October 27, 2005

Cross, part 2

And now for Chapter Two of Crossworld, "Enter the Crossword". This one might take a while.

Arthur Wynne was born in Liverpool, England, in 1862, and as a young man emigrated to the United States, where he hoped to make his fortune in the newspaper business. As it turned out...his contribution to American journalism was, in the conventional sense, utterly negligible. But among his baggage on the packet boat that brought him across the Atlantic Ocean in the 1880s were the metaphorical seeds of what, in December 1913, would become the most singularly popular word game in history....

And so begins a good deal of speculation about the genesis of the crossword. What are the metaphorical seeds we're talking about? Extra brain cells that he kept in his luggage?

The ancestors that begat the crossword puzzle have a long, long history. When, many millennia ago, one human uttered to another a word with a definite and specific meaning, some wag in the clan likely used it the following day in some unexpected manner that had all his caveman friends scratching their heads and wondering at the perverse nature of this new means of communication.

In the actual book, the words "day" and "in" are transposed. But anyway, I don't so much see the benefit of this unscientific daydreaming. How do idle, utterly unverifiable theories of the origin of language have anything to do with crosswords, exactly?

I can imagine some well-rattled cavewoman 50,000 years ago postcoitally whispering ["tiger"] to her swain, only to have the poor fellow leap off the straw and reach, panic in his eyes, for the nearest sharp stick.

And I can imagine bunnies that fly!

From the day [words] were developed...they've been used to confound, befuddle, and amuse their hearers....

Yes, from the very day. Science has proved it. Why do you hate science so much, you doubters?

In the same way that some people don't have a head for mathematics or an ear for music, there are others who lack an affinity for, or ability to do, wordplay -- such as the troglodyte mentioned above, who probably spent the rest of the night at watch against an imaginary tiger, when a more word-disposed individual might have enjoyed a second go at his witty and logophiliac bedmate.

Taking something you made up and citing it as an example of your thesis is very weak indeed. But let us move on.

Apart from Greek stelae squares, the earliest example of a diagrammed and structured word puzzle is a mysterious thing called the Phaistis Disk, which was discovered on the island of Crete...in 1908. ...[S]ome think the disk is a representation of a complex mathematical calculation, others say it's a prayer wheel, still others think it might be a property record of landholdings in a Mycenaean mountain town. Like people who speculate about the location of Atlantis or the oracular meaning of the Mayan calendar, though, you can be pretty sure that anyone expressive a definitive view about the disk is both deeply passionate and supremely clueless, and so hardly a scientist.

Well, in that case, why do you state so definitely at the start of the paragraph that this disk is a word puzzle? How is there any more evidence for this than any other potential interpretation of the object?

[T]he crossword constructor has ancient cognates, at least in terms of the anxiety imposed on his by his profession. Think of the nervous soul who had to make sure a phrase -- let's say "Senatus Populusque Romanum," SPQR, "The Senate and People of Rome" -- would fit onto the pediment of a building erected in the City of Seven Hills.... He's being asked to provide what a crossword constructor would call a "fill," or in other words the letters that fit perfectly into the spaces left for the answers....

This is so much of a stretch, one hardly knows where to begin. By such loose standards, what profession is not an antecedent of the cruciverbalist? Livery cab drivers navigated grids. Assassins had to be good at misdirection. Flying bunnies had to keep many items of trivia in their minds at all times, to defend themselves against their natural predator, the sphinx.

Also among Arthur Wynne's baggage were a number of crosswordish predecessors that may have served, at least partially, as inspiration for that magical creation of December 1913. First among these, I conjecture, were Yuletide ecclesiastical banners.

Well, if we're conjecturing, I'd conjecture that word squares were a somewhat more likely inspiration. But let's see where this is going.

[A]ttend a Christmas mass at Canterbury Cathedral or a Californian mission and you'll see what I mean. Strung along the central aisle will be a series of banners, all in Latin, expressing some traditional epithet of the Lord Savior. For "O, King of the Gentiles," you'll see something like this:


...You'll discover a darn interesting phenomenon in that...arrangement...with the "e" in REX and the "e" in GENTILUM intersecting so intriguingly. You will if you're into crosswords today; you certainly would have were it the late fall of 1913, you were Arthur Wynne, and the prospect of having to come up with an entirely new form of puzzle entertainment in time for the Christmas season lay before you like the pitiless chasm of hell itself.

Well, I stand corrected. Since I have never been Arthur Wynne in 1913, I can't argue with that. Marc Romano does allow that word squares may have been a contributing inspiration, although clearly liturgical banners had to be the original impetus. He describes the word square somewhat confusingly:

[It] involves the creation of a grid in which an initial word is written out both horizontally and vertically, as is the terminal word as determined by the last letter of the initial one.

Which makes it sound like there are two words in a word square, which is, to put it more straightforwardly, a square of words that reads the same across and down. There are also more crosswordlike ones that read differently across and down, which predate the Wynne crossword by a few decades (and thanks to Will Shortz for checking dates for me). Anyway:

In every case, each word appears precisely twice in the square, in the mirror inverse of its original position.

