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Word Nerd: The crossword crossroads

We have just passed the centenary of the creation of the crossword puzzle.

December 21, 1913, the New York World featured a new type of word puzzle constructed by journalist Arthur Wynne. Wynne’s puzzle differed from today’s crosswords in that it was diamond-shaped and contained no internal black squares.

Wynne recalled a puzzle from his childhood in Liverpool, England, called Magic Squares, in which a given group of words had to be arranged so their letters would read the same way across and down. He designed a larger and more complex grid, and provided a clue for each word. New York World published Wynne’s “word-cross puzzle” as a “mental exercise” on the Fun Page. Before settling on a rectangle, Wynne experimented with different shapes, including a circle. The word-cross became known as a cross-word and, as with many words, the hyphen was eventually dropped.

In 1921, Margaret Petherbridge Farrar took over editorship of this newspaper’s crossword. Among her innovations was the single number clue and puzzles became regular in pattern with the words interlocking instead of in several different blocks.

The first crossword.

The first crossword.

A crossword craze began in 1923. The Crossword Puzzle Book was Simon & Schuster’s first publishing venture. They printed 3,600 copies and were told this was an extremely high number that would lead to their bankruptcy. Within three months, sales exceeded 40,000 and within one year three volumes were produced with total sales of 400,000.

During the early 1920s such newspapers as Toronto’s The Globe picked up the newly discovered pastime and within a decade crossword puzzles were featured in almost all North American newspapers. It was during this period that crosswords began to assume their familiar form.

The New York Times was the only American major daily newspaper to refuse to include such puzzles, but it soon relented. In 1924, its editor wrote: “All ages, both sexes, highbrows and lowbrows, at all times and in all places, even in restaurants and in subways, pore over the diagrams.” Eighteen years later, the New York Times’ Sunday edition printed its first crossword, and in September 1950 the puzzle became a daily feature as well.

Crossword puzzlers, on the whole, are a staid, functional lot. Yet, it was not always so. In 1924, Canadian Forum referred to puzzledom as an “epidemic obsession” and in the same year, the London Times was even more scurrilous, labeling crossword puzzles as a “menace making devastating inroads on the working hours of every rank of society.” In its November 1924 edition, Canadian Forum featured an article titled The Psychology of the Cross-Word Puzzle, where the author charged the psychological world to explain the regressive behaviour found in crossword puzzlers: “Psychology should at least attempt some explanation of what may be regarded as the epidemic obsession of the cross-word puzzle.”

No call for outside help should have been made by our self-styled Jungian editorialist. He went on to conclude, “It is obvious from the similarity of the cross-word puzzle to the child’s letter blocks that it is primarily the unconscious which is expressing itself in the cross-word puzzle obsession.”

A legacy of the crossword madness was on display at the New York Public Library in 1937 because frenzied puzzlers were desecrating valued library tomes in an attempt to gain an edge over competitors. There, a prohibitive sign commanded in glaring block letters: THE USE OF LIBRARY BOOKS IN CONNECTION WITH CONTESTS AND PUZZLES IS PROHIBITED.

Helene Hovanec in Creative Cruciverbalists recounts some stories found in U.S. newspapers in 1924-25 that highlight puzzle mishugass that occurred at the time. Here’s an example: “Theodore Koerner of Brooklyn asked his wife for help in solving a crossword. She begged off, claiming exhaustion. Koerner shot her (superficially) and then shot himself (fatally).”

As we commemorate 100 years of crossword puzzles, it might be wise to remember that lurking in the depths of the next passive puzzler you spot lies a wordstruck maniac just waiting to break out.

Crossword nut Howard Richler’s latest book is How Happy Became Homosexual and other mysterious semantic shifts.

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