Decrypting the Cryptic #14: The Cryptic Alphabet

Welcome to Decrypting the Cryptic #14! 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. 

I’m running out of actual rules to explain to you guys — in fact, the only big one I can think of that I haven’t done yet is the &lit. clue, which is a beautiful thing but difficult to achieve for a constructor and therefore not very common. So, we’ll save that one for next week. Instead, we’ll look at something constructors need to do a lot, which is to indicate a single letter of the alphabet in some way. That letter might need to be added to a word, be dropped from a word, play in a game of charades — but no matter what, it’s boring and not very cryptic simply to give the solver that letter. So here are some ways that we do that.

  • If a word has a common single-letter abbreviation, then the whole word might be used in the wordplay to clue that letter. For example, on your bathroom faucet, the hot and cold taps may be marked “H” and “C”; thus, “hot” and “cold” are often used to indicate those letters in cryptic wordplay. Other examples include:
    • “Win” and “loss” for W and L
    • “Runs,” “hits,” or “errors” for R, H, or E
    • “Left” and “right” for L and R
    • “True” or “false” for T or F
    • “Yes” or “no” for Y or N
    • “Male” or “female” for M or F
  • The NATO phonetic alphabet: “Charlie” for C, “tango” for T, etc.
  • Elemental symbols (not limited to single-letter symbols, of course): “oxygen” for O, “potassium” for K, etc.
  • Other common math and science abbreviations and symbols
    • “Speed of light” for C
    • “Time” for T
    • “Force,” “mass” and “acceleration” for F, M, and A
  • “Nothing” and its synonyms (“zero,” “nil,” etc.) for O, since O looks like a zero
    • “Love” is also frequently used in this way, since love is zero in tennis!
  • Letter grades: “good” for B, “average” for C, “poor” for D, etc.
  • Abbreviations for units of measurement
    • “Second” for S
    • “Meter” for M
    • “Gram” for G
  • “Fork” for Y (get it? Ys are shaped like forks!)
  • Roman numerals: “ten” for X, “five” for V, etc.

Now that I’ve thrown a big, but not comprehensive, laundry list at you, here are a couple of examples to practice:

Example #1: Full minimum stream (4)

The answer is FLOW, or “stream” (either in the verb or the noun sense). A “minimum” is a “low,” so the single letter being clued here is F — which is “full” on your gas tank.

Example #2: Opera article comes after terrible cost (5)

The “opera” being clued here is TOSCA. “Terrible cost” leads you to anagram the letters in the word COST to get TOSC. What “comes after” that is the last letter in the word, A, which is an “article,” as in an indefinite article in the grammatical sense. (Thus, “article” can also be used to clue the letter strings AN or THE, just not this time.)

Hope you enjoyed our exploration of the cryptic alphabet, 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.

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