One hundred down

A century old, crosswords have become more cryptic—and British
November 14, 2013

A proposal for giant crosswords to be erected at train stations to entertain waiting passengers in 1925, as the craze swept the US © Mary Evans Picture Library

Crosswords bewitch, mislead, infuriate. They have a vocabulary all of their own; they play with language; they entertain, teach, mystify and tantalise. Once bitten by the crossword bug, a solver finds it difficult to avoid looking at life, words, context and meaning in a new and cryptic way.

A hundred years ago, on 21st December 1913, Arthur Wynne presented what is recognised as the first true crossword to the unsuspecting readership of the New York World. He continued to provide puzzles for the next 10 years without anyone following suit. Then, in 1923 two Harvard graduates, Robert Simon and Lincoln Schuster, launched their Cross Word Puzzle Book. Its first edition sold out overnight and nine reprints soon followed.

The next year, the crossword crossed the Atlantic. In November 1924, one appeared in the Sunday Express, and a few months later the Daily Telegraph became the first British newspaper to publish a daily crossword. Though originally intended as a six-week series, it became a permanent fixture. From there, crosswords multiplied. The Times was forced to give way in 1930. Adrian Bell, (father of Martin, the white-jacketed BBC reporter) compiled this crossword, his first of over 4,500 for the paper. By 1932, they had become so popular that the Spectator could acknowledge that the crossword “had ceased to be a craze and become a habit.”

My own introduction to crosswords came through my parents, who were keen solvers of the Reader’s Crossword in the Birmingham Evening Mail. They explained to their eight-year-old son what an anagram was (I recall having problems with “rare” as an anagram of “rear”). My first professional crossword was published in October 1962 but it was with the arrival of the Puzzler magazine in the autumn of 1972 that my crossword career took off. This was an opportunity to compile “bread and butter” puzzles and earn a living from my hobby. I have since compiled over 2,000 puzzles for all 510 issues. Commissioned work was not without its annoyances in the early days. The Swiss founder of the magazine demanded that none of these coffee-break puzzles should include plurals, adverbs, past participles or present participles. I soon fell foul of these rules, he claimed, when one of my definitional crosswords was rejected on the grounds that it contained the solution “quadruped,” which was, in his view, a past participle.

So what is it that made me a crossword compiler, when the 1960s were swinging and the Beatles were conquering the world? Why was I curled up in my room, fascinated by placing letters in little white squares in a crossword grid? I’ll admit it: I am and always have been a nerd. My English teachers at King Edward’s School, Birmingham, instilled in me a love of words, and studying Latin was a joy as it explained so much about our language. My career as a modern languages teacher enabled me to enjoy words and grammar professionally, before I left the chalk-face in 2002 to become a full-time professional compiler. If I tell you that my other hobby is buses—hence three of my other pseudonyms as a crossword compiler: Anorak, Busman and Gozo—you will then have a flavour of the man. Which other compiler can claim to have written the Malta Bus Handbook? Why do I keep print copies of all my published puzzles, just in case someone wants a complete collection? Why do I possess every copy of Buses magazine since April 1961?

Despite its American origins, the crossword, and above all the cryptic crossword, has become an especially British phenomenon. It is generally agreed that the development of the English language, with so many linguistic influences—among them, Latin, Greek, Arabic, Indian, Romance and European languages—has provided an elasticity which few other languages can boast. Consequently influential compilers of the 1930s were starting to play with our language as they prepared their clues and so the British cryptic crossword gradually evolved.

Abroad, puzzles are different. American puzzles tend to be purely definitional, frequently appearing in huge panels with a few loosely thematic solutions, but compiled on a grid in which every letter is cross-checked in a solution Across and Down. In Germany many puzzles fit into a large grid (sometimes with a photo of a celebrity whose name appears as one of the solutions) without black squares. Instead, clues (concise or abbreviated) appear in the squares where the black ones should be, with arrows indicating the direction in which the solution be entered.

Three early compilers developed the British cryptic crossword. Edward Powys Mathers, who assumed the pseudonym Torquemada (the first Inquisitor General of Spain in the 15th century), was attracted to crosswords in the autumn of 1924, but quickly dismissed the rudimentary definitional style of puzzle that had travelled from the US to Britain. Instead, he dreamed up a series of 12 puzzles with clues in couplets and a pictorial diagram. When the Observer invited him to provide a puzzle—he went on to compile 670 in total—he decided on compiling on barred grids (rather than blocked grids, those with black and white squares) in which most letters were cross-checked in the solutions Across and Down. His clues were like nobody else’s. His erudition meant that his solvers were challenged to complete abstruse quotations from English literature; solutions had to be entered backwards; words were arbitrarily divided in two to suit the demands of the puzzle; he developed the story crossword (“narratives” as he called them) in which the missing words in the story were the crossword solutions; his grids were asymmetrical. Edward Elgar and Austen Chamberlain were two of his greatest admirers.

