Decrypting the Cryptic #13: Drop it!

Welcome to Decrypting the Cryptic #13! In this series, we’ll be taking apart common cluing conventions used in American cryptic crosswords to build your confidence in solving a puzzle variety that can be, as its name implies, especially challenging. 

Way back in June — doesn’t that feel like years ago? — we talked about containers, in which a letter or word is put inside another word to generate all or part of the answer. Flip that on its head, and you can also take away a letter or word to get to an answer. We’ve already discussed the special cases of the first and/or last letters being removed in beheadings and curtailments, but you can take things out of the middle of a word or phrase too. Let’s dive in with an example!

Example #1: Singer Natalie drops top from hit (7)

The answer is COLE (“Singer Natalie”). If you take the word COLLIDE, which means “hit,” and remove, or “drop,” the letters LID (a synonym for “top”), you get COLE.

Example #2: Composer ace walks out of seaside area (4)

The answer is BACH, who is a “composer.” And if you take BEACH (“seaside area”) and have the letter A (which is the letter for an “ace” in a deck of cards) “walk out of” it, you are left with BACH.

Let’s talk indicators, because letter- and word-drop clues always have them! Here’s a not-at-all-comprehensive list of ways you might realize there are some letters to be dropped in your future:

  • “Remove” and its synonyms; watch out for when “take-out” appears on the surface to be a noun (as in take-out food), because it might not be!
  • “Out,” “away,” or other adverbs that indicate something is being removed
  • “Lose” in all its forms; just to mess with your head, know that “loss” can also stand for the letter L, because on scorecards W is win and L is loss
  • “Missing,” “disappeared,” and the like
  • “Drop” or other verbs that indicate that something is actively being lost

Don’t forget to check out #crypticclueaday on Twitter! I post a new clue each day using that hashtag (other constructors have been adding their own as well), and every week on #explanationfriday I give the solutions and a brief explanation of how to derive them. These clues are a great way to hone your cryptic solving skills and build your confidence up to solving a full puzzle.

Decrypting the Cryptic #12: Beginnings and Endings

Welcome to Decrypting the Cryptic #12! In this series, we’ll be taking apart common cluing conventions used in American cryptic crosswords to build your confidence in solving a puzzle variety that can be, as its name implies, especially challenging. 

A couple of weeks ago, we got into beheadings and curtailments, in which you remove the first or the last letter of a word to get the answer word, or at least to get a string of letters that is found in the answer. Just as you can remove the first or last letter of a word and use what’s left, you can also just…use that letter! Since answer words are never just one letter, this type of wordplay will always be used in combination with some other wordplay type (with an exception we’ll talk about later).

Let’s just dive in with an example:

Example #1: Respectful title: Head of Marketing Driver (5)

The answer is MADAM, which is a “respectful title.” In the wordplay portion of the clue, “Driver” gets you the letters ADAM, as in actor Adam Driver. But what’s “Head of Marketing” doing? The word “head” indicates that you are to take the “head,” or the first letter, of the word “Marketing” and use it to build the answer.

So the wordplay portion of this clue adds up to charades — cluing the first letter in MADAM with “Head of Marketing,” and the rest of the word with “Driver.”

Example #2: Take back micro-bird (3)

The answer is EMU, which is a “bird.” But EMUs are gigantic; they’re hardly micro-sized. What’s going on? As in the first example, the overall pattern of the clue is charades. We’re using the last letter, or the “back,” of the word TAKE. That’s an E. And the Greek letter MU is shorthand for “micro-” in metric measurements. Science! Add E plus MU to get EMU.

There are lots of ways constructors can indicate to you that you’re looking for the first or last letter of a word. Be on the lookout for:

  • Words that relate to the top, bottom, front, or back of something: “head,” “cap,” “end,” etc. (“Top,” “bottom,” “front,” and “back” are of course frequently used as is!)
  • Ordinals: “first” or “last” (And hey, any ordinal works: If you see “third” in a clue, the constructor may be asking you to grab the third letter of the word instead of the first or last.)
  • “Ultimate” (for the last letter)
  • “Beginning” and its synonyms: “start,” “inception,” “origin”
  • “Ending” and its synonyms: “close,” “finale,” “finish”

I promised you I’d talk about an exception to the rule about this type of wordplay always being used in combination with some other type of wordplay, since cryptic crossword answers, just like standard American crossword answers, must be at least three letters long. The exception is when the wordplay in a clue is telling you to take the first or last letters of each word in a phrase. In that case, you don’t need to combine with another type of wordplay because the same trope is being repeated multiple times.

How’s that work? Here’s an example.

