Dec 212016


Today is often treated as the birthday of crossword puzzles because on this date in 1913 Arthur Wynne, who had created a page of puzzles for the “Fun” section of the Sunday edition of the New York World, introduced a puzzle with a diamond shape and a hollow center, the letters F-U-N already being filled in. He called it a “Word-Cross Puzzle.” Although Wynne’s invention was based on earlier puzzle forms, such as the word diamond, he introduced a number of innovations (for example, the use of numbered horizontal and vertical lines to create boxes for solvers to enter letters). He subsequently pioneered the use of black squares in a symmetrical arrangement to separate words in rows and columns. A few weeks after the first “Word-Cross” appeared, the name of the puzzle was changed to “Cross-Word” as a result of a typesetting error.

By the 1920s crosswords were appearing in British newspapers with a certain amount of criticism from the high and mighty. In fact, on both sides of the Atlantic some viewed the crossword puzzle with alarm, and some expected (or hoped) that it would be a short-lived fad. In 1924, The New York Times complained of the “sinful waste in the utterly futile finding of words the letters of which will fit into a prearranged pattern, more or less complex. This is not a game at all, and it hardly can be called a sport… [solvers] get nothing out of it except a primitive form of mental exercise, and success or failure in any given attempt is equally irrelevant to mental development.” A clergyman called the working of crossword puzzles “the mark of a childish mentality” and said, “There is no use for persons to pretend that working one of the puzzles carries any intellectual value with it.” In 1925 Time magazine noted that nine Manhattan dailies and fourteen other big newspapers were carrying crosswords, and quoted opposing views as to whether “This crossword craze will positively end by June!” or “The crossword puzzle is here to stay!” In 1925, the New York Times noted, with approval, a scathing critique of crosswords by The New Republic, but concluded that “Fortunately, 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” and in 1929 declared, “The cross-word puzzle, it seems, has gone the way of all fads….” In 1930, a correspondent noted that “Together with The Times of London, yours is the only journal of prominence that has never succumbed to the lure of the cross-word puzzle” and said that “The craze—the fad—stage has passed, but there are still people numbering it to the millions who look for their daily cross-word puzzle as regularly as for the weather predictions.” The New York Times, however, was not to publish a crossword puzzle until 1942. Ironically, both The Times (London) and the New York Times now publish crosswords of considerable notoriety and fame.


The crossword evolved rather differently in Britain and the United States, both in basic form and in the nature of the clues. The usual US crossword allows for a word to be filled in completely by filling in all the words that intersect with it, but British ones do not. In addition, US crosswords typically rely on synonymy whereas the British evolved the cryptic crossword which is now the more common form in the UK.

I don’t care for US-style crosswords at all. On the other hand, I have had phases in my life in which cryptic crosswords have held my attention – The Times daily crossword being my favorite because the setters are always fair in their clues, and the clues are usually solvable with average mental effort. In essence, a cryptic clue leads to its answer as long as it is read in the right way. What the clue appears to say when read normally (the surface reading) is a distraction and usually has nothing to do with the clue answer. The challenge is to find the way of reading the clue that leads to the solution.

A typical clue consists of two parts, the definition and the wordplay. It provides two ways of getting to the answer. The definition, which usually exactly matches the part of speech, tense, and number of the answer, is in essence the same as any ‘straight’ crossword clue, a synonym for the answer. It usually appears at the start or the end of a clue.

The other part (the subsidiary indication, or wordplay) provides an alternate route to the answer (this part would be a second definition in the case of double definition clues). One of the tasks of the solver is to find the boundary between definition and wordplay and insert a mental pause there when reading the clue cryptically. This wordplay gives the solver some instructions on how to get to the answer another way. (Sometimes the two parts are joined with a link word or phrase such as “from”, “gives” or “could be”.)

There are many sorts of wordplay, such as anagrams and double definitions, but they all conform to rules. The crossword setters do their best to stick to these rules when writing their clues, and solvers can use these rules and conventions to help them solve the clues.

Because a typical cryptic clue describes its answer in detail and often more than once, the solver can usually have a great deal of confidence in the answer once it has been determined, that is, the clues are ‘self-checking’ which is why most solvers fill in the crossword in ink. This is in contrast to non-cryptic crossword clues which often have several possible answers and force the solver to use the crossing letters to distinguish which is intended.

Here’s a simple cryptic clue:

Glittering light and boom upset deer (7)

At the outset you have to figure out which part is the straight definition and which part is the subsidiary indication. Here “glittering light” is the definition, and “boom upset deer” is the wordplay. You have to be careful with wordplays; they often rely on double meanings. Here “boom” is not a sound, but a part of a ship’s sailing gear, a synonym of which is “spar.” “Upset” indicates that the remaining part should be spelt backwards and an elk is a kind of deer. Spell it backwards and you have “kle.” Put the two halves together and you have SPARKLE.

The challenge with cryptic clues is that sometimes the whole clue involves a double definition or a pun of some sort instead of having just a straight definition plus wordplay. My favorite of this sort is:

Medicine hat. (4,3)

The answer is “pill box”

Another favorite is:

Double dutch. (8)

You’ll need to know English slang to understand why the answer is “bigamist.”

The fact that you cannot solve UK-style crosswords by filling in all the intersecting words if one word fails you can be infuriating. I got The Times crossword finished one day except for one clue. The letters I had were _L_H and the clue was “sacred flower.” Should have been easy, but I was a novice at the time, and I was mystified all day. The secret is in the word “flower” which does not mean “blossom” but “something that flows” (i.e. a river). The sacred river in Coleridge’s “Kubla Khan” is ALPH !!!

I’ll leave you with:

Hair style with comb in it? (7)

I could give you a hint by suggesting that you use honey in today’s celebratory recipe. I could also (but I’m not going to) give you a slew of cryptic clues for today’s recipe, such as:

Shortening for a recipe. (4)

This site has a ton of recipe-related crosswords — and below are the clues for one of them.  You’ll have to go to the site for the diagram.


Across Down
2 Flour mixed with fat
4 Used in Indian curries, Moroccan tagines, and pickles
9 A spice that is spicy
11 This heightens the spices aroma before grinding them
13 Dried herbs should last this amount of time
14 This mother sauce has a brown stock and brown roux
16 This herb has a sweet, fresh, floral, woody, and intense flavor compound
17 Consists of diced carrots, onions and celery
18 Dried herbs are best stored in this kind of container
21 Bouillon is French for this
22 Debris from soups that settles to the top and simmers
23 Flour mixed with water
1 Mrs. Ashford hates this herb from the carrot family
3 Whole seeds will stay aromatic in this time
5 This sauce is almost like a stew and is typically served with pasta
6 Fragrant leaves or plants
7 Dill is a member of which family
8 We made this type of roux in the breaded chicken recipe
10 This recipe uses a sauce that incorporates egg yolks and melted butter
12 Soup base made from bones
15 Rich smooth soup that are pureed, strained and then smoothed with some cream
19 After they are ground spices begin to produce this flavor
20 What climate do most spices come from

As a final footnote I’ll mention that one of the essay questions on my entrance exam for Oxford University was “Why do crosswords?” and my answer greatly amused the examiners who commented on it very favorably when I went for my interview. It included stories I concocted such as one of a prison where a group of prisoners shared one newspaper per week, and each of them filled in the crossword mentally to avoid spoiling it for the others.

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