = bag return i.e. gab + or + one is the way to get GABORONE which is a city.


Ham and lamb hold the power (7)

Explanation: The answer is held in hAM AND LAmb i.e. AMANDLA which means power.

People and History

Leader has straggly chin hairs (5,4)

Explanation: straggly indicates mixed up (anagram) of chin hairs, giving CHRIS HANI who was a South African leader

And here are examples of a South Afrocentric perspective in both clue and answer:

Pot a horse in the outskirts of Dutywa (5)

Explanation: a horse = A GG (gee-gee is child’s term for a horse), inside D and A (outskirts of Duywa) = DAGGA, which is pot

Put coffee in empty pack and edge your way up Table Mountain

Explanation: Put coffee (latte) in empty pack (pack) i.e. p (latte) k + edge/lip, giving = PLATTEKLIP which is your way up Table Mountain

Greetings South Africa! Wake up before our National Anthem starts (8)

Explanation: South Africa = SA, + Wake Up Before Our National Anthem i.e. starts of these words, giving SAWUBONA which is a form of greeting.

Further questions

At least two more important questions arise from this approach. Firstly, how far can South Africa’s multilingualism be explored and incorporated into the cryptic crossword? What knowledge of South African languages can reasonably be expected of solvers?

On the one hand, I would argue that a clue like the following is reasonable in today’s South Africa:

Kierie for wild kudu- to chase home

Explanation: wild kudu indicates an anagram of kudu = duku, to chase (to come after) home = in, giving INDUKU which is a kierie

kierie, kudu and induku can all be found in the Dictionary of South African English (online at and are commonly used in many local contexts.

But what about this clue:

Bitter old craft surfaces twice (6) [down clue]

Explanation: old craft = ark, surfaces (i.e. goes up = backwards because this is a down clue) twice gives KRAKRA which means bitter.

While I think ‘krakra’ is one of the most onomatopoeic and expressive words in South Africa, it isn’t in the Dictionary of South African English and is relatively unknown by non-isiXhosa speakers. Is it reasonable to include such a word?

On the other hand, how far can one push transformation, in both a national and universal sense?

I was explaining to my sons about not using RE (Royal Engineer), OR (Other Ranks), and GI (General Infantryman) as shortened forms for soldiers, as done in British crosswords, and they said, “Dad, if you think that is all you need to do, aren’t you missing the real point of your project? It is not just about what you use to denote soldier; it is why you need to use soldier at all?” Their point was that the British crosswords are full of soldiers because the classic compilers came out of a World War II context. Their worlds were still full of soldiers and war. In this day and age do we not need to be nurturing a different kind of global discourse that focuses on more constructive, more enlightened, more transformative concepts and culture?

In April 1994 the Guardian newspaper in London set a special crossword puzzle to mark the occasion of South Africa’s first democratic elections. It was ‘A tribute on election day to the fighters for democracy, especially martyrs such a 6A, 16A and 3D’ (Balfour 2004, p. 74). 6A, 16A and 3D were Ruth First, Steve Biko and Chris Hani, all great leaders who died in the course of the struggle for national liberation. When asked why he did it, the compiler said with great conviction, “These were people I thought Guardian readers should know” (Balfour 2004, 74).

Do crossword compilers have a moral responsibility to self-consciously nurture more transformative worldviews, beyond merely providing solvers with intellectual stimulation? Yes, I think we do. I would argue that every South African should know words like sawubona, amandla, afslag, (krakra?) no matter which language they speak at home. These are linguistic and cultural bonds that give us common understandings and unite us as a nation. By bringing Albertina Sisulu into the crossword rather than Horatio Nelson, I am legitimizing our South African identity and heritage, our heroes, our shared history. I am also emphasizing that African blacks matter, that women count. Let us never underestimate the degree to which we take our cues about what matters unconsciously from the things that we see and hear daily. For some people, crosswords are part of their daily lives.

In closing …

I have attempted to argue that even in the genre of the traditionally British-centric cryptic crossword, it is possible to ‘move the centre’; that we can replace Eurocentrism with South Afrocentrism. I also believe that this is not just a trendy socio-political exercise, but that such an action can be part of a larger project to transform our personal and national lives.


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