Example #3: Forward, as Thandie Newton Hollywood endings (4)

The answer is SEND, which is a synonym for “forward” in its verb sense. (Remember, the definition part of a cryptic clue need not define the answer with the same meaning as the surface sense of the clue; in fact, it’s better and more fun when the two are different!) If you take the last letters, or the “endings,” of the words “as,” “Thandie,” “Newton,” and “Hollywood,” voila! You get SEND.

Now you’re ready to go forth and figure out some first- and last-letter clues. Don’t forget to check out #crypticclueaday on Twitter! I post a new clue each day using that hashtag (other constructors have been adding their own as well), and every week on #explanationfriday I give the solutions and a brief explanation of how to derive them. These clues are a great way to hone your cryptic solving skills and build your confidence up to solving a full puzzle.

Decrypting the Cryptic #11: Letter Banks

These banks have no money in them. Photo by Steve Morgan.

Welcome to Decrypting the Cryptic #11! In this series, we’ll be taking apart common cluing conventions used in American cryptic crosswords to build your confidence in solving a puzzle variety that can be, as its name implies, especially challenging. 

Well, okay, in this case the cluing trope we’re exploring — the letter bank — is not THAT common. In fact, the reason we’re doing it now is because I’ve been waiting to come across an example to explain, and I want to write the post before I forget it! Nevertheless, letter banks do happen, so read this post and you’ll be ready for them.

In a letter bank, one or two (I’ve never seen more than two) shorter words with no repeated letters is given; this word or words contains all of the letters that are used (with repeats) in the correct answer. For example, the word UKULELE can be formed using only the letters in the name LUKE. And SPINEL contains all the letters in SLEEPINESS.

The naming convention comes from the fact that the shorter word, which will appear in the wordplay portion of the clue, serves as a “bank” from which you can “withdraw” all the letters that you need — sometimes more than once — to create the answer word or phrase.

Let’s see what that looks like in practice.

Example #1: Characteristic of lamb on ice, with ingredients chopped up and reused (9) (Clue credit: Joshua Kosman and Henri Picciotto, Out of Left Field No. 3333, available in Out of Left Field #3)

The answer is INNOCENCE, which is a “characteristic of lamb.” ON ICE serves as the letter bank, and you take the “ingredients” of that phrase, “chop them up,” and “reuse” them to form the answer.

Example #2: Nonprofit has all its components in alerts (11 or 6,5) (Clue credit: Me, 7/12/20)

The answer is EASTERSEALS, or the more commonly known EASTER SEALS, which is a “nonprofit.” (I used the double enumeration — “11 or 6,5” — because although the official spelling of the organization’s name omits the space, you’re probably familiar with the two-word spelling and I didn’t want the enumeration of 11 to be misleading even though it is technically correct.) And the bank word, or the word that “has all [the] components” of EASTERSEALS, is ALERTS.

Since letter banks are a less common type of clue, I don’t have a nice list of indicator words to reel off at you, but if you see something about “having everything you need” or “components” or “parts,” a letter bank might be at play. Check out this article from Josh and Henri for some more examples.

Hope that helps with letter banks!  Don’t forget to check out #crypticclueaday on Twitter! I post a new clue each day using that hashtag (other constructors have been adding their own as well), and every week on #explanationfriday I give the solutions and a brief explanation of how to derive them. These clues are a great way to hone your cryptic solving skills and build your confidence up to solving a full puzzle.

Decrypting the Cryptic #10: Beheadings et al.

Off with its first letter! Or last letter! Or both!

Welcome to Decrypting the Cryptic #10! In this series, we’ll be taking apart common cluing conventions used in American cryptic crosswords to build your confidence in solving a puzzle variety that can be, as its name implies, especially challenging. 

Few things make a cryptic constructor happier than realizing that all you have to do to a word to get an etymologically unrelated word is chop off its first or last letter. Some examples: DISCUSS becomes DISCUS when you drop the final S. Lose the first letter of BARK to get ARK.

In a cryptic clue, wordplay like this is called a “beheading” (when the first letter of a word is dropped) or a “curtailment” (when it’s the last letter being dropped). There will always be an indicator word or words in the wordplay portion of the clue telling you that you need to do this. Let’s look at some examples:

Example #1: Actor Grant is headless (terrifying!) (4)

The answer is CARY, or “Actor Grant.” The word “headless” is an indicator to remove the first letter of a word — in this case, SCARY, which is a synonym for “terrifying.”

