The crossword has it's way with words

The crossword is about to turn 100. Dave Kenny looks back at the history of the black and white grid.

PICTURE this: a man is sitting at a bar, half-drained pint at his elbow, gently tapping a pen against his brow. Spread before him is a newspaper. He is staring at it with the same intensity that CIA psychics stare at goats, trying to make them topple over.

It’s the afternoon and the pub is so quiet you can hear the Murphys-branded clock ticking. The man is the very apotheosis of tranquil, intellectual masculinity. He is doing the crossword.

’Doing the crossword’ is one of the most loaded phrases in the leisure time lexicon. It not only suggests that the ‘crosser’ is enjoying a pastime that is contemplative and requires an almost zen-like lack of physical exertion, it also suggests that he/she is a brainiac.

There is an unwritten code that states that you should never interrupt a man doing his crossword. To do so is like trying to catch the eye of a tightrope walker. It’s dangerous and can sometimes result in injury (generally, a smack in the mouth).

Never ignore the warning signs. If anyone has ever said to you, “I’m just going to sit over here and finish the crossword. It’s driving me mad today” — what they were actually saying was, “You’re an arsehole and I don’t want to talk to you.”

Crosswords are invaluable on public transport. They help you avoid making eye contact with the mentaller sitting in front of you. (Is someone doing a crossword in front of you on the bus right now? You obviously look like a mentaller.)

The crossword’s place as a much-loved, respected and useful pastime was not easily won. It may surprise you to learn that this etymological institution was pilloried shortly after it appeared a century ago in the New York World, on Dec 21, 1913.

Across the water, Britain’s moral guardians called it a new American craze that would unravel society’s fabric. Housewives were ignoring their chores and office productivity was down: all because of a grid of black and white squares with numbered clues.

One of Britain’s oldest papers, the Tamworth Herald (founded in 1868) called crosswords “a menace making devastating inroads on the working hours of every rank of society”. People were doing them in church “with hymnals for camouflage”. Libraries began shading in the white cells to stop people from holding on to their newspapers for too long.

Imagine doing that today with your partner’s sudoku grid. Cross words? More like cross swords.

The New York Times snootily concluded that “the question of whether the puzzles are beneficial or harmful is in no urgent need of an answer. The craze evidently is dying out fast and in a few months it will be forgotten”.

The crossword came into existence when the editor of the New York World asked journalist Arthur Wynne to invent a new game for the paper’s Sunday entertainment section. Wynne was a Liverpudlian immigrant, who also played violin in the Pittsburgh Symphony Orchestra. His first puzzle was called ‘word-cross’ and was diamond-shaped. This later became ‘cross-word’, and later again ‘crossword’ after a typo in which the hyphen was dropped. ‘Crossword’ was born out of a mispelt word — a cardinal sin among cruciverbalists.

Wynne’s game was based on one called ‘magic squares’ which was played in Pompeii before the infamous _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ [eight letters, beginning with ‘E’ and ending in a loud bang].

He added other innovations like blank black squares, and doing horizontal/vertical grids. His game was so popular that, like jazz and hamburgers, it eventually crossed the Atlantic. The first puzzle was published in Britain and Ireland in Pearson’s Magazine in February 1922.

The Sunday Express was the first newspaper on these islands to publish a crossword on Nov 2, 1924.

Compilers such as Torquemada and Araucaria developed cult followings. Ximenes (aka Derrick Somerset Macnutt) who compiled puzzles for the Observer from 1939 to 1971 had celebrity fans including Stephen Sondheim, PG Wodehouse and Leonard Bernstein. Ximeneans held dinners and wore special ties to show their allegiance.

The most famous US compiler is William Shortz of the New York Times. In 1992, he visited Bill Clinton — who was on the campaign trail — in a hotel room with a special crossword. Clinton completed it, even entering solutions while on an important phone call.

