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Diabolically Arcane

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Crosswords emerged 100 years ago. Cluetopia is one mad time-trip from jails to jungles, in search of the best crossword stories.


3 March, 2015

Humans seems rusted onto the QWERTY keyboard, despite the Dvorak alternative. If you don't know the story, August Dvorak was an American psychologist who wangled his own typewriter keys in the the 1940s. Only to strike the brickwall of old habits.

Still, there's life in his rejigged alphabet yet. Well, its middle row at least, which assemble the very handy ten of AOEUIDHTNS, the building blocks of our Brainstorm words this week.

No repeats, but feel free to manipulate AOEUIDHTNS any which way - then clue the result. TEDIOUS? DUTIES? HESTON? THE US? Here's an opener or two:

HIDE - Leather veil

EDISON - He made light about team being wired? 

HIDEOUTS - Shirt worn by vile lairs

Marching Orders [BB500]

2 March, 2015

A little late, this 500th Birdbrain. (They should sack the puzzler in charge of this website.) And let's keep with that dismissive mindset to reveal the varied sackings that take place below. 

If a sacked model is de-posed, or a dismissed cashier dis-tilled, can you deduce what other de- and dis-puns apply to these ousted professionals? (Alternative oustings are possible. Can you create more doomed careerists?)

1. Electrician 

2. Banker

3. Vintner

4. Politician

5. Barber

6. Journo

7. Teacher

8. Lawyer


BB499 SOLUTION: Cantaloupe, sarcophagi, garlic clove, soundtrack, misbegotten, smokestack, submit, combat, martini, body lice

WoW: Piblokto

2 March, 2015

PIBLOKTO - severe disassociative episode caused by isolation or depression [From Inuktun language, literally 'has hysteria'] Extended darkness and bitter cold are common piblokto triggers among the Inuit people

Shifty Maids of May

27 February, 2015

For a change of pace, let's rewire the titles of books and films into rhyme. Die Hard, for example, could evolve into My Card: How I Came To Lose a MYKI and Wear a $85 Fine. Or being more ambitious, we also have:

The Infernal Pun-Line of a Plotless Kind - fatal Dad jokes from an improv comedian

Dig Zero Tricks - how kids savaged the hired magician at a bar mitzvah

The Younger Flames - adolescent lovers jailed for too much tonsil hockey

Creepy Follow - an unwanted admirer on Twitter

Don't worry about ID-ing your film. (That's part of the fun, as a reader-cum-solver.) Feel free to rhyme the shorter stuff (turning Red Dog into Dead Frog) or dare to dream on the extended titles, where all key words are converted.


24 February, 2015

After so many elongated words - like satyagraha and pangram clues - let's downsize to ding and dong and other onomatopoeia. We have open slather, from bang to zap, from clip-clop to hiphop, from boom to vroom. 

Here's a list that may warm your engines, but feel free to snaffle your sizzle. So long as the word is a sound effect, it's sound. (And if you want to be extra-creative, you can also grab extended words or phrases that include a sound-word: SWAT team, crackpot and Bo Peep, say.)

Both wordplay and definition are required, making the challenge a little stiffer, since grrr, meow and ribbit can be ticklish to define, let alone camouflage. The best of the week's cacophony will warrant the roar of the crowd. To kick off:

MURMUR - Rumour redoubled spirit in return

BLAST - Carpeting becomes second-grade, expose to weather

SIR TOBY BELCH - Bard's boozer dissolved into hysteric blob

Have a hoot with this.

WoW: Satyagraha

23 February, 2015

SATYAGRAHA [SORT-yor-GRAR-ha] - passive resistance, especially as a protest action [Hindi via Sanskrit, literally: insistence on truth, from satya truth + agraha fervour] Mahatma Gandhi made an art form of satyagraha

Playing Dress-Ups [BB499]

22 February, 2015

Clothe the clusters below, and you’ll make nine common words or phrases. Of course, by clothe, I mean clad each cluster in the right garment to render a familiar verbal ensemble.

For example, (AGU) can squeeze inside VEST to make V(AGU)EST, while (RE/OF) needs a SCARF to make SCARE OFF.



3. (ARLIC/C)


5. (SBEGO)

6. (KESTA)

7. (BM)

8. (MB)

9. (ART)

10. (Y/L)


BB498 SOLUTION: Battery, bedroom, blister, channel, comfort, diamond, fortune, forward, whistle. (Other words could suit.)


