Many cryptic clues use abbreviations. They are a common way that cryptic setters add one or a few letters to the wordplay.
Abbreviations are often a stumbling block for solvers, especially those just starting out in this weird cryptic crossword world.
For the most comprehensive and searchable list of cryptic abbreviations currently available in app form, with explanations, check out my CrypticGuide app.
Many abbreviations are common, and you will already know them: north
Some abbreviations, however, are less obvious. There are international car licence plate codes, the phonetic alphabet, cricketing terms, and Roman numerals. These are in the dictionary, but if you aren’t aware of them to start with, what hope have you got? I have included some of these in the list below.
There are a plethora of what I can only call weird abbreviations too, which are used in British cryptics, in particular. Many of these have come from days long gone by, and are firmly rooted in UK public school and wartime life. They are rather incomprehensible to anyone who didn't grow up in the UK during the 1940s and 50s. I have listed some of these below to help you out.
How to spot abbreviations in clues
The main trick with finding any abbreviations in a cryptic clue is to look at each word in a clue one by one, and check whether it could lead to an abbreviation. Any given word may lead to an abbreviation, be an indicator word, another part of the wordplay, or part of the clue definition, so you need to gather all possible interpretations as you go!
This is a subset of the more commonly used chemical symbols found in cryptic clues. While correct chemical symbol usage is that the second letter is lower case (Au), for this list I’m setting them all in capitals (AU), to highlight that both letters are to be used in the clue’s wordplay.
There are both international country codes, and international car registration codes used on licence plates. This list below only has a few of them. If a cryptic clue mentions a country, it’s worth checking its entry in a dictionary or Wikipedia to see what its country code is.
|Albania||AL or ALB|
|Australia||AUS, AU, or OZ|
|Belgium||BEL or BE|
|Bolivia||BO or BOL|
|Brazil||BR or BRA|
|Cuba||CU or CUB|
|Finland||FI or FIN|
|Germany||DE or DEU|
|Greece||GRC, GR, or GRE|
|India||IN or IND|
|Italy||IT or ITA|
|Malaysia||MY or MYS|
|New Zealand||NZL or NZ|
|Peru||PE or PER|
|Somalia||SO or SOM|
|Switzerland||CHE, CH, SUI, or SWI|
|United Kingdom||GBR or UK|
|United States||USA or US|
|Yemen||YE or YEM|
Generally these are American, but your local states may also be included. I’ve included the USA and Australian states and territories on this list. Keep in mind that Canadian, British, and Indian states or county abbreviations can be used too, if that’s where your cryptic crossword is published. I've just included a few here to give you the idea:
|Australian Capital Territory||ACT|
That most British of sports, cricket, has lent many abbreviations to cryptic clues.
|duck||O ( no runs)|
I’ve just listed the shorter ones, as these are more likely to be included in a clue.
Again, this is a list of some of the more common Latin abbreviations that you will be familiar with.
|around, about, approx.||C (circa)|
|by the day||PD (per diem)|
|in this matter, concerning, about||RE|
|that is||IE (id est)|
|without issue (children)||SP (sine prole)|
The uncommon medieval Roman numerals are occasionally used too. These developed during the Middle Ages, to provide easier ways of writing large numbers. These were used in conjunction with the standard Roman numerals listed above. They are listed in full in CrypticGuide.
NATO phonetic alphabet
The phonetic alphabet is very popular in cryptic clues. It was first developed during World War I, to help in clear radio communication. This spelling alphabet has been adopted around the world. There have been various versions over time, but the following is the one that is generally used in cryptic clues.
|alfa / alpha||A|
Lesson common or downright weird abbreviations
|ace||AI (as in A1, the number 1 is read as letter I)|
|article||A, AN, THE|
|artists||RA (for Royal Academy)|
|beginner||L (for L-plate on a car)|
|bend||S or U (for S-bend, U-bend)|
|bill||IOU (I owe you)|
|blood group||A, B, AB, O|
|bob||S (for shilling)|
|books||OT, NT (for Old Testament, New Testament)|
|bridge player||N, S, E, W (seating)|
|castle||R (rook in chess)|
|day||D or V (Victory Day)|
|disc||O (it looks like a disc), LP, CD|
|dollar||S (similar to $)|
|egg||O (similar shape)|
|first class||A or AI (A1)|
|French art||ES (I am, thou art, Je suis, tu es, can you believe it?)|
|gas||CO (carbon monoxide), HE (helium) etc|
|good||A (as in A Grade), G|
|hand||AB (see sailor), L, R|
|high class||U (from upper class)|
|key||A, B, C, D, E, F, G (music)|
|king||ER (Edwardus Rex), R (Rex), K (chess)|
|love||O (tennis score of zero)|
|measure/printer’s measure||EN, EM|
|model||T (for Model T Ford)|
|playing, performing||ON (on stage)|
|quarter||N, S, E, W|
|queen||ER (Elizabetha Regina), R (Regina), Q (chess)|
|quiet||P, PP, SH, MUM|
|railway||RY, BR (British Rail)|
|sailor||TAR, AB (for able-bodied seaman), OS (ordinary seaman)|
|salt||AB (see sailor)|
|six-footer||ANT, BEE, etc (an insect has six legs)|
|soft||P (piano), B (pencil)|
|soldier||GI, RM (Royal Marines)|
|state||state abbreviation, often from USA|
|street||ST, AVE, RD, WAY|
|strings||E, A, D, or G (violin strings)|
|tar||AB (see sailor)|
|university||U, OU (Open University)|
|unknown||X, Y, Z (unknowns in equations)|
|upper class||U (rather dated!)|
|variable||X, Y, or Z (see unknown)|
|very loud||FF (fortissimo)|
|very soft||PP (pianissimo)|
|vitamin||A, B, C, D, E, BI (B1)|
Words from other languages
These are some of the foreign words commonly seen in cryptic crossword clues. The answers will probably be words you already know. They tend to be very short words.
French seems to be the most popular language used in cryptic clues. I think that this is because the spelling of short French words fits well into subsections of English words, more than in other languages.
|a / the / articles||UN, UNE, LA, LE, or LES|
|at / in / to||AU|
|from / of||DE, DU, DES|
|man / men||M (Monsieur), MM (Messieurs)|
|said / say||DIT|
|a / an||EIN, EINE, EINER|
|the / this / that||DER, DIE, DAS|
|a / an/ articles||UN, UNO, UNA, IL|
|a, an||UN, UNA|
|articles||EL, LA, LAS, LOS|
|hero||CID (El Cid)|