Wednesday, February 1, 2012

Eric Shackle Column

By Eric Shackle

Crossword Puzzle's Dual Solutions

Crossword puzzles, the world's most popular word game, are older than you may think.The first example appeared on September 14, 1890, in the Italian magazine Il Secolo Illustrato della Domenica.

It was designed by Giuseppe Airoldi and titled "Per passare il tempo" ("To pass the time"). Airoldi's puzzle was a four-by-four grid with no shaded squares, but it included horizontal and vertical clues.

Arthur Wynne, the English-born New York journalist who invented the crossword puzzle in its present form in 1913, would be astonished to see how computers are being used to generate today's cryptic crosswords, and amazed at the way in which addicts are challenged to solve crosswords on the Internet. A few websites even offer cash prizes.

Wynne's invention attracts millions of devotees, and has boosted the sales of newspapers, magazines, dictionaries, notepads, pencils, and erasers for for almost a century.

Wynne had the job of creating puzzles for the New York World's eight-page Fun section when the editor asked him to invent a new word game.

He recalled a puzzle from his childhood called Magic Squares, in which a given group of words had to be arranged so their letters would read the same way across and down. He designed a larger and more complex grid, and provided a clue for each word.

The New York World published Wynne's first Word-cross puzzle on December 21, 1913 as one of the Fun section's "mental exercises." It was diamond-shaped, with easy clues. It was an instant winner, soon adopted by other newspapers.

Wynne experimented with different shapes, including a circle, before settling on the rectangle. The word-cross became known as a cross-word, and as with many hyphenated words, the hyphen was eventually dropped.

By 1923, crosswords were being published in most of the leading American newspapers, and the craze soon reached England. Before long, almost all the dailies in the United States and Britain had a crossword feature of some kind.

Crossword fever swept both nations. The puzzles were so popular in the 1920s that songs were written about them, with such titles as Cross Word Puzzle Blues, Cross Word Mamma You Puzzle Me (But Papa's Gonna Figure You Out), Since Ma's Gone Crazy Over Cross Word Puzzles, and Cross Words Between Sweetie and Me (with ukulele accompaniment).

Surprisingly,The New York Times was the only American major daily newspaper to refuse to include such puzzles (it had also shunned comic strips). However, in 1924 its editor wrote: "All ages, both sexes, highbrows and lowbrows, at all times and in all places, even in restaurants and in subways, pore over the diagrams."

Eighteen years later, the New York Times' Sunday edition printed its first crossword, and in September 1950 the puzzle became a daily feature as well. Since then, the New York Times has become "the standard of excellence in American puzzling."

Today, crosswords are found in almost every country using the Roman alphabet, and in many languages. They are regarded as both a pastime and an interesting means of improving the vocabulary.

Crossword clues make use of spelling puns, spoken puns, and accidental letter sequences in words and phrases, so anyone able to solve a crossword puzzle in a second language can certainly claim fluency.

In the 1992 US presidential election campaign, Will Shortz, who was then and at 61 still is crossword editor of the New York Times, visited the then candidate Bill Clinton's Manhattan hotel room, with a specially-constructed puzzle.

They chatted for a few minutes about crosswords when Clinton noticed the puzzle, clicked on his watch timer and started solving the puzzle. However, he was soon disturbed by an urgent phone call.

"So he clicks off his watch timer and goes over to the telephone," Shortz recalled later, "and he's talking animatedly and a few minutes into the call I hear his timer click on again and I look over and, in astonishment, I see, while he's talking on the phone, he's continuing to solve the puzzle."

When Clinton finished the call, Shortz checked the puzzle for accuracy. "It was absolutely perfect and he had finished it in six minutes and 54 seconds," said Shortz. "Whatever else you can say about Bill Clinton, he's a very talented crossword solver."

One of the most controversial puzzles appeared in the New York Times on the presidential election day in 1996. The clue to the middle answer across the grid was "Lead story in tomorrow's newspaper".

The answer appeared to be CLINTON ELECTED. Because of intentional ambiguity in the crossing clues, however, the answer could also have been BOB DOLE ELECTED. Either answer fitted. For example, the crossing clue Black Halloween animal could have been either BAT or CAT, with the C for CLINTON or the B the start of BOB DOLE.

Shortz said: "It was the most amazing crossword I've ever seen. As soon as it appeared, my telephone started ringing. Most people said 'How dare you presume that Clinton will win!' And the people who filled in BOB DOLE thought we'd made a whopper of a mistake!"

Shortz wrote the Riddler's puzzles for the 1995 film Batman Forever. He is the only man in the world to have a degree in enigmatology. He designed the course himself at Indiana University in the early 1970s.

In London, the first Times Crossword Championship took place in 1970, attracting 20,000 entries. It was won by Roy Dean, a diplomat. Eight years later, in America, 161 contestants competed in the first annual American Crossword Puzzle Tournament in Stamford, Connecticut.

The 35th will be held in New York from March 16 to 18, 2012. Solvers tackle eight original crosswords created and edited specially for this event. Scoring is based on accuracy and speed. Prizes are awarded in more than 20 categories, including a $5,000 grand prize. Evening games, guest speakers, "and a wine and cheese reception allow solvers to meet each other in a relaxed and entertaining atmosphere."

Finally, here's a great piece of crossword trivia: the world's largest crossword was published in 1982 by Robert Turcot of Quebec, Canada. It offered 12,489 clues across and 13,125 down. A few determined cruciverbalists are still trying to fill in its 82,951 squares.

Video. What the hell is 14 down?
Online crossword.

Posted Monday, 16 January 2012 by Eric Shackle at 15:54 From Sydney, Australia.

Click on Eric Shackle for bio and list of other works published by Pencil Stubs Online
Author's Blog.

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