Crossword Down

The man popularly associated with compiling the first modern crossword is Liverpool-born Arthur Wynne who emigrated to America at the age of nineteen and in 1913 found himself editing a weekly puzzle page for the comic section of the New York World, called Fun. For the Christmas edition Wynne wanted something new over and above the standard fare of word squares, rebuses, and anagrams.

The result of his ruminations was a diamond-shaped grid built around a central framework of two horizontal and two vertical lines of seven squares. Words ran either horizontally or vertically, and the reader was invited to “fill in the small squares which agree to the following definitions” in what Wynne called a Word-Cross Puzzle. The first and last squares of each word were numbered as was the clue to which the answer related. To start things off Wynne filled the top horizontal with the word “Fun”.

The clues themselves were relatively straightforward, although two – the fibre of the gamouti palm (3 letters) and an aromatic plant (four letters)[1] – caused me to scratch my head. In the centre of the grid there was a blank area, again shaped like a diamond, four squares at its widest and longest.

The puzzle appeared on December 21, 1913, and proved popular, spurring some readers to compile their own and send them in. The grateful Wynne started using them from February 1914. Typographical errors, though, bedevilled the weekly puzzle – not least one that transposed its title to cross-word. Although this error was retained, the hyphen disappearing later, the integrity of the puzzle was so compromised that it was dropped from the pages of the New York World. Protests from the readership led to the puzzle being quickly reinstated.

Wynne also experimented with the shape of the grid, moving to a circular puzzle before settling on the now familiar rectangle with shaded squares used to separate the words or phrases.

Crossword mania swept America in the early 1920s, a phenomenon which was met with characteristic disdain on this side of the Atlantic, the Times even devoting an editorial entitled “An Enslaved Nation” to pour scorn on the American addiction. However, Britain was powerless to resist its attractions, Pearson’s Magazine publishing the first crossword here in February 1922 and the Sunday Express became the first British newspaper to print one in its edition of November 2, 1924. The Daily Telegraph in 1925, the Manchester Guardian in 1929 and even the Times, from February 1, 1930, followed suit.

The first cryptic crossword appeared in the Daily Telegraph on July 30, 1925, and by the 1930s the clues had become much more sophisticated, containing full or partial anagrams, double meanings, and themes. Curiously, it was not until 1968, thanks to the efforts of Stephen Sondheim, that a cryptic crossword made its way to America, first appearing in the pages of the New Yorker magazine.

Non-cruciverbalists have long suspected that there is a deeper meaning lurking within the seemingly innocent grid of light and dark squares, never more so than in May 1944. An Observer crossword compiled by Leonard Dawe contained words associated with the D-Day preparations, such as Omaha, Utah, Neptune, and Overlord. Although Intelligence officers could find nothing linking Dawe with the Germans, it emerged in 1984 that a group of schoolboys, who helped Dawe to compile his puzzles, brought back gossip they had picked up from nearby barracks. Dawe was mortified that he had been an accidental traitor.

Pedro Bartolay’s crossword containing 11,000 squares and 4,225 clues, the world’s largest and compiled in 2013, may have been a tad extreme, but, as a reader in Turkey said about the Times’ first effort, crosswords lift us from our “daily rounds” and allow us to “spend a happy afternoon” tackling them. Long may they continue.

If you enjoyed, check out More Curious Questions by following the link below:


[1] Solution – doh and nard

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