Cryptic crossword clues form a textual genre that remains surprisingly under-theorized from almost any relevant linguistic standpoint (Pham, 2016). Two papers by semioticians stand out as contributions to the understanding of the genre (Greimas, 1967; Vântu, 1991), as does a recent corpus-linguistic analysis of crossword puzzles as a distinct register (Pham, 2016). Articles examining the linguistic playfulness and ambiguity of cryptic clues may be added to these as examples of introductory explorations (Cleary, 1996; Coffey, 1998; Rambousek, 2004). Beyond this, many papers published about crosswords (whether quick or cryptic) tend to be psychological investigations of crossword solvers' intelligence or other cognitive abilities, or the role of crosswords (and other puzzles) in cognitive development and in preventing cognitive decline (e.g. Underwood, 1994; Lewis, 2006; Friedlander, 2009; Nickerson, 2011; Moxley, 2015; Friedlander, 2016). The other common type of paper is the description of computational approaches to writing or solving crossword clues (e.g. Williams, 1979; Smith, 1986; Littman, 2000; Hardcastle, 2007).

Could it be that the paucity of linguistic analyses of the cryptic crossword can be attributed to a lack of interesting linguistic features? After all, an entire puzzle's worth of crossword clues contains relatively few words in total, and there is little discursive linkage between individual clues. In the terms defined by the foundational text-linguistic work by Halliday (1976), a set of cryptic crossword clues lacks texture: the network of linguistic relationships between sentences that makes a coherent text. A set of clues is a set of fragments, but not a text.

Nevertheless, a number of authors have argued for the merit of the cryptic crossword as an object of linguistic study. From the perspective of semiotics, Greimas (1967) suggests that the crossword should be analysed on the same terms as other types of aesthetic "communication différée" (p. 799) (delayed communication). By this, he means uses of language (like poetry) which are non-direct, and which necessitate a process of decoding in order to achieve communication between the creator (known as the "setter" of a cryptic crossword) and the audience. He notes that the absence of grammatical predicates in French crossword clues is the type of feature upon which a typology of the genre might be built. Since the predicate carries many of the temporal specifics of a sentence, as well as indicating the role of elements such as subject and object, it is no surprise to find that the lack of a predicate is also a feature of the English cryptic clue. Stratmann (1978) calls attention to the relationship between the cryptic clue's encoding of meaning and the literary tradition of Lewis Carroll and James Joyce. He links the success and complexity of the cryptic crossword clue to specific linguistic features of English, calling attention to the abundance of short words and the lack of mandatory inflectional endings, aspects of the language that make flexible clue-writing much easier. Indeed, Connor (2013b) argues that English is "the best crosswording language" (p.114) as a result of its large vocabulary and rich range of synonyms (the result of large-scale borrowing from other languages over more than a millennium). The cryptic crossword clue benefits from the range of potential ambiguity residing in English syonyms, as well as in the comparative lack of grammatical specificity that Stratmann (1978) identifies. In an uninflected language like English, it is no doubt easier to have a word that looks like (say) a noun, but is intended by the setter as a verb; there are few required word-endings that would give the game away.

Genre-theoretical approaches to the crossword have also been successfully attempted. Vântu (1991), in an exploration of Romanian crossword clues, argues that they may best be analyzed as wordplay or as jokes. Cleary (1996) calls English cryptic crosswords "exercises in constructed ambiguity" (p.15). Like Vantu, he sees in them a source for study of wordplay and linguistic humour, as well as of the construction and comprehension of meaning. Finally, Pham’s, (2016) work on register and intertextuality is perhaps the fullest exploration of the crossword in terms of linguistic theory. Using a corpus of clues and answers, she argues that the use of intertextual reference is a distinctive feature of the crossword as a genre. She also establishes the distinctiveness of cryptic and non-cryptic crosswords as sub-genres.

Evidently, there are sufficient grounds for considering the cryptic crossword as an interesting linguistic object. The Cryptic Crossword Corpus Project (CCCP) aims to provide a corpus-linguistic basis for further work on this genre. The project will gather clues from a range of different publications and crossword compilers, including the big names such as The Times and The Guardian, but also smaller and (perhaps) more esoteric publications such as the satirical current-affairs magazine Private Eye and the socialist newspaper Morning Star. It may also prove possible to include clues from cryptic crosswords outside Britain; for example, The Sydney Morning Herald and The Hindu both set a cryptic crossword, as (occasionally) does The New York Times. For the moment, however, the CCCP will focus on British crosswords.