Crossing Words

An important anniversary is almost here—the celebration of an event that brings joy and satisfaction to millions of people.

Christmas? Oh, yeah, that’s coming soon, too. But before it arrives, those of us who love to play with words have another occasion to observe. Saturday, December 21, is the 100th birthday of something that has meant even more to American breakfast tables than the toaster.

It’s the centennial of the American crossword puzzle.

The first simple crosswords appeared in England during the last few decades of the 1800’s. A journalist from Liverpool named Arthur Wynne published what he called a “word-cross” puzzle in the New York World on December 21, 1913. That was just the beginning. Other newspapers began printing the puzzles, and by the 1920’s, crossword puzzles had become a fad. They were the cat’s meow, the berries, the bee’s knees. Some local trains even put dictionaries in their club cars to accommodate crossword-solving commuters.

Not everyone considered this a good thing. The New York Public Library’s report for 1921 huffed that “the puzzle ‘fans’ swarm to the dictionaries and encyclopedias so as to drive away readers and students who need these books in their daily work, can there be any doubt of the Library’s duty to protect its legitimate readers?”

In 1924, The New York Times complained that puzzles were a “sinful waste” and that solvers “get nothing out of it except a primitive form of mental exercise . . . .” The newspaper itself didn’t start publishing crosswords until 1942. With an irony that word-lovers have to appreciate, the puzzles in The New York Times are now regarded as the gold standard for challenging crosswords.

If you want to learn more about the history of the crossword puzzle, you can browse here. Even better, here’s a link from Parade magazine where you can print a copy of Wynne’s first puzzle and solve it in his honor. (Note: It’s not as easy as it looks.)

And this weekend, as you enjoy your newspaper, take a second to lift your coffee cup in honor of Arthur Wynne. If you know that a dagger can be called a “snee,” that a black cuckoo is an “ani,” and that a pasture is a “lea,” it’s probably due to him. If you have ever called yourself a “cruciverbalist,” it’s because of Mr. Wynne.

And if you regularly exchange cross words with your sweetheart over the breakfast table, you now know who to bla—thank.

Categories: Words for Nerds | Tags: , , | Leave a comment

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