You should be looking out for a beheading if you see any of these words or phrases in the clue (not a comprehensive list by any means):

  • Headless
  • Topless
  • Without starting

Example #2: Endlessly deal with police officer (3)

The answer is COP (“police officer”), which is the word COPE (“deal with”) with its last letter removed. The word “endlessly” is your cue that a curtailment is happening (but watch out; sometimes “endless/ly” means that you’re to take BOTH ends of a word off, not just the back end).

Here are some more indicators of curtailments:

  • “Unfinished”
  • “Without end”
  • “Cut off”
  • “Nearly” or “almost”

Sometimes you need to take the first AND last letters of a word away. I’m not sure what the official name for that is, but I’m calling it “essences.” Here’s an example:

Example #3: In Germany, sir, fruit is peeled (4) (Clue credit: Ken Stern, 2/19)

The answer is HERR, which is the German equivalent of “sir” or “mister” (“In Germany, sir”). How do you get there? By “peeling,” or removing the outer letters, from the word CHERRY, which is a “fruit.”

Indicators that you’re to remove the first and last letters of a word include:

  • “Naked,” “stripped,” or other words that indicate that something is lacking in outer layers
  • “Essentially,” “centrally,” or other words that indicate you’re to use the center of a word
  • “Heart,” “center,” or other synonyms for the middle of something
  • “Endless/ly” (see above re: curtailments)

As with other cryptic clues, the word being defined in the wordplay and the word defined in the straight definition should not be etymologically related. It’s no fun to get from RELATED to RELATE, for example.


That’s it for beheadings and their relations. Don’t forget to check out #crypticclueaday on Twitter! I post a new clue each day using that hashtag (other constructors have been adding their own as well), and every week on #explanationfriday I give the solutions and a brief explanation of how to derive them. These clues are a great way to hone your cryptic solving skills and build your confidence up to solving a full puzzle.

Decrypting the Cryptic #9: When to stop and try again

Rabbit hole this way... | Claudia L'Amoreaux
This is much cuter than getting stuck in a metaphorical rabbit hole when you’re solving.

Welcome to Decrypting the Cryptic #9! Unlike my usual posts, today I’m not going to be explaining a particular rule or convention of cluing, but rather helping you figure out when you might be going down the wrong rabbit hole.

Everything I’m telling you presupposes you are solving an American cryptic and that you’re solving a puzzle or clue by an experienced constructor who knows the rules. Brits are allowed certain levels of trickiness that we Yanks are not, and because “the rules” are not particularly well codified, novice and intermediate puzzlemakers may make mistakes that break them. (OH HAI IT ME SOMETIMES)

Rabbit hole #1: Mixing up the straight definition and the wordplay

I’ve seen comments on some #explanationfriday posts that indicate that not everyone realizes that the straight definition and the wordplay in a cryptic clue must always be two discrete components. They don’t mix, at least not in American cryptics. (UK cryptics DO allow mixing; I’m not sure what the rules are for India, Australia, and other more recently colonized countries, but I suspect they’re more likely to follow UK rules.)
So, if you find yourself thinking that the first and the last words of a clue are a charade or anagram components leading you to an answer that’s defined by the words in the middle, stop it! You’re in a rabbit hole and it’s time to get out.

Rabbit hole #2: Can’t decide between two answers

This is one thing common to cryptics in every country, I believe: With all the information given to you, there should never be more than one correct answer to the clue.

This isn’t always true in standard American crosswords — probably the most famous example of all time is the New York Times 1996 Election Day puzzle, in which 39-Across could be CLINTON or BOB DOLE, either of which fit the clue and, amazingly, leading to all seven crossings working with their respective clues. It remains one of the all-time constructing feats in standard crosswords, but it’s not a thing that happens in cryptics!

Cryptic constructors want to be tricky and make you have a hard time getting to the answer — but once you get there, you should be sure it’s the answer. It’s part of the constructor’s job to write the clue such that, given all of the information available to you — including enumeration and, if we’re talking about a puzzle and not an isolated clue, crossing letters — there should be only one way to make everything work. (When making full puzzles, I also try to avoid writing clues in which there are two possible answers that you have to use the crossings to pick from, because that eliminates that entry as a possible foothold in the puzzle for the solver.)

This is why, for example, when I write #crypticclueaday, I avoid placing indicator words in the center of a clue if both the definition and the wordplay lead to answers of the same length. For example, “Low voice sounds evil (4)” is an unfair clue because it could lead to BASS (in which case “sounds” would be the homophone indicator for BASE, or “evil”), but it could also lead to BASE because “sounds” is in the middle and could also be indicating a homophone of BASS.

So, if you are really torn between two answers and you’re solving a puzzle by an experienced constructor, take a step back and look at the clue carefully again. At least one of your guesses is wrong!

Tell me more!

