One hundred years of crosswords

  • Living
  • Tuesday, 24 Dec 2013

Arthur Wynne left England for the US, left farming for journalism, and then left millions delighting in solving his invention.

DEVOTEES of all kinds of crossword (cruciverbalists, some people coyly call them) saluted the memory of a Liverpool man who emigrated to the United States, abandoned onion farming for journalism, became editor of the New York World, and on Dec 21, 1913, filled a spare space in his paper with a device that he called a word cross, thus ensuring his name would be honoured on the anniversary as the inventor of crosswords.

Only curmudgeons would point out at this moment that this claim is a little dubious.

Arthur Wynne himself was quick to acknowledge that the idea was as old as the language, and the origins of the puzzle that he created can be plausibly shown to go back at least as far as Pompeii.

And though his New York World puzzles continued, it was not until two young men called Simon and Schuster, whose publishing house would go on to give us Ernest Hemingway and Scott Fitzgerald, put puzzles into a book 11 years later that they really caught on.

The first newspaper in Britain to use them seems to have been the Sunday Express in 1925. The then Manchester Guardian followed four years later, 13 months ahead of the Times.

But it also has to be said that crosswords today bear about as much resemblance to Wynne’s pioneering number as does the Goldberg Variations to Chopsticks.

Wynne’s puzzle was shaped like a diamond.

All you had to do was to fill in the answers to questions like “the plural of is” and “what artists learn to do” – even if one or two demanded more erudition (“the fibre of the gomuti palm”, the answer to which was “doh”.)

Today’s familiar black squares were in those days unknown.

The art form has evolved in different ways in different countries, but here, there are now essentially three varieties: the quick, the cryptic and the supercryptic, for ace solvers only.

The quick is sometimes thought to be simple but that isn’t always the case: a clue may simply say “draw”, but that’s a word whose alternative meanings command a whole column in any thesaurus.

It’s the cryptic and supercryptic, though, that are serious business.

Over the years, ingenious hands have developed more and more techniques for making their solvers sweat.

The London-based Observer was the pacemaker here, unleashing on its customers first Torquemada and, after him, Ximenes, both named after Spanish inquisitors.

Ximenes was Derrick Somerset Macnutt, who taught me Greek, not a happy experience for either of us.

He was one of a school that favoured strict rules for crosswords, which he embodied in a book call Ximenes On The Art Of The Crossword, published in 1966.

Some setters still stick to these rules.

Others favour the far more libertarian style embodied in the work of John Graham, Araucaria of the Guardian, who died last month.

Graham was an orthodox Anglican minister, but in crossword terms he was a joyous heretic, who, strict Ximeneans might have considered, deserved to be burned at the stake.

Most of his Guardian faithful will tell you there never was, and never will be, a setter to match Araucaria. But some of the younger setters, who revere him as the master, take even greater liberties from time to time.

That’s not to say they don’t observe rules. It is still the case, in most instances, that a clue will contain a definition, equivalent to the word or words you need to install, and a cryptic variation to point you towards it.

Or often, at first, away from it: since this is a world in which fiendish is a term of approval and the work of its best protagonists is admired for a phenomenon, rare in most trades, that might be called honest deception.

In his 2003 book Pretty Girl in Crimson Rose, Sandy Balfour describes his girlfriend’s struggles to get him to solve cryptic crosswords.

“That,” she says, rejecting a proffered solution, “is what they want you to think it means.”

A clue may include the words “Greek character”, which will usually indicate the presence of such letters as mu, nu or pi.

Yet, the letters you need in this case may make up the name Plato.

Some of the tricks of the trade are now ancient.

The use, for instance, of anagrams, whose presence is often indicated by words such as mangled, messy or mutilated.

Hugh Stephenson, the Guardian’s crossword editor, has three pages listing such devices in his book Secrets of the Setters.

Some enthusiasts disparage the anagram, yet it helps the solver to get the game under way, and at its best can be an enrichment of life – as when carthorse yields orchestra, or Manchester City football club becomes synthetic cream (they were playing that way at the time), or Britney Spears, Presbyterians.

There are also standard clichés which solvers soon spot – a soldier may give you RE, or perhaps GI; an L may give you a learner (as in L plates for learner drivers), although it might also mean left, large, lake or Latin. Stephenson lists these, too.

One quickly learns to distrust a word like flower, which may mean a daisy or daffodil, but may mean a river (rivers flow: geddit?)

Yet what makes a good setter is above all, ingenuity and invention; so brand new tricks are entering the language of crosswords all the time.

And it’s when a setter comes up with a clue that baffles you for 45 minutes and makes you gasp when you solve it that the pleasure of crosswords reaches its peak.

There were several in the Guardian prize crossword a week ago, concocted by Paul, a devout Araucarian. For instance, the unXimenean “Tommy Cooper” (1, 4, 2, 7, 4) the answer to which I can say, since the competition is closed, is “a name to conjure with”.

Our hero today, Arthur Wynne (born Everton 1871, died Clearwater, Florida 1945) would surely have marvelled at that. – Guardian News & Media

Article type: metered
User Type: anonymous web
User Status:
Campaign ID: 1
Cxense type: free
User access status: 3
Subscribe now to our Premium Plan for an ad-free and unlimited reading experience!

Next In Living

Workplace: A culture of mistrust leads to knowledge-hiding
Taking a stone-cold look at preserving Nazi architecture
China's kids can only play three hours of video games a week
Calling all Sudoku enthusiasts: The Championship returns to Malaysia
Don't let your dog slurp from dirty puddles
First ever KL Design Festival kicks off today, aims to rejuvenate downtown KL
Droughts and rising seas put Cuba’s agriculture under threat
What is 'carchitecture' or the art of including the car in the interior design?
Climate crisis: There is no Planet B
How to safely dispose of your old e-bike battery

Others Also Read