Dani Garavelli: 100 years of the crossword

This year marks a century since the first crossword appeared in the New York World. Picture: AP
This year marks a century since the first crossword appeared in the New York World. Picture: AP
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From public menace to gauge of intellectual prowess, there’s plenty of life in the crossword as it turns 100, writes Dani Garavelli

IN THE 1920s, the country’s moral guardians warned of a pernicious new craze about to sweep its way across the Atlantic and threaten the fabric of civilised society. The fad, which had so gripped our American cousins, was keeping housewives from their domestic duties, reducing the productivity in offices and contributing to the general dumbing down of the population. So what was this corrosive recreational pursuit? Was it a new drug or a mechanical forerunner of Grand Theft Auto? No, the cause of the moral panic was the humble crossword.

Now associated with acuity and intellectualism, the puzzles were viewed as potential home-wreckers, putting paid to familial conversation, when they first arrived on our shores. Yet the warnings of social collapse fell on deaf ears as Britons embraced the grids that began to appear in the very publications which railed against them. Branding them “a menace making devastating inroads on the working hours of every rank of society”, the Tamworth Herald thundered: “Everywhere, at any hour of the day, people can be seen quite shamelessly poring over the checker-board diagrams, cudgelling their brains for a four-letter word meaning “molten rock” or a six-letter word meaning “idler”, or what not: in trains and trams, or omnibuses, in subways, in private offices and counting-rooms, in factories and homes, and even with hymnals for camouflage, in church.”

So addictive was this brash import from the US, libraries reported damage to dictionaries as people rifled through their pages seeking solutions; at Dulwich Library, staff had to colour the white squares black to prevent people from holding on to the newspapers for too long. All this despite the fact that, back then, the puzzles lacked any of the fiendish cryptic clues for which the country’s best-loved cruciverbalists (a mock-Latin neologism coined around 1980) would later become famous.

This year marks a century since the first crossword appeared in the New York World, courtesy of Liverpool-born Arthur Wynne. These days, crossword fever has subsided, yet for hundreds of thousands of people across the country scrutinising clues for hints of anagrams, abbreviations or puns is still a daily source of intellectual pleasure. “It’s a bit like a chess match – you’re trying to get inside somebody else’s head, it can be quite difficult at first,” says Neil Drysdale, who has been compiling Scotland on Sunday crosswords since the newspaper was launched in 1988. “Sometimes you look at a giant puzzle and you think, “Good grief, I can’t get any of these”, but then you get one. Then you start to think, ‘Hang on a minute, do they mean that?’ – you just have to get inside the minds of individual compilers and follow the inner logic.”

Compilers – many with evocative handles, such as Torquemada (after the Grand Inquisitor) and Araucaria (the Latin word for monkey-puzzle) – have their own styles and develop cult followings. Ximenes (aka Derrick Somerset Macnutt) who compiled puzzles for the Observer from 1939 to 1971 had a whole string of celebrity devotees including PG Wodehouse, Stephen Sondheim and Leonard Bernstein. Ximeneans held dinners and wore specially designed ties (black with white crosses) to advertise their allegiance. Another fan, Colin Dexter, named his two most famous detectives – Inspector Morse and DS Lewis after two Ximenean prize-winners, the former chairman of Lloyds Bank, Sir Jeremy Morse and Mrs DW Lewis.

One of the most famous US compilers is William Shortz, who sets puzzles for the New York Times. During the 1992 presidential election campaign, he visited Bill Clinton in his Manhattan hotel room with a special crossword. Completely unfazed, Clinton took out a stopwatch and started filling in clues, continuing to do so even while fielding a telephone call. Something of a maverick, Shortz, who provided the puzzle clues which the Riddler leaves for Batman in Batman Forever, designed his own curriculum while studying at Indiana University and so is the only person in the world to hold a degree in enigmatology.

But it’s not just cruciverbalists who have their devotees; individual clues – and, on occasion, entire puzzles – become the stuff of legend.

Sometimes the skill lies in coming up with impressive anagrams: Britney Spears from Presbyterians, for instance, or synthetic cream from Manchester City (but not, despite the claims, Shergar’s bum from hamburgers). “Once you realise That Great Charmer is an anagram of Margaret Thatcher or that Rangers leech is an anagram of Charles Green you can be as sarcastic as you like,” Drysdale says.

Those at the top of their game can make the anagrams run to extraordinary lengths; once, Araucaria came up with the clue: “Poetic scene has, surprisingly, chaste Lord Archer vegetating,” for which the answer was The Old Vicarage Granchester, an anagram, of the last four words; at the time the house made famous by the Rupert Brooke poem was owned by Archer, who was lying low during a sex scandal.