Just two rabbit holes today, but that’s in part because I’m a far more experienced cryptic solver than I am a constructor, and I tend not to get stuck in ways that relate to the rules — so I don’t know what else you guys might need help with! Please leave a note in the comments if there’s a clue you’ve been having trouble figuring out, and I’ll try to be your Clue Doctor and diagnose the problem in a future post, especially if your question indicates an issue with understanding the rules that other solvers might be having.
Don’t forget to check out #crypticclueaday on Twitter! I post a new clue each day using that hashtag (other constructors have been adding their own as well), and every week on #explanationfriday I give the solutions and a brief explanation of how to derive them. These clues are a great way to hone your cryptic solving skills and build your confidence up to solving a full puzzle.

Decrypting the Cryptic #8: Homophones

I heard it was time for some explanations…

Welcome to Decrypting the Cryptic #8! In this series, we’ll be taking apart common cluing conventions used in American cryptic crosswords to build your confidence in solving a puzzle variety that can be, as its name implies, especially challenging. Sounds like it’s time for homophones! (See what I did there?)

Cryptic crosswords make lots of use of homoNYMs — that is, a word that has two meanings with different etymologies (and possibly different pronunciations). We explored that in the double definitions post. But why stop at homonyms when you can play with homoPHONEs as well? Homophones are words that sound the same, even though they are spelled differently, like BASE and BASS (the latter in its “low voice” sense, not its “food fish” sense) or HEAR and HERE.

When a word is being clued using a homophone, there will always be an indicator of some kind that you’re to sound out what’s being clued rather than taking the clued word directly. (There will still be a direct cluing of the word in the direct definition; this is just in the wordplay portion of the clue.) These indicators can include, but are not limited to:

  • A reference to hearing: “I heard,” “in the ear,” “listened to”
  • Words about speaking: “orally,” “out loud,” “said,” “recited”
  • “Reportedly” and its synonyms
  • “On the radio,” “broadcast,” “over the airwaves,” etc.

Now that I’ve told you some common indicators, here’s a simple example:

Example #1: Ram heard objection (4)

The answer is BUTT. The straight definition is “Ram,” or BUTT in the sense of head-butting someone. It’s also a homophone for BUT, which is an “objection,” and the word “heard” indicates that you’re looking for a homophone. And remember how I told you that enumerations are themselves clues? That’s how you know that you’re to look for BUTT and not BUT. (Without an enumeration or a puzzle grid, you’d have to guess, because the indicator word is adjacent to both “Ram” and “objection.”)

Note that, unlike with anagrams, in which the constructor must give you actual words to be anagrammed, NOT synonyms of those words, in the case of homophones the constructor is free to clue a synonym of the homophone. (We can’t go too easy on you — they’re called cryptics, after all!)

The thing about simple homophone examples is that they’re kind of boring. The best cryptic constructors (of whom I do not consider myself one — yet!) are able to string together some pretty elaborate homophonetic (is that a word? I’m declaring it one if it isn’t) phrases that are hilarious when you figure them out. Here’s an example straight Out of Left Field:

Example #2: Revolutionary permitted to be recited — and recited audibly (4,5) (Clue credit: Joshua Kosman and Henri Picciotto, Out of Left Field #6; subscription required to view full puzzle)

This one’s extra tricky because there are a couple of words — “recited” and “audibly” that could be the indicator. In the end it’s “to be recited” that is the indicator, and “audibly” is part of the definition. The answer is READ ALOUD, or “recited audibly” in the straight definition. But READ ALOUD is also homophonetic with RED ALLOWED, in which “red” comes from “Revolutionary” in the clue and ALLOWED comes from “permitted.”

Homophones aren’t as common as the other clue types we’ve discussed thus far because, as I mentioned, the simple ones are kind of boring and the complicated ones are hard to get to as a constructor. I, for one, have not yet managed to produce a good multi-word homophonetic clue yet, but I’ll build a whole damn puzzle around it and then throw a party when I do.

That explains homophones for ya! Feel free to ask questions in the comments, and don’t forget to check out #crypticclueaday on Twitter. I post a new clue each day using that hashtag (other constructors have been adding their own as well), and every week on #explanationfriday I give the solutions and a brief explanation of how to derive them. These clues are a great way to hone your cryptic solving skills and build your confidence up to solving a full puzzle.

Tough as Nails Themeless #15

After my self-indulgent 74-worder, here’s a proper 68-word themeless for y’all. Enjoy!

I also tried using the .puz to PDF site someone posted to generate an ink-saving PDF. The layout is different, but it should work for you. If you prefer the old layout, print the file from Across Lite instead.

Tough as Nails Themeless #15 – Across Lite