I've been crafting cryptics lately, and I was wondering what the policy on including well-known proper nouns in puzzles is. Examples of this might be:

Famous wizard is shaggy, they say (5), which clues to HARRY, a reference to Harry Potter (famous wizard) and a soundalike of hairy (shaggy)

Newborn baseball legend (4), which clues to BABE, a double definition of "newborn" and "baseball legend" (Babe Ruth)

Transmitted by misunderstood pirate portrayer and I (5), which clues to PIPED, a synonym of "transmitted" and an anagram (misunderstood) of Depp (alluding to Johnny Depp, who played captain Jack Sparrow in the Pirates of the Caribbean series) and I

These clues all require some previous knowledge of various forms of pop culture, but add an interesting depth to the clues that can't be obtained by normal word definitions. This might make it more interesting to solvers that are well-versed in normal cryptics, but at the same time can add the same frustration of literature riddles and the like where you spend a long time on a clue only to find out you just don't know the reference.

Most of the proper nouns can be easily found on the internet, so if the solver truly doesn't know the reference they can find it (each of the previous three is found on the first page of a Google search). I already know that cities and countries are acceptable in CC clues, so what does the community think about this extension of proper nouns?

Thanks for the feedback!

  • $\begingroup$ There is a [trivia] tag for questions that require some knowledge of popular culture (which for instance I used for a Harry Potter-related question only today). $\endgroup$ May 27, 2015 at 17:01

3 Answers 3


A typical newspaper has its own rules and styles defined by a combination of things such as the editor, the setters, the day of the week and historical precedence. The readers get used to this and there would be hell to pay if for example the (London) Times changed from its Ximenean style to the Guardian's more Libertarian ways. See Wikipedia's entry on cryptic crosswords

For me I like that I can rely on the Times to be fair and crafted without a word out of place, but I also enjoy being challenged by what publications such as the Guardian come up with - you can also get to know a particular setters style.

Which brings me to my point. As a setter on PSE, there are no editors (in the sense of newspaper corssword editor at least!) or readers expecting a certain style, paying your wages. Therefore, go ahead and include proper nouns (or any other device that may be frowned upon elsewhere)! Develop your own style and maybe you'll become the Araucaria of PSE!

Luckily there's no constraints on one crossword a day here. There's room for multiple styles and themes. As @rand al'thor has pointed out there's tags such as trivia that can point people in the right direction in certain cases.

I know I've only obliquely answered your question, but the TL;DR of this is that there should be no policy on proper nouns in cryptic crosswords on this site. Crosswords have always evolved, and they will continue to in their own direction on PSE!

  • $\begingroup$ Right. I think that if particular setters want to follow a particular set of rules, then that makes total sense of course - and they can say in the post what rules they're following. $\endgroup$
    – A E
    May 31, 2015 at 10:01

I'll go ahead and post my thoughts and ideas on the subject. If anyone has dissenting opinions, please post them here.

Cryptic crosswords are easy for some, and hard for others

This holds true for basically all kinds of puzzles. I like to think I'm fairly good at solving cryptic crosswords, as anagrams and definitions (and wordplay in general) come naturally to me. Of course, I'm rubbish at cryptograms and the like, and don't even get me started on steganography. The point here is that cryptic crosswords are already incredibly difficult for some people, while some people breeze right through them.

Proper nouns don't make the puzzle less approachable

This one is a firm opinion, and where I think I might catch backlash. It is my belief, though, that adding proper nouns to a cryptic will not change the audience of puzzlers looking to solve it. The same people who struggle with cryptic crosswords won't attempt the puzzle, but they wouldn't attempt it anyways! Conversely, the same people who like cryptic crosswords I expect will smile at the new challenge, whether they are able to solve it or not. Note that the goal is to provide a new subtle shade of difficulty, and not to stump everyone on the site. I want my puzzles to be solved!

Everything in moderation

This leads me to my conclusion, where I say "go for it" to myself. However, in a typical cryptic crossword, most clues should not be proper nouns or related to proper nouns. Hopefully, I can provide the puzzler with enough non-proper crossing words that any proper nouns they might be stuck on can be solved with the letters they know.

Of course, some crosswords are designed only to function with lots of proper nouns (for instance, countries or movie names), and these are perfectly acceptable form as well - just make sure that you note so in the puzzle.

Ultimately, the goal here is to add a new level of difficulty that renders the puzzle still solvable but noticeably harder, and I think that proper nouns can be an effective and practical way to do so.


Proper nouns are nothing to worry about in themselves. Answers like "Einstein", "Cleopatra" and "Warsaw" should be understood by almost everyone, and those who didn't know them would probably be glad to have filled a gap in their knowledge.

Problems could arise if the references become localized to a specific country or age group, but this is also the case for regular words. Babe Ruth is probably better known round the world than lower-case baseball terminology like "fastball" or "change up". But while Babe Ruth may be well known, the current Yankees players are probably unknown to most Europeans.

You'll have to consider your audience, and if you're using lots of cultural references, it might be good to let them know where you're based and how old you are. Having lots of proper nouns is a sign that your puzzle might be culture specific, but it's nothing to worry about in itself.

By the way, cultural knowledge is not the only problem of writing crosswords on an international platform. I would never get the first clue (well maybe with H_R_Y), as in my accent (England) the 'a' in Harry is short, and Harry doesn't sound like hairy at all.

  • $\begingroup$ That last point is incredibly interesting, and I hadn't considered it at all! Thank you for your input. :) $\endgroup$
    – Bailey M
    Jun 3, 2015 at 12:48

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