The Long and Short of Cryptic Abbreviations

by Denise Sutherland

One of the keys to cracking the cryptic code is learning about abbreviations. We setters use abbreviations in our clues all the time. They are used to ‘clue’ letters individually, or sometimes in pairs or triplets.

Here’s an example. Say I am writing a clue for the word CICADA.

One of the (many) ways I can break down this word is:

CA in ACID jumbled up

So as a wordplay, this becomes:

‘Put an abbreviation for CA inside an anagram of ACID’

CA can be an abbreviation for a lot of things:

  • About, approximately, around, circa and roughly (all from circa, meaning approximately)
  • Calcium
  • Accountant, chartered accountant
  • California

So the final clue could read:

Insect roughly put into bubbling acid (6)

Oh noes, poor thing!

So, in this clue, insect is the definition. Roughly is an abbreviation for CA (although in another clue it might function as an anagram indicator, but such is the duplicitous nature of cryptics!). CA needs to be put into an anagram of acid — the anagram indicator here is bubbling. So this gets us CI(CA)DA.

As you might have suspected, there are a lot of abbreviations. Some are really obvious, things we come across every day. Female = F. Hot = H (look at your water taps). Yes (Y) or No (N)? North (N), south (S), east (E) and west (W). Walk down the street (ST) or avenue (AVE).

Other abbreviations are still familiar, although they might require more specialist knowledge. Not out = NO (cricket). Potassium = K (periodic table). Charlie = C (phonetic alphabet). Bachelor = BA (Bachelor of Arts). 101 = CI (Roman numerals). Soprano = S. Note = DO, RE, MI and so on through the song.

Where we really get tripped up are the weird cryptic abbreviations. There needs to be some sort of a logical connection between the abbreviation and its original word, but these ones can be hard to spot at times! Some are obscure terms, or outdated, and others are rather, well, cryptic ways of looking at words and letters.

Here are just a few:

A follower = B (as B follows A in the alphabet)

Beginner = L (for L-plates on a car)

Bend = S or U (S-bend, or U-bend)

Hairstyle = DA (from Duck’s Arse, a 1950’s men’s hairstyle)

Midnight = G (the middle letter of night)

Nurse = RN (registered nurse, fair enough), but also VAD (Voluntary Aid Detachment, from WWI and WWII)

Ring = O — cos it looks like a ring

Team = II (looks like 11, the number of players in a cricket team)

Teas = TT (two Ts, get it?)

Upper class = U (very dated British term)

As you can see, there are a lot of possibilities, with new ones appearing all the time. How to handle these tricky little beasts? The key is to look at each word in a cryptic clue in isolation, and ask ‘Could this be leading to an abbreviation?’

A cryptic dictionary, such as Bradford’s Crossword Solver’s Dictionary can help decipher abbreviations, and there are many lists online. My marketing manager (me) insists that I’m supposed to plug my own app here. So just to keep her quiet, here you are: my CrypticGuide app includes thousands of cryptic definitions for abbreviations. And much much more. Including steak knives!


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