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.

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.

Decrypting the Cryptic #9: When to stop and try again

Rabbit hole this way... | Claudia L'Amoreaux
This is much cuter than getting stuck in a metaphorical rabbit hole when you’re solving.

Welcome to Decrypting the Cryptic #9! Unlike my usual posts, today I’m not going to be explaining a particular rule or convention of cluing, but rather helping you figure out when you might be going down the wrong rabbit hole.

Everything I’m telling you presupposes you are solving an American cryptic and that you’re solving a puzzle or clue by an experienced constructor who knows the rules. Brits are allowed certain levels of trickiness that we Yanks are not, and because “the rules” are not particularly well codified, novice and intermediate puzzlemakers may make mistakes that break them. (OH HAI IT ME SOMETIMES)

Rabbit hole #1: Mixing up the straight definition and the wordplay

I’ve seen comments on some #explanationfriday posts that indicate that not everyone realizes that the straight definition and the wordplay in a cryptic clue must always be two discrete components. They don’t mix, at least not in American cryptics. (UK cryptics DO allow mixing; I’m not sure what the rules are for India, Australia, and other more recently colonized countries, but I suspect they’re more likely to follow UK rules.)
So, if you find yourself thinking that the first and the last words of a clue are a charade or anagram components leading you to an answer that’s defined by the words in the middle, stop it! You’re in a rabbit hole and it’s time to get out.

Rabbit hole #2: Can’t decide between two answers

This is one thing common to cryptics in every country, I believe: With all the information given to you, there should never be more than one correct answer to the clue.

This isn’t always true in standard American crosswords — probably the most famous example of all time is the New York Times 1996 Election Day puzzle, in which 39-Across could be CLINTON or BOB DOLE, either of which fit the clue and, amazingly, leading to all seven crossings working with their respective clues. It remains one of the all-time constructing feats in standard crosswords, but it’s not a thing that happens in cryptics!

Cryptic constructors want to be tricky and make you have a hard time getting to the answer — but once you get there, you should be sure it’s the answer. It’s part of the constructor’s job to write the clue such that, given all of the information available to you — including enumeration and, if we’re talking about a puzzle and not an isolated clue, crossing letters — there should be only one way to make everything work. (When making full puzzles, I also try to avoid writing clues in which there are two possible answers that you have to use the crossings to pick from, because that eliminates that entry as a possible foothold in the puzzle for the solver.)

This is why, for example, when I write #crypticclueaday, I avoid placing indicator words in the center of a clue if both the definition and the wordplay lead to answers of the same length. For example, “Low voice sounds evil (4)” is an unfair clue because it could lead to BASS (in which case “sounds” would be the homophone indicator for BASE, or “evil”), but it could also lead to BASE because “sounds” is in the middle and could also be indicating a homophone of BASS.

So, if you are really torn between two answers and you’re solving a puzzle by an experienced constructor, take a step back and look at the clue carefully again. At least one of your guesses is wrong!

Tell me more!

Just two rabbit holes today, but that’s in part because I’m a far more experienced cryptic solver than I am a constructor, and I tend not to get stuck in ways that relate to the rules — so I don’t know what else you guys might need help with! Please leave a note in the comments if there’s a clue you’ve been having trouble figuring out, and I’ll try to be your Clue Doctor and diagnose the problem in a future post, especially if your question indicates an issue with understanding the rules that other solvers might be having.
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.

Decrypting the Cryptic #8: Homophones

I heard it was time for some explanations…

Welcome to Decrypting the Cryptic #8! 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. Sounds like it’s time for homophones! (See what I did there?)

Cryptic crosswords make lots of use of homoNYMs — that is, a word that has two meanings with different etymologies (and possibly different pronunciations). We explored that in the double definitions post. But why stop at homonyms when you can play with homoPHONEs as well? Homophones are words that sound the same, even though they are spelled differently, like BASE and BASS (the latter in its “low voice” sense, not its “food fish” sense) or HEAR and HERE.

When a word is being clued using a homophone, there will always be an indicator of some kind that you’re to sound out what’s being clued rather than taking the clued word directly. (There will still be a direct cluing of the word in the direct definition; this is just in the wordplay portion of the clue.) These indicators can include, but are not limited to:

  • A reference to hearing: “I heard,” “in the ear,” “listened to”
  • Words about speaking: “orally,” “out loud,” “said,” “recited”
  • “Reportedly” and its synonyms
  • “On the radio,” “broadcast,” “over the airwaves,” etc.

Now that I’ve told you some common indicators, here’s a simple example:

Example #1: Ram heard objection (4)

The answer is BUTT. The straight definition is “Ram,” or BUTT in the sense of head-butting someone. It’s also a homophone for BUT, which is an “objection,” and the word “heard” indicates that you’re looking for a homophone. And remember how I told you that enumerations are themselves clues? That’s how you know that you’re to look for BUTT and not BUT. (Without an enumeration or a puzzle grid, you’d have to guess, because the indicator word is adjacent to both “Ram” and “objection.”)

Note that, unlike with anagrams, in which the constructor must give you actual words to be anagrammed, NOT synonyms of those words, in the case of homophones the constructor is free to clue a synonym of the homophone. (We can’t go too easy on you — they’re called cryptics, after all!)

