As chemistry taught us, every chemical element has a unique symbol, a short character representation usually derived from the element's name. Fe = Iron (from Latin ferrum), O = oxygen, K = potassium (from Latin kalium) are a few popular examples.
Element name <-> symbol substitution forms the basis of some ingenious wordplay in crosswords.
Chemical elements whose names coincide with other meaningful words fit beautifully into cryptic clues. For example, 'lead' isn't just a metal - it can, among other things, stand for 'leash' or 'precedence' or a verb meaning 'guide'. Similarly, 'tin' can be can, 'copper' a policeman, 'iron' a verb about the pressing of clothes. The non-element meaning can misdirect the solver on the clue's surface while the element symbol contributes to the answer.
Sunday Indy 1292 (eXternal): Female's accepting lead on family film, new actress (7) HEPBURN
HER (female's) around Pb (lead) on U (family film, from the U certificate) N (new)
FT14789 (Io): Take 7Up out of tin at all? (4) EVER
R (recipe, take) + SEVEN 'out of tin' i.e. without Sn, with 'Up' implying reversal.
Further jugglery can happen with the element name <-> symbol substitution:
Sunday Times 4486 (Tim Moorey): Restrain dog with the small part of lead (4) CURB
CUR (dog) b (the small part of 'lead' i.e. the lowercase letter of 'Pb')
Sometimes, in place of the element name, a broader definition can get used.
FT14642 (Mudd): Precious thing, wind, in summer (6) AUGUST
Au (precious thing – the symbol for gold) GUST (wind)
Times 25065: Most curious split appearing back on shiny metal (4) AGOG
GO (split) reversed, after Ag (shiny metal – the symbol for silver)
What's more devilish is the use of the element symbol on the clue's surface when it happens to match another unrelated English word.
Guardian 25872 (Arachne): I have supper after ten (6) IODINE
DINE (have supper) after 10 (ten). The personal pronoun is also the chemical symbol for iodine.
Guardian 25818 (Paul): At sea, Titan at sea (8) ASTATINE
(SEA TITAN)*. 'At' is also the chemical symbol for astatine.
The initial capital of the chemical symbol poses a hurdle in clue-writing: since false lowercasing is not OK, the clue cannot say "at" when it means "At" for Astatine. The workaround is to make the initcap of the chemical symbol look like an inconspicuous punctuation-driven uppercase.
A D-by-E that uses this trick with two such symbols:
Guardian 24730 (Arachne): They're essential. Am I? (8) ELEMENTS
Am and I are examples of elements: Am is americium, and I iodine.
Other such words to watch out for: As = arsenic, He = helium. But don't rule out yet element symbols that by themselves mean nothing, as the setter can do this:
FT 13938 (Crux): Pub's empty – could indicate some kind of poisoning (4) LEAD
Empty 'Pub' = Pb, the symbol for lead. And then there's lead poisoning.
Enjoy solving these cryptic crossword clues that play on element names and symbols.
Times 24143: Lead put into gold (two billion) in only a bit of a lather! (4,6)
Times 25767: He, I, and then you, we hear, occupying leadership position (6)
Guardian 26234 (Arachne): White copper put black boy in cell without clothes (3,4)
Indy 8817 (Monk): Tough guy possibly viewed as female? (4,3)
Indy 8847 (Anax): As is one kind bearing malice, running after the man (8,7)
Also try this Guardian puzzle by Brendan, themed on chemical elements. And see the blog on FT14457 by Loroso (the crossword is no longer available on the FT site), in which all the Across clues have an element symbol omitted from the wordplay.
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