Cranium-Cracking Cryptic Crosswords, Volume 2
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Combination cluesWordplay devicesLink words

Wordplay devices

Alphabet soup

In many cases, wordplay sections don’t lend themselves neatly to whole words. A clue often needs a single letter or small group of letters. These are effected by using standard abbreviations, letter selection and even foreign language.


Abbreviations are commonly used to clue short letter sequences. For example:

Conversation about new song (5)

Answer: CHA(N)T where N is an abbreviation for “new.”

Cryptics use many types of abbreviations, most of which may be found in a standard dictionary. Here’s just a sampling of what you may see in American cryptics:

  • Directions: N (north), E (east), W (west), S (south), L (left), R (right), U (up), D (down), A (across)
  • Sizes: S (small, short), M (medium), L (large, long)
  • States: CA (California), LA (Louisiana), MO (Missouri)
  • Politics: R (Republican), D (Democrat), I (Independent)
  • Professional and academic: DR or MD (doctor), RN (nurse), DA (attorney), MA (master), U (university, school)
  • Music: P (piano, quiet, soft), PP (very quiet, very soft), F (loud), FF (very loud)
  • Chemical elements: FE (iron), AU (gold), AG (silver)
  • Math and science: P (power, pressure), M (mass), A (acceleration, area), W (work), T (time, temperature), R (radical), AC or DC (current, electricity), N (number), X or Y (variable, unknown)
  • Weather: H (high), L (low)
  • Exams and questionnaires: T (true), F (false, female), M (male, married), Y (yes), N (no), Q (question), A (answer)
  • Colors: B (blue, black), R (red), G (green)
  • Measurement: S or SEC (second), FT (foot), H (hour)
  • Calendar: S (Saturday, Sunday, September), M (Monday, March, May)
  • Roman numerals: I (1), IV (4), V (5), X (10), L (50), C (100), D (500), M (1000)
  • Sports: P (pitcher), TE (tight end), HR (home run), O (out), G (goal), R (run), A (assist)
  • Finance: N (net), I (interest), D (dollar), C (cent)
  • Gastronomy: M (medium), R (rare)
  • Linguistics: E (English), B (British), F (French)
  • Phonetic alphabets: A (alpha), C (Charlie), T (tango)
  • Domestic: H (hot), C (cold), S (salt), P (pepper), D (drive), N (neutral), R (reverse)
  • Common slang: Y (YMCA, club), G or K ($1,000), D (defense)
  • Other: C or CA (circa, about), CO (company, firm), V (victory, versus, fighting, against)

A long list, yet far from exhaustive. Blog site Crossword Unclued has a good core list of abbreviations and categories of such that a beginning cryptic solver should know. Wikipedia has an extensive list of crossword abbreviations (although many of these are only found in British cryptics).

Note that an abbreviation need not be clued directly. Consider a common translation of “about”:

Worrying about band (6)

The answer is CA+RING. Notice how “about” translates to “circa,” which in turn is abbreviated CA.

Letter selection

Letter selections use positional indicators to pick letters out of a word that are then used in wordplay:

  • Initial letter: firstly, start to, beginning of
  • Final letter: end of, finally, at last
  • Middle letter: center, focus of, middle
  • Other positions: second of, in third

Here is an example of how an E might be extracted for use in a container:

Catch premiere of Euridice in New York opera house (6)

Taking the first letter of Euridice and inserting it into MET (the famed New York opera house) gives M(E)ET.

In some cases, an entire word may be clued as an abbreviation of a complete phrase. This is sometimes called an acrostic:

Team starts to get riled over unruly penalties (5)

Taking the first letters of (the “starts to”) “get riled over unruly penalties” gives G.R.O.U.P.

Another mechanism sometimes used is to pick alternating letters from a phrase with indicators such as oddly, evenly or alternately. This device is not very common, and is usually reserved for complete solutions:

Odd “cure”: it stirs conflict (6)

Extracting the odd letters from CuRe It StIrS gives CRISIS.

Note: Phrases such as bit of, piece of and hint of are by convention taken to indicate initial letters. Some constructors such as Neil Shepherd disparage these indicators (and I myself use them very sparingly) but solvers need to be familiar with them as their use is commonplace. Similarly, indicators such as half and quarter of are generally accepted to mean the first half or quarter of a word if there exists no other qualification (e.g., last half of.)

Foreign language

Foreign languages provide an additional source of wordplay constituents. Indicators may specify a language (French, Spanish), a locality (Parisian, in Madrid) or in some cases, a name (Étienne’s, for Carlos):

Avoid quiet one in Paris (4)

This combines SH (“quiet!”) with the French word UN (“one”) to give SHUN.

It’s good to know common words from major European languages to solve such clues:

  • French: UN, UNE (one); LE, LA, LES (the); DE (of, from); EN (in); ET (and); EST (is)
  • Spanish: UN, UNO, UNA (one); EL, LA, LOS, LAS (the); DE (of, from); ES (is); EN (in); CON (with)
  • German: DIE, DAS, DER (the); MIT (with); UND (and)