Last week’s post  touched on the phenomenon of having a single authoritative reference that solvers and constructors can count on. Most British puzzles use Chambers, and the puzzles we used to edit for The Enigma  used Merriam-Webster’s Collegiate Dictionary. In addition to providing standardized vocabulary, as we discussed last week, this also had the virtue of providing a list of sanctioned abbreviations for single letters or letter combinations. (Note for beginners: When an abbreviation is used in a cryptic clue, it is not necessary to indicate this with “in brief” or the like.)
To our mild surprise, when we began constructing puzzles for The Nation we discovered that that second function was by far the more valuable of the two. “Is such-and-such a legitimate word or phrase?” turns out to be considerably easier question to answer in most cases than “Is such-and-such a legitimate, or familiar, abbreviation?” Certain abbreviations are clearly fair game—chemical symbols, for example, or two-letter postal abbreviations. But what about D for daughter, L for lake or V for vector? These are all recognizable equivalences under the right circumstances—but is it fair to expect solvers to make these connections out of context?
With an authoritative source dictionary, the matter becomes simple: if the abbreviation is listed, then it’s fair game, period. And over the years we became accustomed to using the abbreviations in Merriam-Webster—including such wonderful oddballs as O for pint or S for label—whenever we needed to clue a single letter. But without a dictionary, the number of abbreviations that are unquestionably familiar turns out to be fairly small.
Frank Lewis (our predecessor at The Nation) routinely used “point” for N, E, W or S, and also clued Roman numerals as “large number,” say. We have tended to want to be more specific, making explicit which cardinal point or which Roman numeral we are referring to. In the thriving British cryptic universe, there are so many ways to clue single letters that Alan Connor has dedicated entire posts in the Guardian cryptic blog to single letters. See, for example, his article  about the letter D.
In the absence of both a rich cryptic culture and a standard reference, we find ourselves struggling more often than we used to when we have to clue the individual letters as part of the wordplay. Roman numerals give access to a handful of letters, except that they are immediately spottable by solvers. Chemical elements don’t often work with the surface meaning of a clue, and postal abbreviations only come in pairs.
That leaves a few tried-and-true techniques, chiefly the first-letter or last-letter gambit: “gang leader” to clue G, “Mexico’s capital” for M, or “close of day” for Y. With a little luck, a constructor can also sometimes point to a particular interior letter—“Beethoven’s Fifth” to clue H is a venerable classic—but those are not often appropriate to a clue’s surface.
So we’re always on the lookout for new ways to point to individual letters. That’s why we love movies like M, with Peter Lorre, and why our favorite novel (for these purposes) is Thomas Pynchon’s V.
If you have any suggestions for clueing single letters—or if you have comments, questions, kudos or complaints about Puzzle #3236 —please post them in comments.