Tuesday 5 January 2010

What are Ximenean clues?

A few years ago, I came across the word 'Ximenean' in an esoteric discussion on a crossword forum. A clue was being scoffed at for being devoid of this quality. Having never read a book about cryptics or known anyone who could explain that, I was awestruck. (There is something about the word 'Ximenean' that has that effect.) A frantic search online followed, which led to my introduction to the art and precision that lies behind cryptic crosswords.

If this is the first time you're hearing the word 'Ximenean', I hope to make the experience less nerve-racking for you :) Read on…

Origin of the word 'Ximenean'

The word comes from 'Ximenes', the pseudonym of compiler Derrick Somerset Macnutt who set crosswords for The Observer from 1939 until his death in 1971.

Ximenes is regarded the finest compiler ever, and is often called the "father of the modern cryptic crossword".

Ximenes' repute is not just for his puzzles, but for the standards he laid down for creating good crosswords. His principles of crossword composition were gradually recognized and adopted as a kind of model for setting by other daily puzzles too.

So when people say that a clue, crossword grid or setter is Ximenean, they mean that the clue/grid/setter abides by the standards set by Ximenes. Likewise, an unXimenean (or non-Ximenean) clue/grid is one that violates Ximenes' principles.

An overview of Ximenean principles

The essence of Ximenes' canons is to be fair to the solver at all times. His guidelines cover various aspects of crossword design – from making and populating the grid, to writing scrupulously fair clues.

Some of the important clue-writing standards are:

  • Appropriate indicators for all clue types
  • No indirect anagrams
  • No misleading connectors or punctuation
  • Unambiguous, unique answer to every clue

For a full understanding of Ximenean standards, I'll refer you directly to the master himself. Read:

Ximenes on the Art of the Crossword, D S MacnuttThe Book: Ximenes on the Art of the Crossword 

This 1966 book - Ximenes on the Art of the Crossword (reissued 2001) – is Ximenes' comprehensive work about cryptic crosswords. The book is a must-read for any crossword enthusiast, with information of interest to solvers and setters alike.

Look here for an excerpt from the book, and reader reviews.

(Residents of India - beg, borrow, steal from friends overseas - the book is not available in the country. If you find any online bookstore that delivers to an Indian address, please leave a comment about it on this post.)

For Further Reading

Related Posts:

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xwd_fiend said...

I'm not sure that Ximenes is necessarily the best ever, though he's a strong contender. I don't know where "father of cryptic crosswords" comes from, but he wasn't - if any single person was, it was his predecessor Torquemada.

It's rather an exaggeration to say that his rules were the foundation of cryptic crosswords in his time - they were gradually adopted by the daily paper puzzles (though still not quite in full) over a period of 20-30 years after his book appeared.

Chaturvasi said...


Do you know when I got this book?
Way back in the early 1970s.

I must have seen the title in a catalogue in the British Council library here in Madras.

And those were the days when there were all kinds of import restrictions by the GoI.

And we didn't have the Internet for online purchases.

I placed a special order with a bookshop in a historic building on Mount Road, Madras, who got the single copy for me.

The building is still there but the shop is gone in the face of assault by modern-day big chain shops.

I agree that the book is a seminal work. It gave me an insight into the art.

But crosswords have come a long way and while there are some that do not follow any principles (I needn't give you examples of Indian composers) there are those UK crosswords that are aslo very good though they may not strictly follow all of the X principles.

What I would say is a crossword composer must follow rules and principles even if they be set by him (or her) and be consistent in their application.

Incidentally, you may not have solved any puzzles by Ximenes, have you? I have a book of his crosswords but let me say that some of the clues could be rather boring if they are set against those crafted by some of the modern-day practitioners.

Anonymous said...

As always, very resourceful. I was introduced to Ximenean clues only a year ago, but that's one thing you can never read enough of. If I remember right, Nimish had posted some chapters of the book on Facebook.

Will look the books up.


Shuchi said...

@Peter: Re: "father of cryptic crosswords", the term does seem to be used for Ximenes rather a lot, though how well-deserved it is may be open to question. References: Derek Harrison's page, Times Online article, Wikipedia.

@CVasi: I've tried to solve some of Ximenes' puzzles (Source: http://home.freeuk.net/dharrison/ximenes/pindex.htm) and then seen his clues in the book. I have only managed to flip through the book borrowed. Don't know about boring, from what I saw of his clues I was very impressed!

Wanted to touch upon deviations from Ximenean standards in modern puzzles, but the article was getting too long, so have reserved that for a follow-up. Alberich's 2nd article linked from the post talks about this. I particularly like the anecdote at the end of his article.

@gauri: Thank you! You're in US, aren't you? I found the book on Amazon US, but priced at $108. You might get a better deal if you order from UK, even with international shipping.

Chaturvasi said...

The marked price on my copy of the book - the one that was reprinted by Swallowtail Books in 2001, not the one that I procured in the 1970s - is GBP 7.95.

xwd_fiend said...


Derek Harrison's page gets it right by adding the key word "modern" in front of "crossword puzzle" (though it forgets "cryptic"). I don't know where the the Times journalist got the phrase from, but wiki seems to have just got it from the Times.

Shuchi said...

I see your point. Edited to include the word "modern" in it. Thanks.

Shuchi said...

Another edit: Removed the statement about "foundation of cryptic crosswords".

Navin Radha said...

I did struggle to find this book in the UK too. Even the popular book stores like WH Smith and John Smith would only list it but won't sell it. Finally, managed to buy it from Amazon for a whopping 24 quid while the list price is only 7.95 as Vasi sir quoted. Haven't started reading it yet but I hope it's good.

M.J. said...

Macnutt's book is difficult to obtain even in the West, but I can think of two alternatives which may be available in India: Alec Robins "Teach Yourself Crosswords" (AKA "ABC of Crosswords") and Bon Manley's "Chambers Crossword Manual". Manley is definitely available on amazon.in. If you search for "cryptic crossword" on amazon.in you'll find some more alternatives. Robins is marked as unavailable but might turn up in second-hand bookshops. Good luck!