17 February, 2015

Can we do it? Can we weave the entire alphabet into a single clue (and its answer), with the entity still somehow making sense, and somehow seeming to maintain that slinky, precise nature of the cryptic clue?

I have my doubts, but I'm prepared to take the plunge. Perhaps if we choose an answer like JOAQUIN PHOENIX, we're halfway there. Or take a shine to the Mexican hairless, aka the XOLOITZCUINTLI.

Then again, the braver soul may find an alphabetical way to clue a less loaded solution. Either approach can earn the inaugural PanGrammy.

Of course, feel free to share your near misses, as these can be as noble as the holy grail itself. To kick off the bidding:

Showy bird left weaving round jacket for Mexico's Feathered Serpent = QUETZALCOATL [26]

Jack the Ripper's foggy zone quivered with each ring area's bum removed = WHITECHAPEL [25 - no X]

WoW: Kakorrhaphiophobia

16 February, 2015

Kakorrhaphiophobia - fear of failure or defeat [From Greek, kako - evil, plus rhaphio - plan, and phobia] When clue-drafting, avoid any kakorrhaphiophobia as a redraft can always rescue your first tack.

Sandwich Words [BB498]

15 February, 2015

Squeeze a seven-letter word between each pair to make a string of two phrases. Short breaker, say, is short CIRCUIT & CIRCUIT breaker. Answers are in alphabetical order.

1. car chicken

2. master eyes

3. blood pack

4. English surf

5. cold stop

6. rough python

7. small teller

8. loose pike

9. dog blower


BB497 SOLUTION: Possess, assassin, Mississippi, business class, messiness (or grossness), crassness, gutlessness, cross-dresser, criss-cross, Mission Impossible, passive-aggression


10 February, 2015

Japan to the Japanese is Nippon, just as Norge is how the Norwegians know their home turf. The list below shows a few more nations, according to the nationals. You'll recognise a few, while others will have you lunging for the atlas.

And the dictionary, and the anagram engines, as your challenge is to convert any of these collacalisms into stylish clues. (No definitions are needed, unless that helps your clue along.)

Let's see who shall be sashed as the Grand National champion. (And a purple heart to anyone who grapples the last few.) 

Bharat (India in Hindi)

Hellas (Greece)


Suomi (Finland)

Lietuva (Lithuania)


Hrvatska (Croatia)

Aotearoa (NZ in Maori)

Osterreich (Austria)

Magyarorszag (Hungary)

Shqiperia (Albania)

Kalaallit Nunaat (Greenland)

Can you find some latitude amid the meridians?

WoW: Rathskeller

9 February, 2015

RATHSKELLER - underground tavern or restaurant [From German Rath - council, Keller - cellar] Melbourne's Moat, below the Wheeler Centre, is a classic rathskeller

SSSibilance [BB497]

8 February, 2015

A surplus of sibilance steeps today’s solutions, with every answer boasting double-S twice. And just to make this 'brain a little sassier, I've removed word and phrase lengths, the better to ASSESS your serpentine sense.

1. Own

2. Killer

3. US state

4. How some fly

5. Squalor (2 ansswerss)

6. Vulgarity

7. Cowardice

8. Drag queen

9. Intersect

10. Cruise flick

11. Negative conduct


BB496 SOLUTION: Sublet, goblet, omelet, scarlet, triplet, singlet, mullet, skillet, billet (and tablet)

Mack Jiggers

3 February, 2015

Something a bit different this week, the fruit of a recent insomnia spell. Can you switch the letters in a well-known name - trading between the two names - to create a new identity. Mick Jagger, say, would become a truck glass, or Mack Jigger. While Bob Carr could turn into Rob Carb - or lift pasta.

Near misses are many, from Pail Sumon to Tiny Fea, but let's keep the exchanges pure, switching letters without moving any other letters. As with the examples, a letter removed must have its vacancy filled by the letter gained.

There not easy to find. Hence the insomnia, and the shortlist. Can you figure these people out - as well as manufacture your own?

1. Taurus cluesmith (Oz actor)

2. Killjoys quarrel (tennis stat/coach)

3. Tuber muscle (Oz reporter)

WoW: Akathisia

2 February, 2015

AKATHISIA [a-ka-THIS-ee-uh] Inability to sit down; chronic restlessness [From Greek a - prefix, with cathisma, cause to sit] The stereotypical father-to-be is a figure of akathisia in the hospital halls.

