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Solve-it-yourself mysteries #94: the crossword

Looking at the language of crossword solving

“Hooray! Hooray! Hooray! Hooray!
‘The Cross Word Puzzle Book’ is out today.”
– F. P. Adams, ‘The Conning Tower’, New York World

In April 1924, Simon and Schuster burst onto the New York publishing scene with The Cross Word Puzzle Book, which soon became a bestseller. The crossword was ten years old at the time, and had been gaining in popularity since the First World War, but it seems to have been the publication of this book – the first ever collection of crossword puzzles – that precipitated a full-on craze. Besides the inevitable deluge of other puzzle collections, publishers scrambled to print solving aids with titles like Crossword Puzzle Synonyms, and dictionaries became wildly popular: the Baltimore and Ohio Railroad pulled a publicity stunt by providing them on its mainline trains, while at the New York Public Library, the Director noted in his end-of-year report, crossword fans were “swarm[ing] to the dictionaries and encyclopedias”, prompting “drastic measures … to protect both books and readers”.

The eighth lively art

Simon and Schuster had predicted the craze back in April, in a cheekily confident advert: “1921 – Coué. 1922 – Mah Jong. 1923 – Bananas. 1924 – THE CROSS WORD PUZZLE BOOK.” But why was it so successful? “Frankly, we can only guess”, said an advert they took out in the Saturday Review of Literature in August. “It seems to us that … the puzzles release deep-seated human energies and impulses.” In particular, the advert claims, crosswords allow ordinary people to experience the thrill of detective work; as the gushing endorsement from one literary critic has it: “The great, the perfect plot! The dreams of Edgar Allan Poe, Emilie [sic] Gaboriau and Conan Doyle have been wrapped up in one package at last!” The advert also bills the crossword as “the eighth lively art”. The allusion here is to The Seven Lively Arts – a contemporary defence of cartoons, slapstick, vaudeville, and other forms of popular culture against the snobbery of the resolutely highbrow – so presumably the suggestion is that crosswords provide undemanding but still high-quality entertainment.

Over in Britain, this American import was generally received with similar levels of enthusiasm. Some, however, were underwhelmed. The fearsome crossword setter Torquemada of the Observer – otherwise known as the poet, literary critic, and translator Edward Powys Mathers – reflected in 1934 that the crosswords that had become so popular a decade earlier “were too easy to hold for long the attention of anyone concerned with and interested in words.” After all, they were essentially just oddly-arranged vocab tests with the occasional piece of trivia thrown in, and any pretence to detective work was clearly overstated. And so in the years either side of 1930 a new kind of puzzle was born, one that eschews direct definitions, delights in wordplay, and (to put it in modern terms) can’t be solved via Google alone: the cryptic crossword.

Crosswords for detectives

The Oxford English Dictionary‘s first attestation for the adjective ‘cryptic’ in this context is from a poem sent to the Times in 1941 by the Irish humourist and sometime Punch staffer Charles Larcom Graves: “O nameless coiner of the cryptic clue, / O master of delusive definition”; in a similarly fawning submission in 1938, Graves had already claimed to have been “Schooled by the masters of these cryptic mazes”. Cryptic clues themselves, though, go further back than that. The veteran setter Don Manley has spotted an example in the very first Daily Telegraph crossword, published in July 1925: “A seat of learning is the key to this (4)”. The clue exploits the fact that the answer can refer both to a seat of learning and to a kind of lock; this is no coincidence, incidentally, as the man who founded the lock company was related to the man who gave his name to the seat of learning (click and drag to reveal the answer: YALE).

This clue – the only one in the puzzle that is at all cryptic – is a comparatively jejune ancestor of the “double definition”. Clues of this type can be quite hard to disentangle. Take the following example from Manley’s Chambers Crossword Manual: “Red wine in excess (4)”. The sleight of hand here is that the two definitions are not “Red wine” and “(in) excess” but “Red” and “wine in excess”; you do need to do some detective work here, especially if you don’t know in advance that you’re looking for a double definition. Again, the clue exploits the fact that the answer can refer both to a colour and to a large quantity of liquid, though in this case the two meanings attach to two etymologically distinct words, the former coming from Hindi and the latter coming from Latin (answer: LAKE).

Ambiguity is also exploited in the simplest type of clue, the “cryptic definition”, which consists of a single definition expressed in a way that’s calculated to mislead. A classic example is “Die of cold (3,4)”, where the natural interpretation involves taking ‘die’ as a verb, whereas of course it can also be the singular of the originally plural noun ‘dice’ (answer: ICE CUBE). Another classic is “Jammed cylinder (5,4)”, in which ‘jammed’ means something similar to ‘buttered’ rather than ‘blocked’ (answer: SWISS ROLL).

There are other clue types besides, some of them quite complex. You can find plenty of guides to such things elsewhere, though – including one I wrote 10 years ago – so instead I’ll leave you with a teaser: can you work out how my favourite clue works? “Bust down reason (9)” (answer: BRAINWASH).

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