A century old, crosswords have become more cryptic—and Britishby Tom Johnson / November 14, 2013 / Leave a comment
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…