Look around at the people on a train, at a bus stop, or in an airport. Chances are, lots of them are playing some kind of game on their smartphones. But in any crowd, you’ll likely see someone poring over a different pocket diversion — the crossword puzzle, still going strong today on its 100th birthday. It’s been a fascinating century.
Word games have been around since the dawn of writing, and by the late 1800’s games in magazines were starting to develop crossword-style characteristics. But it was on December 21st, 1913 that Arthur Wynne published the first true crossword in The New York World. This puzzle defined the design and layout that would last a century. However, it didn’t establish the name — Wynne called his game a Word-Cross, seen here.
By the 1920s, the name had changed from word-cross to crossword, allegedly due to a typesetter’s error somewhere along the line, and the puzzle turned into a booming fad. In 1924, the newly-formed Simon and Schuster publishers reluctantly produced the first crossword book, at the nudging of founder Richard Simon’s puzzle-crazy aunt. The initial batch of 3,600 copies, none of which carried the publisher’s name, sold like wildfire, and Simon and Schuster went on to publish over 100,000 copies. In 1924 and 1925, crossword books landed in the top 10 nonfiction bestsellers.
Puzzle books weren’t the only hot sellers. As crosswords swept the nation, sales of dictionaries skyrocketed, including pocket-sized editions and even a micro version worn on the wrist. Railroads installed dictionaries in passenger cars, and libraries were overrun with puzzle fiends anxious to look up a vexing clue. In 1921, the New York Public Library reported how rowdy puzzle nuts “swarm to the dictionaries and encyclopedias so as to drive away readers and students who need these books in their daily work.”
And the puzzles had a notable effect on people’s vocabulary. Smithsonian quotes a 1925 Literary Digest list of words that had fallen into disuse, only to be revived as crossword clues. Today, words like acute, ooze, smudge, omit, and sever are commonplace, thanks to crosswords. Even the internet’s favourite verb, ban, was dusted off and re-inserted into our word banks by puzzle writers.
As happens with seemingly ever harmless pastime, the crossword’s popularity stirred up significant fear and consternation. Experts feared that the tricky word puzzles would cause undue stress, and Maryland’s Chairman of Mental Hygiene worried that crossword anxiety could cause psychosis. The New York Times of 1924 derided the “sinful waste in the utterly futile finding of words the letters of which will fit into a prearranged pattern, more or less complex.”
Eventually, the Times’s indignant anti-crossword stance subsided: in 1942, Margaret Farrar, a former assistant to Arthur Wynne, became NYT‘s crossword editor. Farrar established the square, symmetrical grid that has since become standard in American crosswords, filling the blanks with intelligent, clever puzzles that gave the crossword longevity far beyond the initial fad. When she retired in 1969 the NYT puzzle had become perhaps the most recognised and well regarded of all crosswords.
It’s puzzling (hah!) that a pastime which encourages people to use their brains, thumb through dictionaries and expand their vocabularies would ever be seen as a pariah. A century later, we think of crosswords as a brainy way to start the morning or whittle away the commute to work. Makes you wonder if, in 2023, we’ll say the same thing about Candy Crush.
Top image: Shutterstock / Rob Byron