On Thursday, October 5, the Lunch & Learn Committee is pleased to welcome Brendan Emmett Quigley to BOLLI. Quigley has been described as a “crossword wunderkind” whose work has been published in The Washington Post, The Wall Street Journal, The Boston Globe, by the Los Angeles Times Syndicate, and The Onion. He is also The New York Times’ sixth-most frequently published crossword creator. Quigley appeared in the documentary Wordplay and the book Crossworld: One Man’s Journey into America’s Crossword Obsession.
Should you like to do a little crossword practice before his visit, you might visit his website: http://www.brendanemmettquigley.com/ where you can find easy, medium, and hard puzzles which you can work interactively.
One of our own puzzle enthusiasts, Guy Moss, has done some research about the history of the crossword which you might find to be of particular interest in light of Quigley’s visit.
THE HISTORY OF THE CROSSWORD PUZZLE
By Guy Moss
A puzzle. The origins of this funny word go back to the Old French “pusle,” which means to bewilder or confuse. And indeed, think of how many variations have been created over the years, leaving one in a state of puzzlement, obligated to puzzle out a solution.
The jigsaw puzzle, for example, is a very old classic. Credit for inventing the first goes to John Spilsbury of London, who in 1767 glued a map to a piece of wood and cut out each country. In 1880, Milton Bradley, already a successful toy and game marketer, started to produce the first jigsaw puzzle for children. It featured a train and was named “The Smashed Up Locomotive.” Today for $299.95 at Hammacher Schlemmer, you can buy the world’s largest jigsaw puzzle, measuring 17’ by 6’ and containing 32,256 pieces.
Logic puzzles were first officially introduced in 1886 by Lewis Carroll, who, in addition to being a famous author, was a mathematician and logician. These are the type that give you certain limited information (“Smith, who married Brown’s sister, earns more than the doctor, etc.”) from which you must logically deduce the desired conclusions.
The word search puzzle, a favorite among children, is credited to Norma Gebat, who published the first, only as recently as 1968, in a newspaper in Oklahoma.
And then there’s the Sudoku puzzle, an even more recent innovation developed by an Indiana architect, Howard Garns, through Dell Magazine in 1979. Calling it “Number Place,” he built on a concept dating back to the 1700s and a puzzle then called “Latin Squares.” In the 1980s, the Japanese began publishing a more developed version, and the very first U.S. Sudoku game was printed in the New York Times just a little over twelve years ago. The word, by the way, is an abbreviation of a Japanese phrase, “Suji wa dokushiri ni kagiru,” which means “the numbers must be single.” This reflects the puzzle’s nature, where each of the numbers 1-9 may appear only once in each row, column, or box.
But the most popular and widespread game in the world is the crossword puzzle. Close to 99% of the world’s daily newspapers each carry a crossword. During World War II, when there was an acute paper shortage, American newspapers tried to drop the crossword, but fan protests reinstated them. In England, where the paper shortage was more serious, crosswords still had their place in four-page condensed newspapers. They were considered a therapeutic diversion from the horrors of war.
Arguably, the origin of the crossword may be traced back to the basic human need to solve enigmas, with a very early manifestation being the riddle. In Greek mythology, the Sphinx is credited with asking one of the first: “What walks on four legs in the morning, two legs in the afternoon and three legs in the evening?” As we know from Sophocles, Oedipus correctly answers, man. Indeed, riddle-solving was a popular party game among the Romans.
Over time, a wide variety of word-oriented puzzles evolved that ultimately influenced the crossword. They include the rebus, a visual puzzle that combines words and pictures, is an offshoot of the riddle, and some credit the hieroglyphics of Egypt and Phoenicia as the models for these. Parenthetically, priests in northern France in the 16th and early 17th centuries used a combination of words and pictures to make their Easter messages accessible to their illiterate parishioners.
Anagrams also became popular, and, in one form or another, date back thousands of years. Authors, for example, often rearranged the letters in their names to create handy pseudonyms. And, Jewish cabalists believed the Scriptures contained encoded messages.
The crossword puzzle, however, is thought most directly to descend from the word square, where words are arranged to read the same vertically and horizontally. The earliest version, somewhat different, is attributed to an early Egyptian, Moschion, who, around 300 A.D., carved one square that he subdivided into another 1,521 squares, each containing a Greek letter. If one started in the center and followed certain directions, the phrase “Moschion to Osiris, for the treatment which cured his foot” would repeat itself, apparently reflecting the creator’s gratitude to the god of the underworld for some remarkable recovery.
An important variation on this theme was the acrostic, which came into its own in Victorian England. This involved a series of lines or a poem in which specified letters of each line, to be discovered and then taken in order, spelled out a word or phrase. A famous double acrostic is attributed to Queen Victoria, purportedly penned for her children and reading on the edges, down and then up, “Newcastle Coalmines.”
