Tackling Abbreviations Used in Cryptic Crossword Clues
Abbreviations are widely used in cryptic clues, and many clue devices use them. You will come across abbreviations in charade, container, reversion and deletion clues in particular, and in some anagram clues.
Cryptic abbreviations can often trip up new solvers, so gaining some familiarity with these is a great way to improve your cryptic solving skills. There are hundreds of possible abbreviations, so reference lists are definitely handy.
Many cryptic abbreviations are quite straightforward and in common use. For example: north = N, left = L, oxygen = O, and that is = IE. The phonetic alphabet is often used (foxtrot = F, sierra = S, etc), as well as musical symbols (soft = P, for piano, loud = F, for forte, soprano = S etc) and cricketing terms (duck = O, from a score of 0, run out = RO etc).
However, there are a bunch of abbreviations that are decidedly odd, and which you really need to be told about to understand. These can really present stumbling blocks to the uninitiated! A lot of these are British, and come from an earlier time when cryptics were first developed (in the 1940s and 1950s). Many of these abbreviations stem from British divisions in the World Wars, or from school boy slang.
As an example of this, meal ticket = LV (luncheon voucher, part of a WWII scheme in the UK), main road = MI (looks like M1), lines = BR (British Rail), and beware = CAVE (from the Latin word for beware, which was used as schoolboy slang).
The best way to spot abbreviations in cryptic clues is to look at each word of a clue in turn, and see if it might lead to a common abbreviation. Looking up single letter entries in any dictionary will provide you with good lists of the common abbreviations. For the more specialised cryptic abbreviations, try using a cryptic crossword dictionary such as Chambers or Bradford’s, or looking for lists online.