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.

6 thoughts on “Decrypting the Cryptic #11: Letter Banks

  1. Your explanations of how to decode cryptic clues are quite helpful. I have been “cryptic curious” for a while (e.g., I enjoy doing the cryptic-adjacent NYT Puns & Anagrams puzzles), but getting a foothold in the world of cryptics is daunting. Would it be possible for you to either create some beginner-level cryptics for people like me to cut our teeth on, or point us to a source of such puzzles?


    1. Possible? Yes. Likely? Not in the next few months just based on my other workload.

      I would say that Josh and Henri’s Left Field cryptics, while not always as easy as my Twitter clues, are reasonably accessible. Start with the samples if you’re not ready to buy a subscription, or the books are also not terribly expensive.


  2. I’ll second the earlier comment. Your periodic blog posts on the different types of clues – along with multiple examples of each type – have been extraordinarily helpful. I’d also add that the New Yorker also publishes an online cryptic each Sunday (they are not actually new, but ran in the magazine 20+ years ago, so might as well be).

    When I was a complete beginner, I also found that solving in a format (.puz, for example) which allows for automatic error checking and single-letter or word reveals can help get unstuck, and I still fall back on it every now and then. The last thing I’d add is that I had to let go of the idea that I could finish a cryptic in a single sitting, and I often need 2-3 days for the clouds to part (and sometimes I just have to admit defeat and peek). Quite unlike a standard American crossword puzzle, where even a relatively difficult puzzle – like a Fri or Sat NYT offering – is a walk in the park for experienced solvers.


    1. Good point! I don’t usually finish in a single sitting either, which is one of the things I love about cryptics — that hasn’t been true of me with standard American crosswords in a very long time. I like that my subconscious gets to spend some time working through the clues, which I believe is what’s happening when I’m utterly stumped, and then come back a day later to the same clue and solve it immediately.


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