The word “FUN” looms large at the top of the first crossword that appeared out of nowhere on Dec. 21, 1913 – luring in people who should have known better than to put their trust in a three-letter word for simple amusement.The crossword has since occupied a century’s worth of brainpower, and it wouldn’t have lasted so long if it didn’t caress the minds it simultaneously toys with. But “FUN” falls short of describing the fundamental battle of wits designed to show us up, steer us wrong and make us feel good in the end. Extreme pleasure is more like it.
“For me, the dopamine hit comes when a clue that looks utterly baffling turns out to be entirely fair,” says Alan Connor, a screenwriter and author of a wide-ranging history of the cryptic crossword, Two Girls, One on Each Knee (i.e. PAT on ELLA).
“The answer has been staring you in the face, and then the penny drops – ‘spelling’ refers to witchcraft, not the thing you do with words. You’re suddenly in a completely different part of your brain, and the leap between apparently unconnected things becomes physically pleasurable.”
Today, millions of people around the world solve crossword puzzles every day. No newspaper is complete without one version or another. Scientists believe that the high-level stimulation crosswords provide connects with the brain’s survival strategies and links back to the ancient riddles of oracles and sphinxes. Modern puzzles have opened up this enigmatic pleasure, democratizing the challenge by filling clues with topical cultural references, from the Kardashians to indie music, that breathe new life into the old form.
“The crossword puzzle is ever-present in North American and British culture over the last 100 years,” says Mr. Connor, who blogs on crosswords for The Guardian. “The story of the puzzle, as it’s subtly changed and found different forms, is not that eventful – no blood has been shed. But by becoming a part of a newspaper’s daily architecture, it starts to mean a lot to people, and they build up strong relationships with the people who write the clues that goes drip-drip-drip for decades. And so the crossword ends up being this wonderful quiet part of the century.”
A crossword for everyone
Longevity wasn’t the first priority when an English immigrant named Arthur Wynne created his diamond-shaped grid as a space-filler for the Christmas edition of the New York World – he called it a word-cross puzzle, played it straight, and asked his newbie solvers to come up with the three-letter plural of “IS.” But Wynne still managed to make word-crossing hard for himself and his readers by forcing letters to fit into both vertical and horizontal answers – a highly demanding framework, subsequently perfected by the geniuses at The New York Times, that in lesser hands can lead to the obscurities and banalities of what 100 years of complainers have learned to call “crosswordese.”
Thus, in Wynne’s inaugural attempt at gridding the English language, there were two separate clues (a bird; a pigeon) for the same word, DOVE, the vowel-rich NEIF turned out to be a four-letter synonym for fist, and readers who expected to wallow in cruciverbalizing fun could only do so by realizing that the fibre of the gomuti palm had to be the word DOH. Which, as everyone now knows, is actually a Simpsons shout-out, or the sound of moolah in Springfield, or (for the classicists in the crowd) a Homeric oath.
Much has changed over the crossword’s 100-year evolution. There was the crazed phase in the 1920s, when crooners sang Crossword Mama, You’re Puzzling Me and novelist P.G. Wodehouse could depict his less-than-brilliant characters searching for the name of a three-letter Australian bird that starts with E and ends in U. Some early trend-spotters felt bold enough to predict that, like all mass outbursts, the crossword would fade as fast as it flared, leaving mahjong as the 1920s diversion most likely to endure.
High-minded social arbiters later worried about the proletariat being distracted by “a primitive form of mental exercise” when they should be devoting themselves to good honest toil. But even when the upper classes and superior beings appropriated the new word puzzle, investing it with classical references and knottier clues that made the exercise more sophisticated, the crossword couldn’t escape the naysayers – it stood accused of being the escape hatch of the leisured classes, a private club of well-bred language that only the verbally adept could enter.
The democratizing of puzzles over the last generation – in content, though not in degree of difficulty – has blunted that critique, making it easier for crossword fans to wallow in the pleasure of personal cryptology.