Crossword: Still strong & clued in at 100
Reviewed by Nivedita Ganguli

Arthur Wynne, a British journalist working with New York World, invented the crossword puzzle
Arthur Wynne, a British journalist working with New York World, invented the crossword puzzle

If you are tearing your hair out in frustration thinking what the answer to 11 across or 11 down is, you have only one man to blame. Arthur Wynne, a British journalist from Liverpool, has continued to flummox people since he devised the first ever crossword puzzle 100 years ago.

The crossword is still going strong a century later, and millions of us are passionately addicted to it. So, how did it all begin? Wynne was working for the New York World in 1913 when he decided he wanted a new game at the back of the newspaper. He was in charge of the weekly puzzle page for Fun, the comic section of New York World. When he created what he called a ‘word-cross’ for the Christmas edition, published on December 21, he had no idea he would be starting something that would become so addictive.

The puzzle page had in the past featured word squares, anagrams and connect-the-dots drawings. Wynne now decided to do something new. He drew a diamond-shaped grid, wrote FUN, the name of the comic section, across the top squares and filled in the rest of the grid. He numbered the squares at the start and end of each word, and wrote definition clues for the words he had filled in. The puzzle was published with the following instruction to readers: "Fill in the small squares with words which agree with the definitions."

The puzzle became the rage in town quickly and it continued as a regular feature in the newspaper. After a few weeks, the name was changed from "word-cross" to "cross-word’. After experimenting with a few shapes, including a circular puzzle, Wynne settled on a rectangular pattern. The hyphen was also dropped and "cross-word" became crossword.

Readers began sending in crosswords they had devised, and within a couple of months Wynne was using readers’ submissions. However, the crossword was beset with typesetting errors and the publishers decided to drop it. Protests from readers followed and the crossword was reinstated after an absence of only one week.

Compilers of crossword puzzles spent hours trying to compose the perfect puzzle. Everyone wanted their conundrums in the paper. Setting good clues was deemed the key to success. Finding out what made a good clue came with practice and experience. The clue had to be sound in its construction, it needed to have surface meaning and the definition had to be well disguised. There could be an unusual indicator, perhaps for indicating a charade or hidden word. A good clue also had to be short and pithy and the best clues always made the solver laugh!

However, compilers – even the most careful ones – tended to made mistakes. Guidelines began to be laid to ensure success from the start. Readers who sent in submissions to New York World were asked to make sure they had put all the clues in. They had to watch out for clues that wouldn’t work – especially imprecise anagrams. They had to make sure the right numbers were in the right brackets, check clues and grid entries for wrongly spelt words and make sure the definitions were accurate. They also had to make sure the solution did not appear alongside the puzzle itself.

Wynne made neither his name nor his fortune out of his invention. Despite their popularity, crosswords did not appear in other newspapers. In 1924, Dick Simon and Lincoln Schuster, newly qualified journalism graduates, set up a publishing business. Looking for something that would become a bestseller, they settled on a book of the puzzles published in New York World. It became a roaring success, and crossword puzzles caught on.

Today’s compilers of crosswords are skilled, smart people who bring their experience and fabulous sense of humour to the table as they compile brainteasers for their victims (read solvers). The crossword solvers are no pushovers either. The truly gifted ones know dozens of proverbs, slang expressions, scholarly references, nursery rhymes and can rattle off dates and events from history with confidence. Crossword construction and solving may seem to be very demanding to most of us, but if you are erudite, rational and methodical, then compiling and solving crosswords may be just the thing for you.