In a normal anagram clue, you are given the anagram indicator and the anagram fodder. You jumble the fodder to get the answer.
In a reverse anagram clue, you are given the anagrammed word. You work out the answer backwards – the answer consists of the anagram indicator and anagram fodder.
To understand this better, consider a normal anagram and a reverse anagram for the same wordplay: POSH = (SHOP)*
NIE 9 Feb 2010: High-class sort of shop (4) POSH
POSH = (SHOP)*, with "sort of" as anagrind
Guardian 24866 (Pasquale): Posh maybe to have a look at purchasing options (4,6) SHOP AROUND
The definition is "have a look at purchasing options". How is "posh maybe" related to SHOP AROUND? Read it as an anagram in reverse: SHOP "around" (anagram indicator) gives POSH.
Another pair of examples for the same wordplay: WEALTH = (THE LAW)*
Guardian 24589 (Orlando): Means of breaking the law (6) WEALTH
WEALTH = (THE LAW)*, with "breaking" as anagrind
Guardian 24798 (Rufus): Make wealth the wrong way? (5,3,3) BREAK THE LAW
If you "break" THE LAW, you might make WEALTH. The whole clue is the definition, &lit style.
How to identify a reverse anagram
Reverse anagrams can be tricky. There is no strong indicator in the clue for a reverse anagram (the conventional anagram indicator is within the answer). Sometimes the setter will helpfully add a hint alongside the anagrammed word - "perhaps", "could be", etc. - to let you know that something unusual is going on.
Everyman 3318: Use the grapevine in part of castle, with one a threat, as it were? (4,2,3,2,3,6) KEEP AN EAR TO THE GROUND
castle = KEEP, and "one a threat" = AN EAR TO THE "ground" (anagrind, when read as a verb). The hint is in the words "as it were?"
Guardian 24951 (Araucaria): Fool playing with clue for toga (5,4) GIDDY GOAT
toga = "giddy" GOAT. "clue for" suggests a reverse anagram – "giddy goat" might be the wordplay in a clue for TOGA.
The hint could be less overt – just a ? or !.
Guardian 25037 (Puck): Placing for one sailing past bay horse? (8) OFFSHORE
You can't rely wholly on finding such tip-offs, though – they might not be there, or they might indicate something different. ? might be a signal for a cryptic definition; "perhaps" might imply a definition-by-example.
Reverse anagrams are generally "grid" clues i.e. not easily solved standalone, it takes some supplementary information to figure them out. I usually wait for the answer to reveal itself through part of the wordplay/checking/definition. Sometimes, the parsing has to be engineered backwards. If the answer (which we've worked out from the other parts of the clue, but can't fully explain) contains an anagrind-style word - MIXED of MIXED BAG, OFF of OFFEND, etc., then it's probably a reverse anagram.
Reverse anagrams are not very common (although they seem to have become all the rage in the past year; I find Don Manley using this device quite a lot). You might come across them once in a few days, but not more than one or two in the same grid.
Test your reverse anagramming skills with these clues:
FT 13326 (Bradman): It could suggest I step away from the prescribed route (3-5)
FT 13397 (Bradman): File perhaps for certain fauna and flora? (8)
From Afrit's crossword collection: Dear me! So I am! (6)
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