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Crossword Puzzles

Updated on January 17, 2010

A crossword puzzle is a pencil-and-paper game in which the solver fills in words on a pattern of squares. It is a descendant of the ancient word square, whose letters spelled the same words horizontally and vertically.

The crossword, as its name indicates, uses different, interlocking words across and down and is provided with two sets of numbered definitions, one for those words to be written across the pattern and one for those to be written down.

Crossword Origin and Development

The first "word-cross," originated by Arthur Wynne of the New York World, appeared in that newspaper's Sunday sup­plement of Dec. 21, 1913. It contained as a feature of modest popularity, at the same time un­dergoing various improvements in form, until the publication, on April 10, 1924, of the first book of crossword puzzles. The book, the original of a series of many, was edited by Margaret Pether-bridge (Farrar), Prosper Buranelli, and F. Greg­ory Hartswick, of the World staff. It touched off what became, in 1924 and 1925, first a nation­wide and then a worldwide craze.

The World started a series of daily crossword puzzles in 1924, and other American newspapers introduced puzzles shortly thereafter. British papers adopted the American invention in 1925 but in 1926 developed a much more difficult style of their own. At the same time les mots croises began appearing in France. Gradually, puzzles were taken up all over the world and printed in all languages except those that, like Chinese, do not lend themselves to across-and-down manip­ulation.

To meet the demands of solvers, millions of the original series of puzzle books, plus many spe­cial collections, paperbacks, and crossword maga­zines, have been published. Puzzles are a stand­ard feature in about 90% of the world's newspa­pers. Undeniably, crosswords have achieved a permanent place in the roster of popular games.

Puzzle Variations

Though the most common form for crosswords is square, with symmetrical patterns of white and black squares and num­bered clues, there are many variations in design and in ways of presenting the clues. The pattern for the British-style puzzle, with its many un-keyed letters (those having no cross clues), is designed to eliminate most short words, and the definitions are clues of abstruse and baffling phrasing. An American version, "Puns and Ana­grams," presents a similar form of puzzlement, but maintains the interlock that provides two clues for every letter.

Some puzzles are based on specific subjects; that is, many of the words may be related to music, sports, literature, and so on. In a refine­ment of the topical crossword, the featured idea is concealed in the answers to the definitions; for example, the answers might be such words as bobolink, G. I. Joe, brown betty, willy-nilly, duckbill, which contain concealed names. Spe­cial constructions are used for contest and ad­vertising purposes. Puzzles on educational themes are made for high school students. A bilingual version that appears in Canada carries English and French definitions and is solved with French words one way and English words the other. Definitions may be in rhymed couplets or in story form; and they may be propaganda-laden in some countries. Methods of diversification are almost endless, and constant experimentation goes on.

Diagramless puzzles (solved on blank cross­bar paper) pose the additional problem of re­constructing the pattern (usually symmetrical but with jagged outlines), while solving, by black­ing in a square or squares after each word in­serted. The numbering system provides the prime clues in this process.

Rules for Crossword Puzzle Construction

Rules for puzzle con­struction, especially those usually followed in the United States, call for symmetrical patterns, with no more than one sixth of the squares black; all-over interlock of words, with no segments cut off from the rest; and no unkeyed letters.

The quality of construction is gauged by many factors, of which the most important are ingenuity of word combinations and the skill and imagina­tion shown in selection of definitions or clues.

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