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.

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