Birdbrain-let [BB496]

1 February, 2015

If a small pig is a piglet, and a diminutive book is a booklet, then does that make a pikelet a tiny pike? Or a baby bull, a bullet? Playing with the suffix LET (or ET as in the last example), can you intuit what common words are being punnily (and punily) defined?

1. Midget U-boat

2. Mini-mouth

3. Cockney’s ’ovel?

4. Weeny old wound

5. Short journey

6. Karaoke-lite?

7. Brief think

8. Nano knack

9. 2 micro-totals


BB495 SOLUTION: Marx/Mark/Mary, Mawson/Dawson/Lawson, Dave/Dawe/Dale, Lara/Tara/Cara, Manson/Danson/Hanson, Mem/Meg/Mel, Cowell/Powell/Lowell, Perry/Kerry/Ferry

Clues of Repute 49

30 January, 2015

To wrap up January, here's our last dollop of 1995 gems from UK crosswords. You may recognise the first one - at least - from Puzzled, as there are some elegant examples of the wordplay art here. (I'd be impressed if you crack all eight - especially the elusive Number 5.)

Solve as many as you can, sharing tip or answers in the Comments. And see who can devise a devious alternative clue for any of the same solutions. Best of cracking - and crafting.

1. Place in aviary holds our egg (9)

2. Chair for shoppers is ordered (13)

3. Some lines written by a seaman - a shanty, perhaps (5)

4. Customised Porsche, original wings, about 3 years old (3-6)

5. One supporting slip takes responsibility for catch (8,5)

6. Fondle part...er, crude (9)

7. Seductive woman causing resentment between partners (5)

8. Vegetable dish...Small one? Large one? Difficult decision (5,7)


COR 48 SOLUTION: Merge, analgesic, oddball, on the other hand, corporeal, intrinsic, The Lion King

Clues of the Realm

27 January, 2015

A low-key brainstorm to mark Prince Philip's new title of Sir, to accompany his dukeship and princedom. If the Buckingham inmate is eligible for a royal dubbing, then why not anybody?

That's the principle at play here. Anoint Sir or Dame on a random notable and see what the makeover can offer Who knows, you may find a richer anagram, a comical homophone, a nifty charade? Here's a few I've placed at the round table to get your royal juices flowing:

Sir Ahn Do - Polish or Danish? 

Dame Meryl Streep - It's rough with ape heading out of last tree in wet

                      [EMERY + LaST + TREE in DAMP]

Sir Eddie McGuire - King died, stumbling on stadium cable, it's reported

                     [SIRE + DDIE* + MCG + 'UIRE']

Dame Delta Goodrem - Setter by the sea, awfully late for quality dreaming?


WoW: Ampster

26 January, 2015

AMPSTER - a decoy who works in cahoots with a sideshow operator, generating enthusiasm among onlookers [Australian rhyming slang, from Amsterdam > ram, a trickster's ally] Dummy bidders are the latter-day ampsters. 

Trio Con Brio [BB495]

25 January, 2015

Pretty merciful Birdbrain this week. Eight trios, each of whom contain notable people whose undisclosed names differ by a single letter only, in the same position. If Kevin/Elmer/Zola, say, is Rudd/Fudd/Budd, can you deduce the others?

(Clearly fictional characters are kosher, living among the genuine. Just as first names may be required as well.)

1. Chico/Skaife/McKillop

2. Douglas/Smoky/Henry

3. Hughes/Bryan/Carnegie

4. Brian/Moss/Irene

5. Marilyn/Ted/Pauline 

6. Fox/Ryan/Doyle

7. Damian/Colin/Robert

8. Katy/Armstrong/Brian

Can you add a trio? Use your byline and number to mark each set.


BB494 SOLUTION: Eel look, school leer, tattoo oodles, tweed doona, reef feel, grappa account, burro offal, Mallee llama, Lille egg. (Other trebles are possible.)

This month's winner

Well done to Sam for his Emmy makeover in our latest Storm, turning Best Actresses into the best wordplay, and winning a copy of Superstar Crosswords.



Cluetopia roams the planet – and century – to find fresh crossword stories in 30+ languages. From shipwrecks to hoaxes, Cluetopia is a holiday for the head. Buy here.

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Puzzles and Words 2

pocketbook packed with 250 word stories – from Aga to Zemblanity – plus 175 new puzzles for all comers, this is a word nerd’s summer necessity.

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Puzzled combines memoir, wordplay history and a how-to guide for solvers. With bizarre crossword stories, example clues plus mini-puzzles to test your skill – and nerve. Buy here.

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