This year marks the 100th anniversary of the crossword puzzle. It makes me wonder: What is the root of my fascination with crosswords? Why have I succumbed to the crossword obsession? Why do I own a DVD of the documentary Wordplay and plan once again to spend a March weekend solving puzzles at the American Crossword Puzzle Tournament? Why do I spend so much time thinking inside the box? Do I even have a clue?
Sure, I could point to my stepfather’s example. He started solving crosswords to build vocabulary, and I readily took up the challenge. My fascination with words and language predated his influence, though. Perhaps the obsession began with that Classic word game (1) that I played as a kid.
Or maybe the attraction of crosswords lies in the fact that each square grid has its own black-and-white pattern. The colors remind me of those Lunchbox treats (2) I enjoyed or the Flightless fowl (3) that I visit when I go to the zoo.
Sometimes the black squares (called blocks) are in familiar stair steps or in more interesting arrays. For example, I once constructed a puzzle where the blocks outlined a rubber ducky.
To many, the best grids – certainly, the most intimidating ones – are the eye-popping ones found in themeless puzzles. These are the grids with vast expanses of white space made of impenetrable stacks of multiple 15-letter answers. These crosswords leave a solver hopelessly asking, where do I even begin? Such grids remind me of the Dizzying genre (4) seen in the posters and galleries of the ’60s.
Perhaps the root of my obsession rests not with the visual aspects but with the words themselves. It’s not just any words, though. Crosswordese – words such as erne (5) and oner (6) – just annoys me, as it does many solvers. These words are not used in regular conversation and are not routinely found in the paper. They are not in the language – the standard used by crossword editors and constructors alike. The kinds of words that attract are the brands and bands, the movies and manias, the phases and phrases that are part of our everyday lives.
We find crosswords intriguing when their answers momentarily perplex us but later reveal themselves from the crossers (letters in the down words for an across answer, say). Otherwise, we seek help from a friend, a spouse or a dictionary. The answer might even come to us during an Inspirational occasion (7) when we see the connection between the entries, marvel at the wordplay in a punny theme or feel satisfied at having untangled a knotty rebus.
In many ways, though, the clues are my favorite part of the crossword experience. One website, crosswordese.com, highlights a clever clue of the month. Last month, it was a clue from a Los Angeles Times puzzle, published in The Journal Gazette, by noted constructor Barry Silk – Take inventory (8). What a perfectly deceptive, but wholly accurate clue! For me, each such clue is like a line of poetry.
The attraction of crosswords, then, may be that they array clues and answers in the sort of fearful symmetry once described by an English romantic poet (9). Certainly, crosswords have changed much in the past 100 years. Today’s puzzles owe a lot to a new-wave style spawned by Games magazine and the New York Times, under the editorship of Will Shortz.
Ever more exciting and challenging offerings now come weekly in the form of Matt Gaffney’s meta contest puzzles or the syndicated Fireball Crosswords by Peter Gordon.
No matter what sort of crosswords one does, no matter how much they have changed, the one thing they have in common is fun – the very word with which Arthur Wynne began in the first word-cross puzzle published in the New York World on Dec. 21, 1913.
So, pick up a pencil or pen, grab a crossword, and celebrate fun!