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. Hence “crossword”. Also, the setters’ names tend to link to profiles of the individuals behind the pseudonyms.
Sometimes a clue will make reference to a boy or a girl. What letters is the setter expecting you turn them into?
Happily, “girl” is rarely nowadays used in a clue to indicate the letters BIRD or BIT in an answer. A different vintage word survives, one that won’t have “(derog.)” alongside it in the dictionary. And when there is a GEL, it’s often specified that the girl in question is posh, as with Vulcan’s clue …
26a An upper-class girl? A girl (6)
[ wordplay: AN (“An”) + synonym for upper-class girl + A (“a”) ]
[ AN + GEL + A ]
[ definition: girl ]
We’ll come back to girls’ and boys’ actual names below; for now, it’s worth remembering that “gel” is not always posh; it’s used by Norman Stanley Fletcher to his daughter in Porridge:
And the GEL might equally be a GAL – or, especially if specified that she is of the upper crust or is in some sense “stepping out”, she may, even nowadays, turn out to be a DEB.
Every boy is some mother’s son. So when Chifonie give us this clue …
17a Boy to take home poem (6)
[ wordplay: synonyms for “boy” + “to take home” ]
[ definition: poem ]
… we change “boy” to SON and “to take home” to NET for the poem, a SONNET. Since he’s not always acting as someone’s SON, he might also be a LAD or even a TAD – as in, I suspect, a tadpole.
Other times, you’re asked to imagine you’re folksily addressing a girl, with a diminutive form of a woman’s name. Here’s Arachne:
18d Writer’s regret, having embraced quiet girl (7)
[ wordplay: synonym for “regret”, surrounding (“having embraced”) synonym for “quiet” (as an instruction) & a girl’s name ]
[ definition: name of a writer ]
So we take RUE and insert SH and the girl DI for the writer RUSHDIE.
When it is a girl’s name, I try DI, EVE and ADA first; if one of those is not the girl in question, then I often get the answer from the definition and work backwards to confirm the presence of a MO, a DOT, a MIA, an ENA, a VI … and so on.
And so it is with boys. Here’s Gordius:
17a With apprehension of little boys at arm’s length (7)
[ wordplay: two short forms of boys’ names, separated by the letters ARM (“at arm’s length”) ]
[ AL + ARM + ED]
[ wordplay: with apprehension ]
With boys, ED and AL are my go-to names, but I may later find that the child in question was the slightly longer TED or ALI, or indeed TOM, LEN, DAN, TIM, or NED.
There’s also IAN, though he’s still often referred to as a Scotsman.
And sometimes the setter might be kind enough to give you the long form of the name you’re to shorten. That said, “kind” is not a word that springs to mind when confronted with this from Paul:
11a Sweet Queen Elizabeth, perhaps, protecting herself, Elizabeth and daughter (7,3)
[ wordplay: what Queen Elizabeth is an example of (‘ … perhaps’), containing (‘protecting’) abbrev. for current ‘Queen Elizabeth’ (‘herself’), short form of ‘Elizabeth’ & abbrev. for ‘daughter’ ]
[ SHIP, containing ER & BET & D ]
[ definition: sweet ]
It’s a SHERBET DIP.
If you’re wondering whether “boy” or “girl” might offer still more of crosswords’ abbreviations, we’ve discussed the fact that you might see “b” and “g” in genealogy but not in the dictionaries – but that’s in one of our not-for-beginners features.
Finally, beginners: any questions? And seasoned solvers: which boys and girls do you encounter most in cryptic crosswords?
Find a collection of explainers, interviews and other helpful bits and bobs at alanconnor.com
The Shipping Forecast Puzzle Book by Alan Connor, which is partly but not predominantly cryptic, can be ordered from the Guardian Bookshop