I guess this is true if you hold the mirror along the main diagonal of the square.

It may seem like child's play to construct such a thing, which, granted, it is -- if you limit yourself to squares made up of three- or four-letter words.

Even with the conditional, it's an odd thing to say that word squares seem like child's play precisely one paragraph after saying, also about word squares, "It sounds complicated -- and it is, if you want to try creating one...."

A square made up of five-letter words should take the averagely talented smith about an hour or so to construct....

I don't know where he's getting that estimate; this one took me less than ten seconds to make:


A six-letter-word square would take, if you're lucky, a rainy afternoon.

Maybe these times are for people who don't generally construct puzzles (although he claims he's talking about the "averagely talented smith"). This one took me about two minutes, not that I claim it's a classic:


Admittedly the difficulty levels do start getting precipitously higher the further you go above a six-letter square.

Word-squaring is a constructor's activity, mainly, since the possibility exists -- faintly, of course -- that the seed word ... could yield more than one possible fill, which means that squares aren't reliably a one-possible-answer-only sort of puzzle you'd want to print in a newspaper without risking a torrent of eccentric mail coming in every day (puzzle editors don't like angry letters).

Do what now? You're saying that word squares didn't have clues? Come on now. Let's take a closer look at that Straight Dope column I linked to earlier:

Wynne said he based the first crossword on word puzzles he had seen in magazines as a youth in Liverpool. In these puzzles, which were supplied without diagrams, you were asked to construct some sort of symmetrical word array (usually a square or a diamond, but sometimes a star or other shape) on the basis of various clues.

As Will confirmed for me, word squares were perfectly popular with solvers, and almost invariably had their entries clued. (He said clueless ones with some words filled in to start with may have appeared once or twice as a variation, but certainly weren't the norm.) Dude, you interviewed Will at his house. How did you manage to not acquire this information?

Arthur Wynne died in 1945 and, being by all reports a reserved and rather retiring individual, did not leave behind memoirs or notes or much of a hint about how he came up with the concept of the crossword.

So why are you so sure it was church banners?

Whew, that was ten pages' worth of notes, with twenty more pages to go in the chapter. I think I'll take a break. (Don't worry, my notes get a lot sparser once we get to the actual tournament.)

Posted by Francis at 02:52 PM

"A square made up of five-letter words should take the averagely talented smith about an hour or so to construct....

I don't know where he's getting that estimate; this one took me less than ten seconds to make:"

Now, wait a second here. He very specifically does *not* specify *wordsmith*. For your averagely-talented tinsmith, for example, an hour may be right on the money.

Posted by: Rick at October 27, 2005 03:23 PM

Egad. I'm enjoying your snark, but this may be a case where one should just blow up the whole damn barrel rather than waste bullets on the fish.

Did it occur to no one that this book, given its subject, might be read by people who cared a little bit about *words*?

Posted by: Rick at October 27, 2005 03:33 PM

Okay, now that we have determined that this book is krep, who's going to write the real book about puzzles and puzzlers?

Posted by: Eric Berlin at October 27, 2005 03:44 PM

You're gonna have to give the public time to forget this one first.

Posted by: Toonhead! at October 27, 2005 05:10 PM

It wouldn't be that hard to compile a book of essays about crosswords by assorted people who know puzzles and puzzlers. Why, you'd scarcely have to venture beyond the blogosphere to line up writer/editor types who know crosswords and have something to say about them. Sure, we might have to split the royalties 12 ways, but I daresay it's doableā€”if we can control the many colossal egos involved. Who's in?

Posted by: Orange at October 27, 2005 07:29 PM

P.S. Holy Tango is the 40,825th hottest-selling book at Amazon, vs. #74,299 for Crossworld. Take that! (I won't tell you where Will Shortz's Easy Sudoku book ranks because I don't want you to cry.)

Posted by: Orange at October 27, 2005 07:32 PM

Orange: I contributed to a book mentioned here.

I know of two more books on crosswords in the works, one by a constructor, the other by our favorite radio guy. And the documentary is rumored to be good.

Posted by: Ellen at October 27, 2005 08:49 PM

And there's always Coral Amende's book, which is apparently not well-loved by Amazon user reviewers, but I enjoyed it. (Of course, I pretty much know everybody quoted in it, which probably makes it automatically more interesting.)

As for Holy Tango's Amazon rank, it was hovering around its usual 100-and-something-thousand spot earlier today, so don't get too excited on my behalf. (^_^)

Posted by: Francis at October 27, 2005 11:19 PM

Enh. I'm not a word-puzzle jock. This took me about a minute.


I don't know if the bad secondary spelling GIOUR is really permitted, and I had to go to the web to convince myself that SERAL was a word.

Posted by: ACW at October 28, 2005 05:42 PM

Actually, my research shows that while Romano is correct that words were used to amuse from the very day they were invented, they were not used to confuse until seventeen days later, and the first successful attempt to use words to befuddle their hearers occured a full seventy-three days later. The incident in which the man was kept awake all night by his partner whispering "tiger" actually happened to Marc Romano himself, in 1997.

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