Decrypting the Cryptic #4: Hidden words

Welcome to the fourth edition of Decrypting the Cryptic! 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.

In Decrypting the Cryptic #3, we explored containers, in which one word is put into another. Now, we’re talking hidden words, in which the answer is provided right for you in the clue, with the letters in order and everything! Usually I do a little explanation first and then give examples, but here it makes sense to dive right in with an example.

Example #1: Silver-mouthed container of a liquid found in Manhattan? (8) (Clue credit: Me, 5/24)

The answer is VERMOUTH, which is “a liquid found in Manhattan?” The question mark indicates that you should not take the definition entirely literally: VERMOUTH is a liquid found in a Manhattan, as in “Stella’s favorite winter cocktail.”

Now look at the clue again: VERMOUTH was right there for you to see all along, in “Silver-mouthed,” and the word “container” was there to point you to the fact that the hyphenated word “silver-mouthed” contains the answer.

Example #2: Squib is in possession of a streaming service (5) (Clue credit: Me, 5/16)

The answer is QUIBI, which is “a streaming service” and also appears in the words “Squib is.” In this case, the words “in possession of” indicate that the answer is held by the phrase.

Like container clues, which we discussed in post #3, hidden-word clues always have some kind of indicator, although it can be quite subtle. In many if not most cases, words that can be used as indicators for hidden words can ALSO be used as indicators for containers, although you’ll never see such a word used both ways in the same clue. So you’ll have to let your mind wander in both of those directions if you see an indicator like:

  • Possession: “has,” “owns,” “holds,” or even simply an apostrophe with S
  • “Restrains” or a synonym
  • Words indicating an enclosure: “surrounds,” “encircles,” “is around,” etc.

How can you tell whether an indicator word is telling you to look for a container or a hidden word? The word itself won’t tell you. But look at the words immediately preceding or following the indicator word. Does a word that matches the enumeration of the answer appear “crossing the border(s)” of those words? If so, does that word sound like it could be defined by the other part of the clue? You’ve probably unearthed the hidden word. If you’re not getting anything that makes sense that way, then try thinking in a container direction instead.

Here’s one more example to help you practice.

Example #3: Beginning of Eugene’s isle (7) (Clue credit: Me, 6/4)

The answer is GENESIS, which means “beginning” and is also contained in the phrase “Eugene’s isle.” I was being tricky in a couple of ways here: First, “beginning” was the definition word, but it’s also used in the wordplay portion of many clues to indicate that you’re to take the first letter of a word and use it as part of the answer. Second, the only clue that you have that you’re dealing with a hidden word is the word “of” — the letters GENESIS are “of” the phrase that follows.

Hope that helps you understand hidden-word 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.

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