Cryptic crosswords for beginners: the Greek alphabet

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The previous entry in this helpful series reminded us that those who set cryptic crosswords enjoy using letters from the Nato alphabet to provide temporary confusion and eventual enlightenment.

This instalment is inspired by the recent “viral uproar” involving an employee of a Cretan tax registry who was photographed apparently ignoring a queue and solving a crossword.

The scapegoating of civil servants is beyond our remit; staying in that part of the world, we’ve further failed to ascertain whether Izmir is the birth of the crossword. We do know, though, that much of the language we use here – cryptic, synonym, homophone, anagram – comes from Greece, and we do know that there have long existed crosswords in Greek for English solvers: back in the day, the puzzles in the scholarly journal Greece and Rome, and more recently O??µata Ke??asµ??a, the supplement to Latin puzzle magazine Hebdomada Aenigmatum.

These, it need hardly be added, are challenging affairs. When the Listener published the solution to its first Greek crossword in 1930, it noted that the puzzle had been...

... difficult enough for a Professor of Greek to give it up on the ground that he had not ‘a week to spare for it’.

But do not be alarmed. Our business here is the broadsheet English-language puzzle. Here, you only ever enter the letters A to Z and you usually need no more Greek than that language’s alphabet. And, in its classical and in its modern form, that alphabet doesn’t even give you Nato’s 26 things to keep in mind. Just 24.

Here’s a gentle example from Brendan:

6d Part of alphabet Athenians used (4)

Here, the answer is contained within the clue itself (see the very first Cryptic Crosswords for Beginners ); hidden among the letters ALPHA BETA THENIANS is the answer, the Greek B: BETA.



Setters are not usually as direct in their advice to think about the Greek alphabet. Often the word “character” is deployed as a diversion: see Picaroon

5d Character in the Iliad with light sort of weapons (7)

... who is asking not for Achilles or Odysseus but for the Greek N (NU), which can be added to a word meaning “light” (CLEAR) for a kind of weapon (NUCLEAR).

Or the misdirection may involve the geography rather than the literature of Greece. Here’s a sneakier example from Scorpion:

19ac Musical goods picked up by character in Argos (7)

So here we take a soundalike ( covered here in Crosswords for Beginners ) of a word for “goods” (that word being “cargo”) and put it next to a character used in the Peloponnesian city Argos (the Greek X, CHI); the answer is the musical CHICAGO.

Once you’re used to it, you’re ready to think through the Greek alphabet even when you see such indirect hints as this one from Pasquale :

20d Foreign character covered in horse muck (6)

Our foreign character here is again NU, this time put inside (see our entry on ‘ Container Clues ’) another word for “horse” (MARE). You should not need me to rub your nose in the answer.

Now, some of those letters are more familiar to us than others. We might talk of BETA TESTING conducted by ALPHA MALES, and we may not have an IOTA of a clue how to solve the puzzles on PI DAY. Below is a full list; in the meantime, we sign off as usual with two questions. Beginners: any questions? And seasoned solvers, any experiences or favourite examples to share?

alpha
beta
gamma
delta
epsilon
zeta
eta
theta
iota
kappa
lambda
mu
nu
xi
omicron
pi
rho
sigma
tau
upsilon
phi
chi
psi
omega

See you next week for the winner of our CWM cluing competition.

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