One crossword which achieved global fame was printed in the New York Times on election day 1996. Angry readers took to the phones after working out the answer to the clue “Lead Story in Tomorrow’s Newspaper” was CLINTON ELECTED. “How could the paper be so sure of the result when all the votes had not yet been cast?” they demanded. “Was it betraying its political bias?” Closer examination revealed, however, that every solution which fed letters into the two missing words had an equally valid alternative (for example black Hallowe’en animal could be BAT or CAT) so the final solution could also be BOB DOLE ELECTED.

Before crosswords were created, the most popular puzzles were acrostics, where the first or last letter of every word spells out another and magic squares, a vertical list of, say, five words, which read the same across and down.

Wynne’s innovation was to create a more complicated grid, with words of different lengths all crossing each other at different points; his first puzzle, published on 21 December, 1913, was in the shape of a diamond.

In the US, there was less snobbery attached to the crossword (although the New York Times refused to succumb to the trend until the 1940s); people were so enthralled, train companies started putting dictionaries in their compartments and songs with titles such as Cross Word Mamma You Puzzle Me (But Papa’s Going to Figure You Out) caught on everywhere.

Soon crossword books were being published and, in 1978, the crossword championship, which is held in Brooklyn and attracts hundreds of contestants every year, was founded by Shortz.

Although, the crossword phenomenon was embraced just as enthusiastically here, a cultural gap soon emerged, with US compilers sticking to straightforward definition clues, and UK compilers branching out in a more cryptic direction.

“The person doing a cryptic crossword is like a detective trying to solve a mini whodunnit – the compiler gives the definition and the building blocks to get to that definition, but he or she does it in such a way that is as misleading as possible, so each clue is like a mini-mystery they have to work out” says freelance crossword compiler Duncan Black.

Solving a cryptic crossword is also a bit like breaking a code, a fact which did not go unnoticed by those recruiting for Bletchley Park, the country’s main enemy code decryption centre during the Second World War. They sought out people who were linguists, chess champions and crossword addicts, on one occasion going so far as to get the Daily Telegraph to organise a contest. Everyone who solved the paper’s puzzle in under 12 minutes was asked if they’d like to contribute to the war effort.

For the same reasons, crosswords are a useful means of disseminating covert information; compilers have used them subversively to communicate messages they would not otherwise have been able to print. Expecting trouble on the last day the News of the World was printed at the height of the hacking scandal, the publishers scrutinised the news stories and features for hidden insults, but no-one checked the crosswords, where clues included “woman stares wildly at calamity” – a reference to Rebekah Brooks – and solutions included the words “stench”, “racket” and “tart”.

Sometimes more has been read into crosswords than was really intended. Shortly before the D-Day landings in the Second World War, compiler ­Leonard Dawe was summoned before MI5 to explain why the words “Utah”, “Juno” and “Overlord” – all linked in some way to secret operations – had appeared in a series of puzzles over a number of weeks. The secret services suspected he had been passing messages to the enemy, but Dawe, a teacher, claimed it was a coincidence. Years later one of his pupils came forward to say, he and others had often helped to fill in the grids and used words they had heard uttered by US soldiers billeted near their homes.

More recently Araucaria – the Rev John Galbraith Graham – used his crossword to tell Guardian readers he was terminally ill. “Araucaria has 18 down of the 19 which is being treated with 13,15”, he wrote. The answers were cancer of the oesophagus and palliative care. The 92-year-old was inundated with good wishes from those whose minds he had taxed over the years, a poignant example of the bond that can be formed between puzzle poser and puzzle solver.

Solving crossword puzzles involves a degree of ingenuity and lateral thinking, but experts are divided on how good they are for your brain. Though elderly people are encouraged to do them to keep their mental faculties intact, two scientists recently suggested exercise, sunbathing and even orgasms were likely to be better than crosswords for developing our cognitive functions. Or “OH, YES” as the Sun put it.

New technology has made it easier for crossword buffs to cheat, either with handheld electronic devices or online, but surely that takes all the fun out of it. “There are websites where you can fill in the squares with the letters you’ve got and it will give you every possible option, but what’s the point in that? It’s like trying to do a quiz and looking at the answers first or opening up a crime novel then flicking to the back page to find out who dunnit,” says Drysdale. Yet, with heavy competition from TVs and games consoles, the crossword will surely struggle to capture the imagination of the younger generation.

Recently John Halpern – who compiles puzzles for a number of national newspapers under the names Dada, Paul and Mudd – talked of his desire to see crosswords included on the school curriculum because they are “empowering”. Ever the optimist, Drysdale believes crosswords will survive the digital revolution. “It’s like Kindles and books. I can understand the convenience of having 600 books on one device, especially if you’re going on holiday, but there’s still something about the smell and feel of a book,” he says. “You can read a newspaper article in five minutes online, but hopefully it takes longer than that to do a puzzle; people like to dip in and then come back to them later. Maybe I’m a Luddite, but I think there’s something satisfying about sitting and physically trying to fill it in and then seeing the whole thing ­complete.”