Shortz also provided the puzzle clues for the Riddler in Batman Forever. Not only that, he also devised his own curriculum at university and is the only person to hold a degree in enigmatology. [Remember that word. It’s a clue. Now read on…]

Crosswords have even stoked political controversy. New York Times readers cried “bias” on election day 1996, when the answer to the clue ‘Lead Story in Tomorrow’s Newspaper’ was ‘Clinton Elected’. It turned out, however, that the final, ambiguous, solution could also be read as ‘Bob Dole Elected’.

So what exactly is a crossword? It’s a game of words where the player is given a hint, the number of letters and then fills in a grid of boxes. But you knew that, didn’t you?

Clues come in ______ [Clue: ‘uncomplicated as Simon’ (6)], Or _______ [’sounds like ‘stupid person who lives in a mausoleum’ (7)]. (Answers: Simple and crypt-thick.)

Cryptic clues often use anagrams. Here are a few of the more famous one: Britney Spears from Presbyterians, synthetic cream from Manchester City, That Great Charmer from Margaret Thatcher. How about this one: ‘Chaste Lord Archer vegetating’. Go on, give it a go. (It’s the house where Jeffrey Archer was holed up after the Monica Coughlan sex scandal. ‘The Old Vicarage, Granchester’.)

Doing the cryptic crossword is a bit like cracking a secret code set by an unhinged lexicographer. During the Second World War, the cypher wizards at Bletchley Park ran a contest in the Daily Telegraph. Contestants who solved the paper’s crossword in under 12 minutes were potential recruits to the war effort. The J______ [Tom’s rodent playmates (7)] were defeated with a few cross words. (Answer: Jerries.)

Even in peace time, crosswords have been used to relay secret messages. The last edition of the hacking-disgraced News of the World featured clues such as ‘Woman stares wildly at calamity’ — thought to be a reference to Rebekah Brooks.

Elderly people are encouraged to do crosswords to improve mental agility. Recent research suggests that having an orgasm is better for cognitive functions than crosswords. Who would have thought finishing a difficult puzzle could be described as a ‘thrilling climax’?

Many people are put off doing the crosswords because they think they’re too difficult. They’re not as hard as you may think. It’s all about having a reasonable vocabulary and getting into the mindset of the compiler.

If you understand why the solution to ‘wicked source of light’ is ‘candle’, then you’re ready to tackle the cryptic. If not, then just do the simplex.

If both appear too hard, then stick to reading the horoscopes: you’ll never be an e___ma_ol__ist. [14 letters]


* The most prolific crossword compiler is Roger Squires of Shropshire. On May 14, 2007, he published his 66,666th crossword, equivalent to 2 million clues.

* The longest word ever used in a published crossword is the 58-letter Welsh town Llanfairpwllgwyngyllgogerychwyrndrobwllllantysiliogogogoch (as an anagram).

* The largest crossword ever compiled had 132,020 squares with 12,842 clues across and 13,128 clues down and appeared in Russiky Crossword.

* Author Colin Dexter named Inspector Morse and DS Lewis after two Ximenean crossword prize-winners: the former chairman of Lloyds Bank, Sir Jeremy Morse and Mrs DW Lewis.

* One of Britain’s best loved compilers, Araucaria, told fans he was dying of cancer in Jan 2013 … in a clue. He wrote he had ‘18 down of the 19, which is being treated with 13 15’. [Cancer of the oesophegus/palliative care.]

* It’s traditional in the US and here to have 180 degree grids which have rotational symmetry and look the same when turned upside down.

* In the lead-up to the D-Day landings, a crossword compiler — Leonard Dawes — was questioned after ‘Utah’, ‘Juno’ and ‘Overlord’ (all code words) appeared in his grids. Was he a spy? Years later it emerged that a schoolboy who helped him fill in grids had overheard US soldiers using the words and liked the sound of them.

* In Japan the corner squares of a puzzle must be white.

* The Italian language is better for crossword construction as it has more vowels and more regularity of spelling patterns than English.

* In 1926 a Budapest waiter left a blank crossword with his suicide note saying the solution would give the reason for his death. The solution was never found.


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