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Cryptic crosswords for beginners: middle letters | Crosswords

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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.

A crossword setter sometimes wants you to take the letter at the end of one of the clue’s words to make up part of the answer. Slightly more often, you are looking for the letter at the beginning of a word. And slightly less often – as you have probably guessed – you want the letter in the middle. Here’s Pan:

31a Celebrity holding middle of musical instrument (5)

So we take a word for celebrity (STAR), and make it “hold” the middle of the word “musical” (I), which gives us our instrument: SITAR. It takes a moment to realise that “musical” belongs to the wordplay and not to the definition, and that kind of ambiguity is why we do these things.

It’s not always “middle of”. Here’s Paul:

24a Name a character in the centre of big Gulf state (5)

This is a synonym for “name” (as a verb: DUB); the clue’s “a” becomes the answer’s A … and then “character in the centre of big” gives us an I: the Gulf state we’re looking for is DUBAI. When Paul says “character in the centre of”, he is simultaneously being utterly explicit about making us look for a central letter and appearing to describe something else entirely.

A word that solvers rapidly get used to interpreting as “take the middle letter” is one that directs you to the core – or perhaps the essence – of a word. An example from a setter who is a heart surgeon when he is not creating puzzles, Philistine:

21a Sad lover’s essentially missing you (7)

So we make an anagram (“sad”) of the word LOVERS, add the middle of “missing” and we get SOLVERS (that’s “you”). Setters are prone to talking directly to us, and to referring to themselves.

What if the word we’re pinching letters from has an even number of letters, and no single “character” in the middle? That’s what’s going on in this one from Anto:

5d Girl from the middle of Panama becoming saint (5)

The middles of “Panama”, “becoming” and “saint” give us NA, OM and I, so our girl is NAOMI.

Can this trick be played with more than two letters? It can. Again, here’s Pan:

21a Essentially miserable time? (3)

The essence of “miserable” is ERA, our time. And if you think this kind of thing is going on, but the middle of some word isn’t offering much that’s interesting, perhaps we’re looking for the middle of a sequence of words. So it is with Otterden …

6d Refuse to acknowledge central role in public utility (3)

… where we take the middle of “public utility” for the socially snubbing act, the CUT.

Seasoned solvers: do you have any favourite examples or other ways of doing this? Beginners: any questions? In the meantime, here’s Philistine again with a devilish clue that reverses the principle we’ve been talking about.

1d Clue for hotel in remote location? (6,2,7)

Since H is “hotel” in the Nato alphabet, a clue for it might be MIDDLE OF NOWHERE. Crikey.

More guidance

Cryptic devices: hidden answers; double definitions; cryptic definitions; soundalikes; initial letters; spoonerisms; containers; reversals; alternate letters; cycling; stuttering; taking most of a word; naked words; first and last letters

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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