Crazy for crosswords

For my penultimate column, I wanted to write about something near and dear to my heart: crossword puzzles. I learned this summer that the Upper School Library has a subscription to the New York Times (NYT), and included in that subscription is free access to their famed crosswords. And so, every night at 10 when new puzzles come out —6 p.m. on Saturdays and Sundays—I open up the NYT Crossword app, and, by the grace of our librarians, solve the following day’s mini crossword.

The Mini, as the Times affectionately calls it, is a small, usually 5-boxes-by-5-boxes puzzle that’s generally solvable in 30 seconds to a minute—the perfect mental exercise for people who are distracted easily. Sometimes, the clues might relate to something in that day’s news (“Michael ____, author of Fire and Fury,” for example), or the whole puzzle might be themed (the Christmas season was a fun time for crosswords everywhere).

In addition to the Mini, every week my friend Philip and I spend a free block (Wednesday G, if anyone’s interested in joining) struggling through the Monday puzzle, the easiest puzzle of the week. And on the not-too-rare occasion that we don’t finish it, we leave it on one of the tables outside the library to crowdsource the effort. One week, desperate to finish the puzzle with five minutes left in the block, Philip and I dashed around the school, hoping someone might know the answer to the last clue. Far too proud to Google the answer, we asked friends, teachers, librarians—anyone who just might know a five-letter nickname for President George W. Bush (Dubya, if you’re curious).

Crossword puzzles are supposedly the most popular word games in the world, according to the American Crossword Puzzle Tournament (ACPT), an annual event hosted by Will Shortz, the puzzle editor for the Times. 200,000 people subscribe to the NYT’s crossword service alone, and that doesn’t include the fraction of the paper’s over 1.3 million print subscribers who solve the puzzle in the paper, or those who do crosswords from other places. (Another friend has a book of collected NYT crosswords entitled Keep Calm and Crossword On and also a guide: How to Conquer the New York Times Crossword Puzzle: Tips, Tricks, and Techniques to Master America’s Favorite Puzzle.) In all, I’d venture to guess that somewhere in the millions of people attempt at least one crossword puzzle per week. But where did the crossword come from?

Though a few, relatively crude crossword puzzles were around in the 1800s, the “first crossword puzzle” comes from a 1913 issue of New York World and was published by a man named Arthur Wynne, according to the ACPT website. The puzzle was shaped like a diamond and had no black squares, and he named it the “word-cross puzzle.” Copies of this original crossword remain online (you can play it here at http://www.crosswordtournament.com/more/wynne.html), and the arcane, early-20th century clues make it practically unsolvable. Luckily, someone after Wynne had the good sense to switch the name around.

What’s interesting is that in the 104 years since Wynne’s first puzzle, the format has taken off around the world. Across the pond, the Brits have put their own spin on it: their version of crosswords strictly limits itself to dictionary words, as opposed to the American penchant for using proper nouns or phrases—evidently, the British have decided that the American crossword was just too fun and had to be dialed back.

Crosswords have also expanded beyond the English-speaking world. Now, you can find crossword puzzles in French, Spanish, Italian, Russian, Greek, and even Chinese—which, because it’s a pictographic language, doesn’t have an alphabet, so each box represents a complete word, and each row or column makes a complete phrase.

But as they start gaining more steam worldwide, crosswords are becoming increasingly niche within the United States. Think about it. When was the last time you saw someone: 1. reading a physical newspaper, and 2. working on the crossword in said newspaper? Chances are, probably never.

Though, of course, crosswords are everywhere on the internet, the major difference now is that they must be actively sought out. Professor Michael Sharp from Binghamton University points out that before, in the heyday of physical newspapers, people might read an article, get bored, and decide to take a stab at the crossword. But everything’s online now. Apart from the daily crossword taped to the table in the school’s faculty lounge—I managed to fill in a couple of answers on the one occasion last year when I went there with my English class—hardly anyone just happens upon crosswords anymore.

So if you have some free time right now—which, presumably, you do, if you’re reading this newspaper—do yourself and Will Shortz a favor: www.nytimes.com/crosswords.

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