Origin of ordinary things: Crossword puzzles

Crossword puzzle. / Net photo.

Crossword puzzle is a popular form of word puzzle. A crossword puzzle consists of a diagram, usually rectangular, divided into blank (white) and cancelled (black, shaded, or crosshatched) squares. This diagram is accompanied by two lists of numbered definitions or clues, one for the horizontal and the other for the vertical words, the numbers corresponding to identical numbers on the diagram. 

The crossword puzzle was ‘born’ in December 1913, on the eve of World War I. Arthur Wynne, an editor at the New York World, needed a new game for that paper’s FUN section. So he printed a blank word-search grid, devised clues so readers could figure out the letters, and called it “FUN’s Word-Cross Puzzle.” A typographical error a few weeks later transposed the puzzle’s title to “Cross-Word,” and the puzzle was permanently re-christened. 


As the war progressed and headlines in the world became increasingly bleak, the paper’s advertising efforts to point solvers to the puzzle also dialed up, with banners on the front pages directing readers straight past the dire news and to the crossword for an anchor in increasingly uncertain times.


During the 1920s, the crossword boomed: from crossword-patterned stockings to crossword-themed musicals to comic strips like “Cross Word Cal,” the puzzle was everywhere. However, crosswords themselves were all over the map in terms of their form and content. Though some puzzles were carefully edited and regulated, others were much more freewheeling, all shapes and sizes and riddled with errors. 


When the war ended in 1945, the crossword remained, transitioning from relief to ritual. And in new times of trouble, the crossword puzzle is still there to help solvers escape—just as solvers before them have been doing for more than a century. This is according to Time.

According to Britannica, the general type of crossword has also been subject to variation. Some puzzles employ abstruse definitions, puns, and anagrams. A number of words in one puzzle may bear upon some announced theme, such as music, sports, literature, or geography. Many of the puzzles in this category are quite difficult. Again, some clues will be omitted altogether but a direction given that the words thus neglected belong to a particular class: jewels, for example, or words in a quotation.



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