As a contemporary of Torquemada, Prebendary Alistair Ferguson Ritchie of Wells Cathedral established his credentials as a compiler for the fearsome Listener crossword series. Some of his prewar puzzles attracted no correct entries. He dwelt on the theory and practice of crosswords and paved the way for a codification and standardisation of the true cryptic crossword. His dictum—“You need not mean what you say, but you must say what you mean”—soon became the yardstick for any good clue.

Mathers died in 1939 and was succeeded by Derrick Somerset Macnutt as the principal compiler for the Observer. Just as Torquemada was followed by Ximenes in the Inquisition, so Macnutt assumed the pseudonym Ximenes. Considered the father of the modern crossword puzzle, Ximenes maintained that individual words should interlock fairly, that grids should not contain two or three consecutive unchecked letters and that a five-letter solution with only its second and fourth letters cross-checked was unfair to solvers, especially if these two letters were vowels. Just think how many words would fit into this five-letter pattern: _ A _ E _. Symmetry became a regular constituent of a Ximenes puzzle. “Is it entirely the look of the thing?” he once asked. “I think it is, very largely,” was his answer. And so it has remained ever since. Individual compilers in the more recent past have influenced the development of the British crossword. From July 1971, the Spectator’s Jac (John Adelmare Caesar) single-handedly presented his own challenging thematic cryptic puzzles. Jac’s innovative approach was to offer a puzzle with “unclued lights” (solutions without clues) which solvers had to work out from the intersecting clued solutions in the grid, along with the cryptic help of the title. The Spectator continues to offer puzzles true to Jac’s style. Mass (Harold Massingham) and I (as Doc) were invited to join Jac in 1981. I now edit the series, too, with Columba (Antico in the Oldie), Dumpynose, Lavatch and Mr Magoo being the other team-members. Alec Robins (Custos in the Guardian, Zander in the Listener and as half of the Everyman series in the Observer) wrote the ground-breaking Teach Yourself Crosswords in 1975 which explained the appeal of and frustration of the British cryptic. Jonathan Crowther, as Azed in the Observer, succeeded Ximenes and has continued the tradition every Sunday since 1971. John Graham, as Araucaria in the Guardian and Cinephile in the Financial Times, broke away from the strict Ximenean rules to create his personal style, pushing the boundaries of cluing in cryptic puzzles, now carried on, especially, by his protégés John Henderson (Enigmatist) and John Halpern (Paul).

How do you compile a crossword? A compiler looks at English words and language in a new way, then presents his solvers with the challenge of interpreting his intentions. Why are you “happiest” when smashing “epitaphs”? During the Olympics last year, I could not refrain from imagining “Usain Bolt” carrying out his anagrammatical “ablutions” before a race. Similarly “Clare Short” has “orchestral” connections. Who but a crossword compiler would have realised that “White Christmas” has “hi-tech” hidden inside? Compiling is dependent on the difficulty, style and standard of each puzzle. Most newspapers have a stock of standard grids for compilers to use. Other series (the Generalist in Prospect is among these) have no standard patterns and the compiler is free to devise the grid as they wish. When compiling the Generalist, I will always have decided on an interesting, arcane, archaic or amusing word or phrase to start off with and the grid evolves as I build up interlocking and cross-checking solutions. Sometimes I may hide a message in the puzzle. I did so in the October 2013 issue to commemorate the birth of my granddaughter. I always complete the grid before starting the cluing—though it may well be that a few of the solutions (especially in a cryptic puzzle) have been included because I have already dreamt up a “good” clue for them. Cryptic crossword vocabulary has to be learnt. Everyday words adopt a wholly new meaning in clues—a river is a “flower,” in other words, something which “flows,” or it could be a “banker” as it has “banks”; a “topless gown” would lead to the solution “own,” because the initial letter has to be discarded.

All clues must indicate exactly what the word play is; there is usually a clear definition of the solution either at the start or end of the clue, the remaining segment being the cryptic references which constitute the word play. Thus the compiler “says what he means” to enable the solver to crack the wording of the clue. But overall, the clue will paint a picture which does not need to have any relevance at all to the solution and thus “may not mean what it says.”

