100 years of the crossword

By Gyles Brandreth

As the centenary of the crossword approaches, Gyles Brandreth and his daughter Saethryd explain why the word puzzle is still so popular

Crosswords remain popular to this day. Photo / Thinkstock
Crosswords remain popular to this day. Photo / Thinkstock

The actor Sir John Gielgud died, aged 97, with a completed crossword at his bedside. He attributed his longevity to his passion for crosswords. "Completing the crossword is the only exercise I take," he used to say. "I smoke non-stop and solving the crossword clears the fumes."

Gielgud filled every idle minute with his beloved crosswords. Once, on a film set, another actor looked over Gielgud's shoulder when the great man had just completed his puzzle.

"Sir John, 10 across? What on earth is DIDDYBUMS?"

"I don't know," answered Gielgud, airily, "but it does fit frightfully well."

December marks the centenary of the crossword puzzle and people around the globe, in their millions, are still hooked on this classic word game.

It appeals to all sorts and has done from the start. In 1925, Buckingham Palace released an official statement declaring Queen Mary to be an enthusiast; in 1954, her granddaughter, Princess Margaret, went one better, entering the crossword competition in Good Housekeeping magazine and winning first prize.

Queen Elizabeth enjoys a crossword, as do some of those banged up at Her Majesty's pleasure. Dedication to completing the crossword has been given more than once as an excuse for missing a court appearance and, in the 1920s, one lag expressed delight at his incarceration as it would give him time to finish his puzzle without distraction.

So what is it about this enigmatic grid of black and white squares that holds such universal appeal?

Crosswords exercise our little grey cells, of course; and they test our vocabularies and general knowledge. But the urge to solve a crossword is about more than mental gymnastics. Humans are, by nature, problem-solvers. The impulse that led us to the wheel, also brought us the crossword. And we love the crossword because, unlike so many things in our complicated lives, the puzzle is solvable and finite: there is a right answer. The crossword allows us to bring order to chaos. It challenges, absorbs, comforts and distracts us. As Martha Petheridge, the first female editor of the crossword puzzle, said at the height of the Great Depression, "Who can worry about the rent when you are trying to solve 25 down?".

The crossword was a Christmas gift to us all from a man named Arthur Wynne. Originally from Merseyside, Wynne was the son of the editor of the Liverpool Mercury newspaper.

He moved to New York in 1905 and pursued his own career in newspapers. In 1913 he was working at the New York World as editor of the "Fun" section. Wanting something a little bit special for that year's seasonal supplement, he came up with the "Word-Cross".

Derived from the ancient game of acrostics and the Victorian pastime of word squares, Wynne's first puzzle was diamond-shaped. It was published on December 21, 1913 with 31 simple clues, no black squares and little fanfare.

The story might have ended there, but a few readers wrote in expressing their enthusiasm for the new brainteaser and, much to the chagrin of the typesetters, it was back the following week.

With a catchy new name, the "Crossword" spent the next 10 years at the World, building a loyal but limited following. It only hit the big time in 1924, when a pair of Harvard graduates, Dick Simon and Max Schuster, decided to go into publishing. The young bucks had set up a company, found offices and employed a secretary, but one thing was missing - an idea.

Enter Simon's Aunt Wixie. One afternoon, over tea, she asked her nephew if he knew where she could buy a book of crossword puzzles like the ones in her favourite newspaper. He and Schuster hotfooted it down to the offices of the World and came away with an agreement to publish the first-ever book of crosswords. Twelve months later, 400,000 copies had been sold, a worldwide phenomenon launched and a publishing empire born.

America went crossword crazy. Everywhere you looked, people were hunched over their puzzle books. There were crosswords on dresses and crosswords in church - displayed beneath the pulpit, with answers relating to the sermon of the day. Theatre skits were performed about the craze, with puzzles featuring in the printed programmes. Couples announced their engagement by crossword. Fifteen thousand people fought their way into the Chicago Public Library on a single day to find the solution to a particularly fiendish clue; the Baltimore and Ohio Railroad put dictionaries in every carriage of every train; and one unfortunate Brooklyn housewife was shot dead when she refused to help her husband solve his puzzle.

The first crossword published in Britain appeared in The Sunday Express on November 2, 1924. After initial scepticism, including an article in The Times branding the crossword a menace that had "enslaved America", Brits succumbed to the puzzle's allure; but the challenge of the straightforward "definitional" crossword soon began to pall. A new, distinctly British, style of crossword began to emerge: the cryptic.

The literary critic, Edward Powys Mathers, began setting crosswords in The Observer in 1926. He used the pseudonym Torquemada, after the notorious Spanish inquisitor. His work as a critic and translator had given him a love for, and skill with, language. His clues contained puns, anagrams and large dollops of wit. During the late 20s and 30s, Mathers, along with Adrian Bell at The Times and Afrit at The Listener, pioneered and developed the cryptic crossword.

The cryptic was the complicated, intellectually brooding cousin of the definitional - it had mystique and depth, it played hard to get with a capricious, whimsical air. When the solution was water, the clue was not "a chemical compound containing two molecules of hydrogen and one of oxygen", but the elliptical "HIJKLMNO". An "apex" wasn't the highest point but "a kiss from a monkey", and somersault became "roast mules went topsy turvy".

It was through the cryptic that the special "language" of the crossword developed. "We hear" indicates a pun; "strangely", "unusual" or "in a muddle" point towards an anagram; "returning", a word reversal. But be wary: "upset" could indicate a reversal or an anagram, and "about" an anagram or an envelopment.

Like any language, there are nuances and subtleties, and the more crosswords one completes, the more fluent one becomes. (Here's a quick beginners' tip: the definition of the word is always contained in the clue - either at the beginning or at the end, separate it out and you will be on your way.)

Such is the mystique of the cryptic that it was even suspected of being involved in espionage. In the run-up to the D-Day landings in 1944, Allied commanders became alarmed. Morning after morning, The Daily Telegraph crossword appeared with yet another clue that led to a codeword for the operation - OVERLORD, NEPTUNE, MULBERRY. Nearly a dozen appeared in total. The clues had been set by one man, Leonard Dawe, the chief crossword-setter at the paper for nearly 20 years. MI5 descended on his home in Surrey. Dawe managed to convince them that it was nothing more than the most incredible of coincidences.

Over the past century, the crossword has entered the history books, the record books - the world's biggest crossword had 3149 clues across and 3185 clues down - and our hearts. There have been many imitators - and, in recent years, a numerical challenge in the form of the mathematical teaser, Sudoku - yet the appeal of the classic crossword remains undimmed.

- Daily Telegraph UK

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