For many wordsmiths, crossword puzzles are a beloved daily ritual. Waking up, brewing a cup of coffee, and doing the crossword in the morning is considered by some to be the perfect way to start the day. Yet there was a time not so long ago when these puzzles were considered a novelty.
The modern crossword puzzle is barely over a century old, though it was inspired in part by word puzzles such as Sator squares that date back as far as ancient Pompeii. It wasn’t until 1913 that crossword puzzles as we know them today began to take shape, and their popularity only boomed from there. These brain teasers aren’t just a great way to challenge the mind — they also boast a fascinating history full of trivia that may surprise even the most avid puzzlers out there. Here are five fun facts about the history of crossword puzzles.
The First Modern Crossword Was Published in 1913
In 19th-century England, word games bearing similarities to crossword puzzles (though not quite as intricately designed) were published in regional periodicals and children’s books. Around that same time in the U.S., the term “cross word puzzle” first appeared in the Boston children’s magazine Our Young Folks, and by 1873, word-based “double diamond puzzles” began popping up in St. Nicholas, another popular children’s magazine. However, those early puzzles were primarily text-based, lacking the grid layout commonly seen today. Years later, on December 21, 1913, the New York World changed the game (literally), and published the very first modern crossword puzzle.
Newspaper editor Arthur Wynne is credited with inventing the modern crossword, as he purportedly needed to fill space in that year’s Christmas edition of the paper. Using a relatively new grid-printing technology, Wynne produced a diamond-shaped crossword puzzle that featured the word “FUN” already written in the grid to help players get started. While the many similar puzzles that came before were marketed toward children, Wynne’s was also the first delivered directly to an older audience, piquing the interest of the newspaper’s adult readership. Many clues were simple, such as, “What bargain hunters enjoy” (answer: SALES). Others, however, weren’t as easy — for instance, “The fibre of the gomuti palm” (answer: “DOH”). Though Wynne didn’t realize it at the time, this was just the beginning of a new worldwide puzzling sensation.
The New York Times Once Labeled Crosswords as a “Sinful Waste”
Few modern-day crossword puzzles are more highly regarded than those from The New York Times, but the Gray Lady wasn’t always so crossword friendly. In fact, in 1924, the Timesran an op-ed column that derided crossword puzzles for being “a primitive sort of mental exercise” and “sinful waste.” As countless publications began including crosswords throughout the 1920s and ’30s, the Times dug in its heels and remained one of the only major metropolitan newspapers without a crossword puzzle.
The New York Times maintained its anti-crossword stance until 1942, when the paper brought on Margaret Farrar to serve as its first official crossword editor. This shift came just months after the bombing of Pearl Harbor during World War II. The Times suddenly viewed these entertaining puzzles as a necessary distraction to help readers weather the increasingly bleak news stories emanating from Europe. Farrar helped usher in a new era that saw The New York Times’ crossword grow into a staple of households across the country.
Crosswords Caused Panic in Britain Leading Up to D-Day
While crosswords thrived in America during World War II, some in Britain feared that the games were being used to convey messages of secret espionage. In particular, the puzzles in The Daily Telegraph caught the eye of MI5, the British intelligence service. They feared that Leonard Dawe, the paper’s crossword editor, was secretly communicating with Nazi Germany through clues and answers in his puzzles. The first curious incident occurred on August 18, 1942, when the clue “French port (6)” appeared in the paper’s crossword. The answer turned out to be “DIEPPE,” which was the site of a failed raid that the Allied forces launched a day later.
Though this was ultimately deemed a fluke, Dawe came under fire yet again two years later as the Allied invasion of Normandy approached. On May 2, 1944, the answer “UTAH” appeared in Dawe’s puzzle, with other answers such as “OMAHA,” “OVERLORD,” and “NEPTUNE” popping up shortly after. All of these terms were code names related to the impending D-Day invasion, which set off new alarms within MI5 that Dawe was guilty of what they believed all along. In the end, Dawe was cleared of intentional wrongdoing. Instead, it was determined that he had been accepting crossword suggestions from his students, who hung out at a nearby soldiers camp during recess and overheard the code words.
Stephen Sondheim Helped Popularize Cryptic Crosswords
Composer Stephen Sondheim is responsible for creating some of Broadway’s most beloved musicals, but he also played a key role in popularizing a unique type of puzzle known as the cryptic crossword. While normal crosswords are reliant on little bits of trivia, cryptic crosswords contain two main elements: the answer’s definition, plus a bit of wordplay meant to suggest the same result.
Cryptic crosswords were first published in Britain in The Listener, a weekly magazine put out by the BBC. In the 1950s, Sondheim’s friend and future collaborator Burt Shevelove introduced him to these more difficult crosswords, and he became hooked. Years later, as the composer was rapidly becoming a Broadway legend, he was asked by New York magazine co-founder Clay Felker to contribute crosswords to the publication, and accepted. Sondheim wrote cryptic crosswords for New York magazine for the next year and a half, finally leaving the gig in 1969 to focus his efforts on his new musical, Company
NYT Crossword Editor Will Shortz Earned the Only Degree in Enigmatology
Few people have dedicated their lives to crosswords as much as Will Shortz, who has served as the crossword editor for The New York Times since 1993. Long before he assumed that role, Shortz attended Indiana University, where he created a one-of-a-kind college major. In 1974, he graduated with a degree in enigmatology — the scientific study of puzzles — and became the only person in history to hold a degree in the subject.
Shortz went on to graduate from the University of Virginia Law School, but he realized his true passion was puzzles. Setting his law career aside, he founded the American Crossword Puzzle Tournament in 1978, the World Puzzle Championship in 1992, and the World Puzzle Federation in 1999. Without his singular dedication to enigmatology, crossword puzzles may be far less popular than they are today.