Anagrams are among the main tools in the hands of the cryptic crossword constructor (see our previous post), but there are other ways of mixing and recombining letters than the strict one-to-one style of the anagram. One form of wordplay that’s proved both popular and fruitful in the National Puzzlers’ League—but has been used rarely if at all in cryptic crosswords—is the letter bank.
A letter bank consists of at least two words or phrases. The shortest one, called the bank, contains no repeated letters (an “isogram,” in wordplay terminology), and any longer words or phrases are built by using each of those letters at least once, but repeating them as many times as necessary. So for instance, the four letters in the bank LENS can be repeated and recombined to form the longer word SENSELESSNESS. Other examples are CONQUEST and SONNET SEQUENCE, or the tripartite NASTIER/ARTSINESS/EASTERN RITES. In line with NPL guidelines, we require the longer word to be at least three letters longer than the bank (otherwise the result feels more like a failed anagram).
We have used only a handful of letter bank clues in the Nation puzzle. When we started drafting this post, we thought that the reason was because letter bank pairs are not all that common: The longer word needs to have enough repeating letters, and once the repeats are eliminated the distinct letters need to anagram to something useful.
Looking back through past Nation puzzles, however, we found that there were plenty of candidates for letter banks, including some great ones, that for better or for worse we clued in more standard ways (charades, anagrams, etc.). Perhaps it’s the weight of tradition—after decades of solving and constructing cryptics with no letter banks, that clue type did not readily come to mind.
In any case, here are some letter bank clues from past puzzles:
CATCH-AS-CATCH-CAN Snatch, using every element as needed in whatever way possible (5-2-5-3)
DALAI LAMA Draw as needed on the resources of a mild religious leader (5,4)
TO BE OR NOT TO BE Existential question latent in Brontë’s letters (2,2,2,3,2,2)
UKULELE Luke provides everything you need for a musical instrument (7)
VENISONIVOROUS Use and reuse pieces of souvenir, eating deer perhaps? (14)
By the way, we were accused of making up VENISONIVOROUS. True, it doesn’t seem like a real word, but we cannot take credit for inventing it. We found it in Merriam-Webster’s New International Dictionary, 2nd Edition (unabridged), and it won our hearts instantly.
So far, we’ve only used the longer word as the entry and the bank in the clue, but there’s no reason not to go the other way. In either direction, of course, the challenge is to come up with decent indicators. Solvers accept a fairly wide range of options to indicate anagrams, but since this is a new clue type, and a more complicated one, our choices are fewer. Still, we intend to continue pushing this particular envelope! Like them or not, letter banks are here to stay, so be on the lookout for them.
Do you love letter banks? Do you hate them? Please share here, along with any quibbles, questions, kudos or complaints about the current puzzle or any previous puzzle. To comment (and see other readers’ comments), please click on this post’s title and scroll to the bottom of the resulting screen.
Finally, here are three links:
• The current puzzle
• Our puzzle-solving guidelines
• A Nation puzzle solver’s blog where you can ask for and offer hints, and where every one of our clues is explained in detail.