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.

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