Thursday 4 September 2014

Alphabetic Letter Names in Crosswords

letter-names Every letter of the English alphabet has a "letter name". Vowel names are the same as the letters they represent, consonant names are usually <consonant>EE (e.g. B = BEE, C = CEE) or E<consonant> (e.g. F = EF, M = EM).

Though a letter naming standard exists, its practical usage in the real world is limited to scenarios like saying the alphabet aloud, answering queries of the form "how do you spell PHNOM PENH", or creating rhymes/songs. In the cryptic world, on the other hand, the possibilities of letter name usage are rich.

Clue Examples

Letter names like BEE (B) and GEE (G) are also dictionary words with other independent meanings, and can be used on a clue's surface with interesting results.

Guardian 24893 (Pasquale): Alert old maid, possibly as bee-keeper (9) OBSERVANT
O (old) SERVANT (maid), keeping i.e. containing B (bee)

Letter names can provide wordplay options that the simple letter would not.

Guardian 25704 (Puck): Leading lady's letter to the papers (7) EMPRESS
EM (letter M) PRESS (the papers)

Guardian 26076 (Arachne): Wrongly use double ef in "defiled" (8) BEFOULED

The longer ones can be used for grid fill.

Times Cryptic 4524 (Dean Mayer): Start to write the letter (3) WYE
W[rite] YE (the)

Sometimes, an unusual clue comes along with the letter on the surface and its name in the answer.

Guardian 26240 (Qaos): Writer who claims S, perhaps, equals T? (8) ESSAYIST
ES (letter S) + SAY (perhaps) + IS T

The Letter Name Reference Table

A reference list of names for all the letters of the English alphabet, from the Chambers dictionary

Letter Code Word
A a
B bee
C cee, see
D dee
E e
F ef
G gee
H aitch
I i
J jay
K kay
L el
M em
Letter Code Word
N en
O o
P pee
Q cue
R ar
S es, ess
T tee
U u
V vee
W double-u, double-you
X ex
Y wye
Z zee, zed, izzard

A closely matching list from the OED is on Wikipedia.


1. A wise crossword setter would use letter name substitution sparingly, as this device can easily slip into charade overdose territory.

2. If you've wondered why there isn't consistency in the naming of consonants (why should D = DEE and not ED, or M = EM and not MEE?), the reason can be traced back to Latin letter naming system, in which stop consonants were named <consonant>EE, sonorants and fricatives took the form E<consonant>. This link offers more insights.

Solve These

Guardian 25900 (Philistine): A desire or aspiration (5)
Times 23937: Disney character after rest moved casually (7)
Times Club Monthly 20145: Innocent follower of ex (X) in action? (4-4)

Related Posts:

If you wish to keep track of further articles on Crossword Unclued, you can subscribe to it in a reader via RSS Feed. You can also subscribe by email and have articles delivered to your inbox, or follow me on twitter to get notified of new links.


Lakshmi Vaidyanathan said...

Times 23937: Disney character after (7) WALT ZED [WALT (Disney) ZED (Z- character after rest ) ]
Times Club Monthly 20145: Innocent follower of ex (X) in action? (4-4) DEWY-EYED [DE (WYE-follower of ex) ED ]
Guardian 25900 (Philistine): A desire or aspiration (5) AITCH [A ITCH (desire) ]

Michael said...

DE WYE (Y) ED - I was a bit unconvinced on the second Y when it was X in the parentheses, but I suppose if you follow the same format, the follower of ex (X) is wye (Y).

The only single letter in the first clue is "A"... Does that mean that A+"desire"="aspiration"? Two words for hope, one with an extra A? Or is there something I'm not getting...

Samit said...

Great article. I like the way you explain things in a simple manner.

Times 23937: Disney character after rest moved casually (7) WALT + ZED

Still thinking about the other two clues.

Shuchi said...

@Lakshmi: You got them all - as usual :-)

@Michael: #3 uses an interesting definition - "aspiration", in addition to "hope", is also "pronunciation of a sound with a full breathing", i.e. the sound of h, as in "house".

I like how, in the DEWY-EYED clue, the setter paired the letters by the characters in one instance {X, Y}, and by their names in the other {EX, WYE}.

@Samit: Thanks! Answers now revealed.