New word games, of course, evolved to meet a growing demand. For example, consider conundrums: riddles with pun-filled answers. “Why is the Prince of Wales like a gorilla, a bald man, and an orphan?” The answer: “Because the prince is the heir-apparent, the gorilla is a hairy parent, the bald man has no hair apparent, and the orphan has ne’er a parent.” Or, consider letter manipulation: adjusting a word by one letter to create another word. An example: “Take away one letter, and I murder; take away two, and I am dying, if the whole does not save me.” The answer is “skill” [“kill” to “ill” unless saved by “skill”].
As we know it today, the crossword was born on December 21, 1913 when the first such puzzle was published in the “Fun” section of the now defunct New York World. Arthur Wynne, born and raised in Liverpool, England who emigrated to the United States at 19, was then the editor of this supplement and, believing that the older math puzzles, anagrams, etc. seemed dated, was determined to feature something new and special in the Christmas issue. His innovation was to modify the word square concept so that a grid read differently across and down based on clues. He titled the puzzle “Word-Cross.” One might note that in this first puzzle there were no black filler spaces, the grid is diamond shaped with a hole in the middle, and the clues were not broken into across and down sections based solely on the starting number.
To everyone’s surprise, Wynne’s puzzle was an immediate hit, and letters to the editor encouraged its continuance. By mid-January of 1914, the puzzle’s name had been changed to “Cross-Word,” reflecting the subtitle which urged readers to find the missing cross words. Readers started sending in their own versions, and within a month, a Mrs. M.B. Wood of New York became the first published by-lined outside crossword puzzle contributor in history. Contributed puzzles abounded (very soon up to 25 a day), and with them, came innovations in shapes and clues, even puzzles within puzzles. Apparently, the only folks who were antagonistic were the paper’s typesetters, who found the format especially burdensome and annoying.
Surprisingly, the World was the sole publisher of crosswords for close to ten years. During the early 1920s, however, other newspapers here and abroad picked up this popular pastime, and within a decade, they were both featured in almost all American newspapers and began to take the form familiar today. In 1924, the first crossword puzzle book appeared and, while initially viewed as a high risk by the publishers, flew off the shelves. A crossword craze developed to such an extent that the NY Public Library was forced to limit users’ dictionary time to five minutes each, and one train line made dictionaries available in each of its cars for commuters. Sales of dictionaries and thesauruses increased. One Cleveland woman was granted a divorce because her husband would do nothing but work on crosswords all day. A man was arrested for disturbing the peace because he wouldn’t leave a restaurant until he finished his puzzle. A telephone worker shot his wife because she wouldn’t help him with a crossword and then killed himself! And a hit song was written, entitled “Crossword Mama, You Puzzle Me (But Papa’s Gonna Figure You Out).” Despite all this, the New York Times waited until 1942 to publish its first crossword puzzle – the Sunday variety only, with the smaller daily editions beginning in 1950. According to one source, they felt it was childish, sinful, and provided for no real mental development.
In 1921, at the World, Mr. Wynne found himself not only contemplating retirement but also badly in need of assistance because of the volume of puzzles being contributed as well as extensive errors appearing in the paper. John Cosgrove, the World’s Sunday Magazine editor, hired a young woman named Margaret Petherbridge to help. She had been Wynne’s stepdaughter’s roommate at Smith, and after initially focusing solely on aesthetics and not even doing the puzzles herself, she mastered the art of editing them and created many of the innovations in place today. Petherbridge also collaborated in the publication of the early puzzle books and resigned from the World in 1926 when she married publisher John Farrar. Later, after the Times entered the field, it hired then Margaret Farrar, the top name in crosswords, to be their new puzzle editor. Her instructions from Times editor Arthur Hays Sulzberger were to keep the puzzles focused on the news, keep them dignified, and enable readers to solve them in around twenty minutes – the average time commuters spent on the subway. Farrar remained editor until 1969, when she was 72, and was followed by only three others: Will Weng, Eugene Maleska, and now Will Shortz.
The annual American Crossword Puzzle Tournament is the nation’s oldest and largest event of its kind. Founded and directed by Will Shortz, it is held in Stamford, CT and draws well over 500 contestants. The program consists of warm-up games on Friday, competitive crossword competitions throughout Saturday and Sunday mornings, a variety show, and then a championship playoff on Sunday afternoon. All the puzzles are specially created for the tournament , and awards are given in 20 categories, with the event’s overall winner taking home a grand prize of $7,000. The 41st annual contest will take place from March 23 – 25, 2018 at the Stamford Marriott.
If nothing else, you can now better appreciate how Mr. Wynne’s maiden effort evolved and where it has gone in over the last 100 plus years.
For more about the American Crossword Puzzle Tournament, including past winners and other information, be sure to go to
Guy describes himself as “a semi-retired attorney specializing in bankruptcy law with the firm of Riemer & Braunstein LLP in Boston. He lives in Newton, joined BOLLI in 2016, and enjoys, among other things, travel, reading, history, photography, art, museums, and games. This piece on the origin of the crossword puzzle was developed originally for the Eight O’Clock Club, a local discussion group of which Guy is a member. It was sparked by the awareness that 2013 marked the 100th anniversary of the crossword puzzle and a curiosity about how various common games, notably word games, arose.”
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