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The History of the Crossword Puzzle

In 1913, it was a "word-cross"; in ancient Rome, a word square

by Christine Frantz

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Crosswords evolved from ancient word squares, which are made of words of equal length that are read horizontally and vertically:

  • BAG
  • ARE
  • GET

On Dec. 21, 1913, the Sunday New York World printed a puzzle called a "word-cross," devised by Liverpudlian Arthur Wynne. The puzzle was an immediate success and became a weekly feature. The name evolved into the more euphonious "cross-word," and finally, the hyphen was dropped. Despite the success, the World was the only paper printing the puzzles until 1924 when a fledgling publishing house put out a collection of the World's puzzles in book form. A craze was launched, along with the publishing company of Simon & Schuster.

Word Squares in Pompeii

Word squares go back to ancient times—a word square was found in the Roman ruins of Pompeii. Word squares are difficult to compose—the really satisfactory 10-letter word square has yet to be devised by either person or computer. In 19th-century England, word squares had become the basis for primitive crossword puzzles for children, sometimes with pictures as clues or with an educational slant. Adults didn't do them until the World's word-cross in 1913.

The New York Times Holds Out

Today you'd be hard pressed to find a newspaper that doesn't print a crossword puzzle. One of the last holdouts to the crossword craze was the New York Times, which first published a Sunday puzzle in 1942 and a daily puzzle in 1950. Along with the standard crossword puzzle, newspapers today have word jumbles, word searches, cryptic crossword puzzles, diagramless puzzles, acrostics, and other word games.

Britain's Cryptic Puzzles

In Britain the crossword puzzle took a cryptic turn. To solve a cryptic puzzle, you have to figure out the clue itself as well as the definition. To the uninitiated cryptic clues often make very little sense—"Beat in return game here (4)" yields the word "golf" (game)—flog (beat) spelled backwards (in return). The American-type and cryptic-type crosswords have crisscrossed the Atlantic. The London Times now prints the two types daily while cryptics regularly show up in the Sunday New York Times and The Atlantic Monthly.

The New York World has disappeared, as well as the 1920s fads of flagpole sitting and goldfish swallowing, but Simon & Schuster still publishes books of crossword puzzles and the crossword's popularity continues on into the 21st century.



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