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