If you get today’s blog title, then you will have guessed what this post is about. Today I am celebrating the publication of the first crossword puzzle, which was printed in the newspaper ‘New York World’ in 1913. Word puzzles had been around for a while, but they were generally simple games for children. The puzzle compiled by Arthur Wynne, who was born in Liverpool in the UK, embodied many of the features we recognise today. Although it is shaped like a diamond and has no black squares, it was the first puzzle to have numbered squares which related to a set of clues. He called it a word-cross puzzle. It was part of a page of puzzles for a Christmas edition of the newspaper. The word-cross was an instant hit and he was asked to produce more. Above, is a picture of his puzzle, so if you’re at a bit of a loose end in the run up to Christmas, you could have a go at solving it. It’s not easy though. He uses a few obscure words that really only come up if you do crosswords or have been dealt a bad hand in Scrabble. But we’ll give you a hint. One of the answers appears twice. Answers here. A few weeks later, the typesetters accidentally transposed two of the words, it became a cross-word puzzle and the name stuck.
The crossword became a regular feature in the New York World, and soon spread to other newspapers. By the 1920s they were phenomenally popular. Many newspapers resisted them at first. They were difficult to print and prone to typesetting errors. There was around a decade of pronouncements that the crossword ‘fad’ was almost over, yet they are still with us. We can’t emphasise enough how crossword crazy people were in those early days. Seriously, peoples’ marriages fell apart, people even died over crosswords. But those people probably had other things going on too, so we’ll leave them be. Libraries were suddenly overwhelmed by people looking for dictionaries and encyclopaedias to find the answer to that last maddening clue. Librarians became concerned that it was driving away students who needed the books for legitimate study.
Crossword puzzles hit the UK in 1923 but, over time, rather than having clues that were straight forward definitions of the answer, they began to develop into something else. They began to include information that was more oblique. Not cryptic clues in the modern sense but anagrams, references to classical history and unfinished quotations. You really needed an Oxbridge degree to complete them. Gradually, they developed into something a bit more manageable. In a cryptic crossword, all the information you need is generally right there is the clue, you just need to know how to look for it. There are usually two parts to a clue, a definition and a wordplay. So you have two ways to find the answer. To use an example from wikipedia: The clue ‘very sad unfinished story about rising smoke’, the answer is ‘tragical’. Here’s why: The answer means ‘very sad’. A story is a tale, if the word is unfinished, you are left with ‘tal’. A cigar is a smoke and if it is rising, i.e. the other way up, you get ‘ragic’ hence: t ragic al. It’s pretty mad and it’s a thing that you either love or hate. Cryptic crosswords are mostly, but not entirely, an English language phenomenon. Our language has borrowed from so many others that we have many words that sound the same or are even spelled the same that have many different meanings. So it is easy to mislead people with words. In a cryptic crossword, the word ‘flower’ will usually mean something that flows and the answer will be the name of a river. The answer to ‘a wicked thing’ might be ‘candle’, because a candle has a wick and is therefore wicked.
It’s fairly easy to learn a few tips and tricks about what to look for in a cryptic crossword, but what really helps is getting to know the quirks of a particular compiler. My mum and dad were avid crossword solvers and I learned how to do it from them. I grew up in a village pub and every afternoon, after a late lunch, when all the customers had gone home, was spent tackling the Yorkshire Post crossword. We would sit around the table with mum reading out the clues. On a winter afternoon, if it was a particularly tricky one that took a long time, she would sit on the cooler end of the massive range in our kitchen and read the clues from there. The end where there was an oven that the cat slept in. We spent many a happy or frustrating afternoon in the company of its compilers: George Walker, Reg Parsley and Ann Remington-Long. Names I still remember around forty years later. Above is a photo of my mum. She was born in 1918 and is long gone now. But I think she’d be amazed, and probably quite pleased, if she knew you were looking at her picture and reading about her right now.