Daily Archives: December 21, 2009

This Day in History 12/21: The Birth of the Crossword Puzzle

If you’ve ever thrown down a pencil at frustration at the New York Times, today’s post is right up your alley.

Today we celebrate the birthday of the crossword puzzle, that criss-cross table of craziness and insanity that has distracted commuters and early risers at Sunday breakfast for decades.  There are two stories to the birth of this puzzle: the first involves an Italian magazine in 1890.  The Italian puzzle had a grid with no diagram i.e. no black squares, so it’s a puzzle, but not really a crossword.

The modern puzzle began on December 21, 1913. when Arthur Wynne, a journalist from Liverpool, Scotland, created a puzzle for the New York World called a “word-cross”.  The names were reversed and a legend was born.

Yet the crossword was not without its critics.  It exploded in the 1920s, and many conservative pundits viewed it as a sign of the loose morals of the period–a passing fad.   According to a 1924 New York Times article, a clergyman called the working of crossword puzzles “the mark of a childish mentality” and said “There is no use for persons to pretend that working one of the puzzles carries any intellectual value with it.”  Some thought the craze would end with the decade. 

Even the New York Times itself, which would become famous for its crossword, was a critic.    In 1924, the Times complained of the “sinful waste in the utterly futile finding of words the letters of which will fit into a prearranged pattern, more or less complex. This is not a game at all, and it hardly can be called a sport… [solvers] get nothing out of it except a primitive form of mental exercise, and success or failure in any given attempt is equally irrelevant to mental development.”

Funny how the Times would start a crossword itself by 1942, and would be the most well-known of puzzles in America and the world, along with the Times of London’s puzzle.

Almost every daily newspaper, including web editions, has some form of the crossword puzzle.  Many, like Will Shortz’ acclaimed Times puzzles, become progressively harder each day of the week, so that by Saturday you just look at it and whimper like a small child about to get paddled.  Crosswords are also a great way for students to stimulate vocabulary–by using common definitions or clues for complex words, students can build their word power and make new connections in their brain, allowing them greater cognitive function.

Here are some websites to some more crosswords fun at home or in the classroom:

Puzzles from USA Today, including Crosswords - okay, so its USA Today; we’re not dealing with the varsity.  Still it’s good practice.

Washington Post Crosswords – these kept me going in college, and are pretty good.  They hold up well to the NYT standard.

Yahoo! Daily Crossword - great to pass the time.

Crossword Puzzles – This one is a great clearinghouse for US and UK crosswords.

New York Times Crossword – The one by which all are measured.  It’s a pay site, so getting the print edition may be cheaper (maybe not).  The ultimate in crossword practice.

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