On this page we talk about some of the works of reference in the Clinic library which solvers and setters might consider for their own ‘bookshelves’ (whether real or electronic).


For any solver or setter, the one essential part of their armoury is Chambers Dictionary, known as the BRB (‘big red book’). If buying the paper version, make sure you get the February 2016 revision of the 13th edition – the first printing (2014) was lacking all the ‘enriching’ words which had been marked in the 12th edition as being of particular interest! The versions available for IOS and Android are excellent and very inexpensive (the bundle with the Chambers Thesaurus is good value, although see the comments on the thesaurus below). There is a CD-ROM version available for Windows – this is quite expensive and is now also out of date (the contents are similar to those of the 9th paper edition, published in 2003). The CD-ROM version has one advantage over the other versions, in that it does allow free text searching of the entire contents. Note that the free online ‘Chambers Dictionary’ is not the crossword bible referred to above but is the Chambers 21st Century Dictionary, a pale imitation of the BRB.

Chambers is the standard reference for most barred puzzles, although some, in particular the Inquisitor puzzle in the i newspaper, also use the one-volume Oxford Dictionary of English (ODE) – the third edition (2010) is the current version. It does help to clarify the meaning of some entries in Chambers by giving a different perspective on them, but otherwise it doesn’t offer too many additional benefits. If investing significant funds in a paper-based Oxford dictionary, my preference would be for the two-volume Shorter Oxford English Dictionary (6th edition, 2007). We don’t have the shelf space at the Clinic for the twenty volumes of the Oxford English Dictionary (OED), but an updated version is available on CD-ROM for Windows – it’s not cheap, but if you want to see examples of the usage of words, which often sheds considerable light on their meaning, it is a wondrous thing indeed.

Blocked puzzles rarely quote specific references, but the principal reference for the Sunday Times cryptic is Collins English Dictionary. This is available as a paper version (12th edition, 2014) but is also available online. Whilst not quite as wide-ranging as Chambers, it now contains its fair share of archaic and dialect words and is recommended as the best free online dictionary.


The Chambers Thesaurus (2004) is quite useful for solvers but is not recommended for setters – some of the ‘synonyms’ which it offers are highly questionable, it lacks a number of more modern interpretations of words, and on occasion it will give intransitive verbs as synonyms for transitive ones, or vice versa. The best ‘setter’ thesaurus that we are aware of is the Oxford Dictionary and Thesaurus (2nd edition, 2007) – the dictionary part is basic, but the thesaurus (with which it is combined, dictionary part at the top of each page and thesaurus part at the bottom) is everything that the Chambers equivalent is not. The best free online thesaurus for our money is the Collins one, which was revamped in 2016. Roget’s Thesaurus (Penguin Reference Library, 2002) is an extraordinary piece of work, but probably of more value to those who are interested in the association of concepts when expressed as words rather than to crossword aficionados.

Other Reference Works

With so much information being available online, one might ask oneself whether any other reference books were necessary for setters or solvers. However, there is no doubt that the concentration and accuracy of the information in certain works makes them worthy of shelf space. Pride of place goes to Chambers Biographical Dictionary (9th edition, 2011) which provides more than 18,000 ‘potted’ biographies of exceptional quality. Certain crosswords, the Spectator barred puzzle in particular, use themes drawn from Brewer’s Dictionary of Phrase and Fable (the latest edition is the 19th but earlier versions serve equally well) – some of the entries in Brewer’s are very hard to verify online, so if planning to do a puzzle where “Brewer’s is recommended”, it’s a very good idea to have the book to hand. There is a version of Brewer’s available online, but when I suggested that earlier editions would serve, I wasn’t thinking of an edition as old as this one! The Oxford Dictionary of Quotations (7th edition, 2009) is probably the most comprehensive quotation dictionary, but although it looks nice on the shelf, the quotations are very much ‘mainstream’ (so not very entertaining to browse). It is of questionable value for crossword solvers, given that fewer and fewer quotations appear in puzzles, and those that do can invariably be accessed online; it is, though, potentially of use to setters of themed puzzles who are looking for a suitable quotation around which to base a puzzle, since it is the standard ‘quotation work’ for puzzles such as the Listener. Brewer’s Twentieth Century Phrase and Fable (1991) cannot be recommended – if you are interested in the ‘creative’ use of words, the Chambers Slang Dictionary (2008), while it won’t help much in solving crosswords, is a fascinating volume…although you may feel the need to expunge around 10% of the words in your existing vocabulary after reading it! Setters might consider the New Hart’s Rules (OUP, 2014) which tells you everything you might ever need to know about punctuation and capitalization, as well as a whole load of other stuff about preparing text for publication…the reality, though, is that part of the crossword editor’s function is to ensure that the text in crosswords matches the ‘house style’ for the publication in which it will appear, and that style may in fact conflict with Hart’s Rules (for instance the use of “eg” or “e.g”).

Crossword Books

Ximenes on the Art of the Crossword by Derrick Macnutt (aka Ximenes) was reprinted by Swallowtail books in 2001 after a long time out of print. The ideas which are set out here about what is fair and unfair in a crossword clue form the basis of modern ‘Ximenean’ rules, but beware – thinking has changed somewhat since this book was originally published, in the same year that England won the World Cup (ie a very long time ago). An updated ‘take’ on the principles originally set out by Macnutt can be found in A-Z of Crosswords (Collins, 2006) by Jonathan Crowther, who as Azed has been setting the barred puzzles in the Observer since he took over from Ximenes in 1972 and is widely seen as the current custodian of the Ximenean rules. The large part of the latter book is given over to profiles of setters and sample puzzles by them, and those simply seeking the latest thinking on Ximenean theory would probably be better served by the resources available on the web. The comments made by Azed in the result slips for his monthly competition puzzles, all of which are published on the website, provide a wealth of insight into many aspects of clue writing, and are very much recommended reading for setters and more advanced solvers. Note, though, that Azed’s thinking has changed somewhat over the years and you will see that some of the views which he expressed in the 1970s in particular have evolved to some degree with the passing of the years.

And finally we must give a mention to perhaps the most entertaining of all reference works, Ambrose Bierce’s “Devils Dictionary” (the Enlarged Devil’s Dictionary, published by Penguin Classics, is recommended). It has no value whatsoever when solving puzzles which use more pedestrian references, but who could resist definitions such as:

Positive, adj. Mistaken at the top of one’s voice.

Consolation, n. The knowledge that a better man is more unfortunate than yourself.

Bore, n. A person who talks when you wish him to listen.

Dictionary, n. A malevolent literary device for cramping the growth of a language and making it hard and inelastic.