Cryptic class — Abbreviations and the like

Abbreviations are widely used in cryptic clues of all kinds. Abbreviations often trip up new solvers; if you can get a handle on these, it will be an immense help when approaching any cryptic crossword.

Say, for example, the word to be clued is TEASE. It can nicely be broken down as:

So the clue writer has to come up with a way of telling you to "Add a T to ease". Of course, just saying "Add a T" is far too boring and obvious in the cryptic realm! So, they'll use an abbreviation. They could say "Add a tenor to ease", or "Add a ton to ease" or "Add Thailand to ease" ... these are all standard words that lead to the abbreviation "T". [NB, this wouldn't be the final clue wording, the setter would have a lot more work to do to get it to read nicely as a clue; this is just to show you how the wordplay might work!]

If you look up single letter entries in any dictionary, you will come up with all the standard abbreviations — and all of these are fair game in cryptic clues. The sorts of standard abbreviations that are covered include:

  • chemical symbols (oxygen = O, iron = FE etc)
  • phonetic alphabet (Charlie = C, Romeo = R etc)
  • Roman numerals (five = V, 100 = C, etc)
  • musical symbols (soprano = S, forte or loud = F etc)
  • genealogy symbols (son = S, wife = W etc)
  • country codes (Sweden = SE, Egypt = EG etc)
  • international vehicle registrations (Sweden = S, Egypt = ET etc)
  • cricketing terminology (not out = NO, caught = C etc)
  • sol-fa scale (note = DO, RE, MI etc)
  • directions (north = N, point or direction = N, S, E or W, quarter = N, S, E, W, NE, NW, SE, SW etc)
  • cartography symbols (river = R, ocean = O etc)
  • Latin terms (that is = IE, about = C, CA (circa) etc)

But, as these clearly aren't enough, there are a whole slew of rather bizarre abbreviations that are also used. Some of these play on words sounding like other things (so tea = T), or looking like other things (so ring = O). Numbers can be translated into letters because they look the same, especially 1 (one) = I, and 0 (zero) = O. So using this sort of logic, first = IST (because it looks like 1st), and top class = AI (cos it looks like A1). And some are slightly cryptic sorts of definitions, such as at home = IN, performing = ON (on stage), and many more.

There are also a whole host of rather bewildering abbreviations that have been around since the early days of cryptic crosswords (1930s and on), which are very dated, very UK-centric, and are still used now and then, and totally bewilder new solvers (not surprisingly). They are often rooted in WWI and WWII culture too. So, while nurse can be abbreviated as RN (Registered Nurse), or SRN (State Registered Nurse, a UK term), it can also lead to VAD (the Voluntary Aid Detachment, a UK organisation during WWI and WWII)! These sorts of abbreviations make the 'cryptic code' even more dense, especially for younger solvers, new solvers, and those who don't live in the UK.

Some abbreviations are deemed to be Libertarian (the mystery of Ximenian and Libertarian clues is divulged here) such as many = pretty much any collection of Roman numerals!

The area is also modernising (s l o w l y), so you will also come across more familiar abbreviations such as artificial intelligence = AI, and integrated circuit = IC. I do my bit with my cryptics, in that I don't use very dated abbreviations at all, and occasionally use modern usages that are in everyday use.

Some abbreviations are, to my mind, frankly ridiculous, and should have been retired from use decades ago. A couple of stand out examples:

  • beware = CAVE (pronounced "kah-vay"), which is very dated British schoolboy slang for "beware", from the Latin word for the same
  • French art = ES (I am, thou art is translated as Je suis, tu es! For starters, who says "thou art" any more  in English grammar?!)

Foreign Words

This last example brings up another way that setters can add letters to clues: foreign words. In general, they are short words, 2 or 3 letters only, and very common words, such as the, and, one, if, and so on.

If you see a clue that includes wording along the lines of the German (the in German), and Spanish (and in Spanish), or one in France (the French word for one), you need to reach for a translation app, dictionary, or website ... the Google Translate app is free and does a host of languages. French is very commonly used, largely because of the range of letters found in it — they fit well into the structure of English words.

Proper Nouns

Names are sometimes used in cryptic clues, too. It's a good idea to learn the really short names of rivers (which in cryptic clues can be called flowers, because they're things that flow, groan) — PO, DEE, ORD, EXE, and so on. The same goes for short city names, and the names of people. Generally these are well-known people, such as actors, politicians, composers, novelists, and so on. Occasionally you will see a clue that just mentions girl or boy, which then leads to any short girl's or boy's name (which seems rather unfair to me!) — the word you're seeking could be JO, or SAM, or TOM, or SUE, or ANN, or ... just keep guessing!

Sometimes longer names lead to a shortened version of that name. Albert often an abbreviation for AL, Edward shortens to ED or TED, Robert can be BOB or ROB, and so on.

The key to spotting abbreviations in a cryptic clue? Look at each word in a clue one by one, in isolation, and see if it might lead to an abbreviation. Cryptic crossword dictionaries have lists of all the standard abbreviations, and there are lists on the internet too. If you see the word west in a clue, you're very likely to be seeing an abbreviation for W. However, west could also be a reversal indicator (get some letters to run to the west, or backwards), so you need to keep in mind that any one word can be used in a range of ways in any given clue!