W is for word-cross

What’s that?

I was busy writing a scene set in early 1919. A character whiled away the time by doing a crossword.

I paused, recalling an early Basil Rathbone Sherlock Holmes movie, featuring a crossword. It was so heavy-handed, I’d always assumed crosswords were a novelty in the early 1930s.

Oops. Anachronisms can be a bane.

So, off to the web. There is an astonishing amount of material on crosswords, even blogs. I began with a little history.
The first example of a crossword puzzle appeared on September 14, 1890, in the Italian magazine Il Secolo Illustrato della Domenica. It was designed by Giuseppe Airoldi and titled ‘Per passare il tempo’ (‘To pass the time’). Aha! Airoldi's puzzle was a four-by-four grid with no shaded squares; it included horizontal and vertical clues.

Then things went quiet, until on December 21, 1913, Arthur Wynne, a journalist formerly from Liverpool published a ‘word-cross’ puzzle in the New York World that embodied most of the features of the genre as we know it. This puzzle is frequently cited as the first crossword puzzle, and Wynne as the inventor.

Although Wynne's invention was based on earlier puzzle forms, such as the word ‘diamond’, he introduced a number of innovations (such as the use of horizontal and vertical lines to create boxes for solvers to enter letters). He subsequently pioneered the use of black squares in a symmetrical arrangement to separate words in rows and columns.

A few weeks after the first ‘Word-Cross’appeared, the name of the puzzle was changed to ‘Cross-Word’ as a result of a typesetting error.

Crossword puzzles became a regular weekly feature in the World, and spread to other newspapers; the Boston Globe, for example was publishing them at least as early as 1917. They were called a craze in 1921, when the New York Public Library complained that when ‘the puzzle “fans” swarm to the dictionaries and encyclopedias so as to drive away readers and students who need these books in their daily work, can there be any doubt of the Library's duty to protect its legitimate readers?’

Opinions vary as to the first crossword in the UK. Some say it was on November 2, 1924, in the Sunday Express. Some argue it was in Pearson’s Magazine in February 1922. The first Times crossword appeared on February 1 1930.

What I never realised was how different UK and US crosswords are. British puzzles quickly developed their own style, being considerably more difficult than the American variety. In particular the cryptic crossword became established and rapidly gained popularity. The generally considered governing rules for cryptic puzzles were laid down by A. F. Ritchie and D. S. Macnutt.

Of course, some people were alarmed. Crosswords were considered a sinful waste of time, not a game, certainly not a sport, even ‘the mark of a childish mentality’.

I’ll bet you didn’t know that the British cryptic crossword was imported to the US in 1968 by composer and lyricist Stephen Sondheim in New York magazine.

And that in 1944 Allied security officers were disturbed by the appearance, in a series of crosswords in The Daily Telegraph, of words that were secret code names for military operations planned as part of Operation Overlord. ‘Utah’ (the code name for one of the landing sites) appeared in a puzzle on May 2, 1944. Subsequent puzzles included the landing site ‘Omaha’ and ‘Mulberry’; the secret artificial harbours.

On June 2, four days before the invasion, the puzzle included both ‘Neptune’ (the naval operations plan) and ‘Overlord’. The author of the puzzles, a schoolteacher named Leonard Dawe, was interviewed. The investigators concluded that the appearance of the words was not an attempt to pass messages. According to a former crossword editor of The Daily Telegraph, in 1984 a former student of Dawe's claimed that he had picked up the words from soldiers’ conversations around the army camps, and included them when helping Dawe to choose words to fill crossword grids.

Some cryptologists for Bletchley Park were selected after doing well in a crossword-solving competition.

I’m a bit of an addict. I’ve been wondering why. Partly, I think, it’s because when I was at school, my father and I would tackle the crossword together at the weekend. My grandmother, however, always used to get to the newspaper first, tick off all the ones she’d got (usually all of them) in pencil, then leave the paper out to impress us. Even today, I never tick off the clues I get. So crosswords can be viewed as sociable as well as an exercise in IQ oneupmanship.

Personally, I do them to wind down after a hard day at the screen. Recently, I’ve been getting back into the cryptic style, for I was sorely out of practice, and they are witty. It’s a real feeling of achievement to pierce the meaning, whether it’s a full-on cryptic, a jumbo general knowledge, a quiptic or a quickie. It doesn’t do your spelling any harm, either, and reminds you of words you once knew but had let slide.

But there’s another element that is strangely relaxing. It’s the randomness of it all. The perfect way to distract oneself from a day’s issues or problems.

If you’re into some trivia, check out this lovely article on the top ten crosswords in fiction. I'm delighted to see that the new/old Morse Endeavour is back into crossword mode.

Can you think of any more? I know what my favourite cryptic clue is. Do you?

By Pamela Kelt


  1. As a fellow crossword and sudoku addict, I loved this post and yes, I have noticed the difference between USA and UK crosswords but if you wish to be driven totally bonkers (even as a bi-lingual) then try French crosswords. They are mad! A friend of mine started compiling fiendishly complicated ones in the British style where the across clues were in English but the answers were French and vice versa for the down clues. They were superb! Lovely post, thank you.


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