Cryptic crosswords for beginners: the states of the US

·3 min read
<span>Photograph: Topography Resources/Alamy</span>
Photograph: Topography Resources/Alamy

In the example clues below, I explain the two parts of each one. There is a definition of the answer and there is some wordplay – a recipe for assembling its letters. In a genuine puzzle environment, of course, you also have the crossing letters, which hugely alleviate your solving load. Also, here, the setters’ names tend to link to profiles of the individuals behind the pseudonyms.

Any reasonably familiar set of abbreviations is going to catch a crossword setter’s eye as a useful way of indicating part of a word. The entertainment industry means that British solvers are more likely to have come across abbreviations used for the 50 states than they are, say, Bolivian departmentos. Here are some that a beginner should keep an eye out for.

California = CA

The Golden Gate Bridge
The Golden Gate Bridge. Photograph: Anadolu Agency/Getty Images

Staying with the entertainment industry, “California” in a clue often indicates CA in an answer. Sometimes, setters might combine it with another state. Two examples, both from Pan:

8d Drink from California and Virginia (4)

6a Shrub found in Colorado and California (4)

In the first we combine CA and VA for the drink, CAVA, and in the second CO and CA for the shrub, COCA.

Rhode Island = RI

Newport County, Rhode Island
Newport County, Rhode Island. Photograph: Image Source/Alamy

You don’t have to be a big state to figure in crosswords. Texas is certainly large and much discussed but, unless the setter has a burning urge to include Pope Innocent XI in a puzzle, the TX abbreviation is not much help to anyone.

By contrast, here’s tiny Rhode Island in a clue from Nutmeg

20d Opening agency, fellow leaves for Rhode Island (7)
[ wordplay: synonym for “agency” with abbrev for “fellow” replaced by abbrev for “Rhode Island” ]
[ OFFICE with one F replaced by RI ]
[ definition: opening ]

… for ORIFICE. Do setters always give the full name of the state? They do not. Here’s Brendan

12a Eastern state with TV channel for those with sense of adventure? (5)
[ wordplay: abbrev for a state in the east of the USA + name of TV channel ]
[ RI + SKY ]
[ definition: for those with sense of adventure? ]

… cluing RISKY. OK, so do they always help you narrow down which state you’re looking for? Read on.

Florida = FLA

Miami Beach, Florida
Miami Beach, Florida. Photograph: Andre Babiak/Alamy

Before that, another warning. You’ve seen some states referred to with three-letter abbreviations, so here’s Everyman …

9a Concede around New Year: “Florida’s where retiree might live” (6,4)
[ wordplay: synonym for “concede” containing (“around”) abbrevs for “new”, “year” and “Florida” ]
[ GRANT containing N & Y & FLA ]
[ definition: where retiree might live ]

… with a clue for GRANNY FLAT. And, so, the cautious solver will be wondering, does a “California” always indicate a two-letter CA?

California = CAL

The Golden Gate Bridge again
The Golden Gate Bridge, again. Photograph: Anadolu Agency/Getty Images

It certainly doesn’t. Here’s Crucible

24a Centre Point’s fine old state (5)
[ wordplay: abbrevs for “fine”, “old” and a US state ]
[ F + O + CAL ]
[ definition: centre point ]

… with a clue for FOCAL, which leaves you to work out for yourself which state we’re talking about.

This is a handy reminder that, as often as not, you might crack a clue by seeing a word that fits and matches the definition, and confirm it with the wordplay part. And, let’s be clear, a reminder that we embrace the unexpected: it’s part of the fun.

Beginners, any questions? Seasoned solvers, any favourite examples?

More guidance

Cryptic devices: hidden answers; double definitions; cryptic definitions; soundalikes; initial letters; spoonerisms; containers; reversals; alternate letters; cycling; stammering; taking most of a word; naked words; first and last letters; middle letters; defining by example.

Bits and bobs: Roman numerals; Nato alphabet; Greek letters; chemistry; abbreviations for countries; points of the compass; playing cards; capital letters; boys and girls; apostrophes; cricket; alcohol; the church; Latin; royals; newspapers; doctors; drugs; music; animals; cars; cities; rivers; boats; when the setter’s name appears; when the solver appears; “cheating”.

Individual letters: A, B, C, D, E, F, G, H, I, J, K, L, M.

The Shipping Forecast Puzzle Book by Alan Connor, which is partly but not predominantly cryptic, can be obtained from the Guardian Bookshop.

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