I generally prepare clues in rough on paper. The availability of crossword compiling software which provides extensive word lists, grid-making facilities and anagram programmes has certainly simplified compiling a puzzle, but in so doing has taken away the fun, challenge and mental satisfaction of working on a puzzle for yourself. So I still rely on my library of reference books and dictionaries. I do not consciously alter my style to suit my various pseudonyms. Rather, it is my pseudonym which associates me with an individual crossword series.

Will the crossword still be going strong when its 200th birthday rolls around in 2113? The future seems bright. Twenty and more years ago compilers met only rarely. Nowadays compilers, solvers and bloggers are in daily contact. The internet has put a human face on the crossword world and has made a compiler’s life far less solitary. While other print publications are losing readers owing to the internet, the joy of solving puzzles on paper remains.


Solving cryptic crosswords

1) Anagram clues must always include a word which suggests change, damage, mixture.

Clue: Torn anorak—go in jumper (8), Solution: Kangaroo.

“Torn” is the anagram indicator; immediately following are the eight letters “anorak go” forming the anagram, with “jumper” as the definition. Notice how even the definition of a “kangaroo” as “something which jumps” adds to the cryptic nature of the clue.

2) Hidden clues are probably the simplest cryptic ones, as the solution is always looking you straight in the face. The “containment” must be referred to by words such as “in,” “among,” “part of.”

Clue: Region of the Far East (4), Solution: Area

3) Multiple definitions. Many words have numerous meanings and some can give rise to lovely wordplay:

Clue: Left harbour bearing wine (4), Solution: Port.

Here we have four different meanings of the word; port could be the left side of a ship, a harbour, one’s demeanour or bearing, and a Spanish wine.

4) Charades. In such clues, just as in the game of charades, individual words are placed together to form a longer one, so that A + B = C.

Clue: Bill? The chap’s a pain (4), Solution: Ache

Bill = account = A/C + the chap = He

5) Container clues. Here we have definitions placed one inside another to yield the solution, so that A ÷ B = C.

Clue: Has a chuckle with Man Utd player about the French (7), Solutions: Giggles

Giggs = Man Utd player, which circles “LE” = “the” in French

6) Reversal clues. Just what it says: words spelt backwards. Convention demands that across solutions are indicated as being spelt backwards, whereas down solutions are indicated as being entered upwards in the grid.

Clue: Arrest prohibition lifted (3), Solution: Nab

This would be a down clue as it suggested that one word (“Ban” = prohibition) when “lifted up” gives a word meaning “arrest,” which is “nab.”

7) Vocal clues suggest that one word sounds like another. The appearance of phrases such as “we hear,” “reportedly” and “on the radio” often reveal this type of clue.

Clue: The food’s not touched at all, we hear, in Warwickshire town (8), Solution: Nuneaton which sounds like “none eaten”

8) Subtractive clues are those in which some letters are to be omitted so that A – B = C.

Clue: Fish had to leave harbour (4), Solution: Dock

Fish = haddock, but “had” has “to leave” (ie. “be omitted”) to yield “dock” = harbour

9) Bits and pieces.

Very frequently a compiler will refer to individual letters in a clue. Thus parking could be entered as its road-sign abbreviation P, right could be R, left would be L. It is acknowledged that any acceptable abbreviation easily verifiable in a dictionary can be used; Chambers Dictionary is generally regarded as the sine qua non for all cryptic puzzles.

10) Advanced clues. Beginners have to learn to recognise each of these individual clue types, but it is very common to find two clue types rolled into one.

Clue: Pile-up unfortunately led to delay (6)

Purists would demand that this would be a down clue, entering a word meaning “pile” upwards in the grid and then making an anagram of “led,” with the solution meaning “to delay”—“wad” reversed gives “daw,” plus “dle,” an anagram of “led.” The anagram need not necessarily lead to an English word—merely a consecutive jumble of the letters.

11) And Lit. clues. The epitome of a good clue is one in which all the components combine to define the solution.

Clue: Farewell to the French about to depart (5),

Solution: Adieu

Definition is “Farewell”; “au” in French means ”to the”; “depart” = “die”. So, now place “au” around “die” and “adieu” is revealed—but now re-read the clue and the whole defines “adieu” literally.

12) And finally: this is my most ambitious attempt of cluing, which appeared in a puzzle earlier this year. Here are two “and lit.” sentences/clues which lead to the first two lines of a poem. The two “and lit” anagrams are:

Poet refers to nightfall (Duly thank clew)

Old Holstein wander. Where will they go?

These can be resolved into the first couplet of Gray’s “Elegy Written in a Country Churchyard:”

The curfew tolls the knell of parting day,The lowing herd wind slowly o’er the lea.