The thing about simple homophone examples is that they’re kind of boring. The best cryptic constructors (of whom I do not consider myself one — yet!) are able to string together some pretty elaborate homophonetic (is that a word? I’m declaring it one if it isn’t) phrases that are hilarious when you figure them out. Here’s an example straight Out of Left Field:

Example #2: Revolutionary permitted to be recited — and recited audibly (4,5) (Clue credit: Joshua Kosman and Henri Picciotto, Out of Left Field #6; subscription required to view full puzzle)

This one’s extra tricky because there are a couple of words — “recited” and “audibly” that could be the indicator. In the end it’s “to be recited” that is the indicator, and “audibly” is part of the definition. The answer is READ ALOUD, or “recited audibly” in the straight definition. But READ ALOUD is also homophonetic with RED ALLOWED, in which “red” comes from “Revolutionary” in the clue and ALLOWED comes from “permitted.”

Homophones aren’t as common as the other clue types we’ve discussed thus far because, as I mentioned, the simple ones are kind of boring and the complicated ones are hard to get to as a constructor. I, for one, have not yet managed to produce a good multi-word homophonetic clue yet, but I’ll build a whole damn puzzle around it and then throw a party when I do.

That explains homophones for ya! Feel free to ask questions in the comments, 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.

Tough as Nails Themeless #15

After my self-indulgent 74-worder, here’s a proper 68-word themeless for y’all. Enjoy!

I also tried using the .puz to PDF site someone posted to generate an ink-saving PDF. The layout is different, but it should work for you. If you prefer the old layout, print the file from Across Lite instead.

Tough as Nails Themeless #15 – Across Lite

Decrypting the Cryptic #7: Reversals

Sometimes in cryptics, it’s time to back that thing up.

Welcome to Decrypting the Cryptic #7! 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. Today, we’re taking on double definitions.

Back that thing up, because today we’re taking on reversals! In a reversal, a word or phrase is spelled backwards to create another word or phrase. Unlike with anagrams, the exact text to be reversed does not have to be given to you in the clue — a synonym will do, although sometimes you do get the exact letters to be reversed. And there will always be some kind of indicator word or phrase that lets you know that you’re to reverse the order of the letters. Let’s look at an example.

Example #1: Back-end vessels (4)

The answer is POTS (“vessels,”) which is STOP (“end”) spelled backward; the word “back” indicates that you’re spelling something backwards.

Note that the answer must be POTS, not STOP, because the word “back” appears adjacent to “end” (the synonym for STOP), and not adjacent to “vessels” (the synonym for POTS), which indicates that STOP is to be reversed. So note that the clue “End back vessels (4),” besides being more awkward from a surface sense, is also unfairly ambiguous, because the word “back” is adjacent to BOTH “end” and “vessels” — there is no way to tell which four-letter word is being asked for. 

That being said, you may find the indicator word in the middle of a clue when you’re solving a full puzzle; it’s less than perfectly elegant, but not unfair as long as you have crossings that enable you to choose between the two alternatives. The indicator word can also be in the middle if the word to be reversed is given directly in the clue, as in “Flow back to inhale (4)” for WOLF. WOLF here means “to inhale” in the “wolf your food” sense, and the placement of “back” is not ambiguous because you can reverse the word FLOW to get a synonym for “to inhale,” but so far as I know there is no way to reverse any synonym for “inhale” to get a four-letter synonym for “flow.”

There aren’t THAT many words and phrases that reverse neatly into another word or phrase just as they are, so reversals are frequently paired with some other clue type. Here’s an example.

Example #2: Ran back into sore, chaotic situation (7)

The answer is ANARCHY. Again, the indicator word for the reversal is “back.” Turn the word RAN around to get the letter string NAR, which is inserted into the word ACHY (“sore”) to create ANARCHY, a “chaotic situation.” (Remember those containers we talked about?)

Of course, “back” isn’t the only way to indicate a reversal. Here are some other words that should tip you off that you’re to spell something backward:

  • Sometimes we’ll just be nice and say “backward” or “reverse [in any of its tenses]”!
  • Expressions for turning around, like “turned about,” “about-face,” or “U-turn”
  • Clues about going right to left instead of left to right: “turns left,” “go west”
  • “Wrong way” or other phrases that indicate that you’ve been given the answer in the wrong direction
  • Appropriate gymnastics terms like “somersault” and “backflip”
  • Words that indicate backward motion, like “retreat”

Note that when you’re solving a puzzle, you’re going to have some Down entries. In Down clues, you’ll also get some indicator words that I won’t say NEVER appear in Across clues, but are more likely to appear there than in Across clues:

  • Indications that an answer is to be printed going up instead of coming down: “up,” “going north”
  • Synonyms for standing something on end, like “erect”
  • Expressions for turning something upside down, like “inverted” and “flip over”
  • Words that indicate ascent, like “climb” and “rise” — because the answer is supposed to be going down, but instead the wordplay indicates a word that’s climbing up

That’s it for reversals! Feel free to ask questions in the comments, 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.

Tough as Nails Self-Indulgent Bonus

6/27/09 🙂 Photo by Chad Johnson.

Hey, look, it’s a bonus puzzle! Can I really call it a themeless if there’s a running thread of self-indulgence through the entire thing? Be nice, it’s both my 17-Across AND my 9-Down.

Somebody posted asking me to make the PDFs ink savers. I don’t know how to do that. I usually make the PDFs from Across Lite. If you know how to make ink-saver grids from Across Lite or Crossfire, tell me and I can start doing that. Otherwise, you get what you pay for!

Also, it has 74 words. Like I said, self-indulgent. I think you’ll like it anyway. 🙂

Tough as Nails Self-Indulgent “Themeless” – Across Lite