What is a crossword puzzle?

Crossword puzzles are the world’s most popular word game with millions of people playing each day. The crossword as we know it has been existence for over a hundred years but the origins of this most cryptic of constructs date back much further.

The first crossword appeared in a newspaper in 1913 and the pastime soon spread to children’s puzzle books and other assorted periodicals. But it was in newspapers that the hobby really developed and most of us will have happened across our first crossword in the pages of a daily or weekly publication.

Crosswords sharpen the brain and increase our vocabularies. There is something truly relaxing about sitting down to solve a word puzzle. While most people are familiar with the traditional black and white grid, there are almost as many different crossword permutations as there are committed clue sleuths. Crossword aficionados, both solvers and creators are known as “cruciverbalists”.

A brief history of the crossword

The first crossword appeared in the New York World on December 21st 1913. A Liverpudlian journalist by the name of Arthur Wynne, who had emigrated to America, is credited as being the inventor of what would become the world’s favourite word game. World Crossword Puzzle Day marks the anniversary of the first edition on the same date each year.

That early crossword differed to the format we know and love today. Diamond-shaped, Wynne’s incarnation contained no internal black squares. Originally named “word-cross” the name of this new puzzle was quickly changed to “crossword”. Wynne had based his original crossword on a much older game which had been found in the ruins of ancient Pompeii and translates to Magic Squares.

The first crossword to appear in a British publication was to be found in Pearson’s Magazine in 1922. The New York Times published the very first edition of its world-famous crossword in February 1930. This was just two weeks after the bombing of Pearl Harbor in a bid to offer some respite to a war-weary population. The popularity of the crossword soon spread to every corner of the globe.

The construct of a crossword

A crossword is a type of word puzzle which is usually a square or rectangular grid with white and black squares. The aim is to fill the white squares with words by solving clues. The grid is accompanied by two lists of numbered clues, one for the horizontal words (“across”) and one for the vertical words (“down”). The numbers correspond to spaces on the grid where the words are placed. The words in the grid cross each other – hence the name.

Types of crosswords

Today’s crosswords vary widely by shape, size and difficulty. Down the years, ingenious creators have devised a wealth of different crossword forms. There are two broad styles of grid although there are many different versions, some of which have developed their own identity such as Sudoku.

The blocked grid format is the one most of us are familiar with. Instantly recognisable, this crossword type consists of a grid with the ends of words and spaces filled in with random blocked squares. Generally, this format consists of 15 squares by 15 squares though this is not obligatory.

Barred grids are quite different from the blocked grid format with word ends marked by bars. The words are dense and cleverly packed with answers verified by crossing words over each other.

Types of crossword clues

There are several types of crossword clues ranging from the simplest, which can be very easy, to cryptic clues which can be very difficult to solve. Many crosswords are developed around a theme – words that share some form of relationship.

The simple type of clue will often be in the form of a short description such as “feline pet” = cat. Slightly more complicated are double clues which join two ideas to hide the word such as “a fast train, say” with the solution being “express” - which links both ideas.

Anagrams are popular types of crossword clues with the solution being found by rearranging a set of jumbled up letters to make a word. Often the hint that the clue is an anagram will be found in the description itself so you might see the words “arrange”, “muddled” and “confused” ahead of the idea to direct you to rearrange the letters.

Cryptic clues often involve a play on words or involve a double meaning. For example, “the rest of the afternoon” may be a phrase we’re quite familiar with but the definition in a crossword might be the word “siesta”. The key to solving a cryptic clue is to look beyond its obvious meaning.

Sound clues are solved by thinking about how the words in the clue sound. Sound clues will often be accompanied by a hint such as “sounds like” or “we hear”. As an example, the clue “an advance, we hear, on its own” would solve as “alone” which of course sounds like “a loan”.

In a hidden word clue, the solution is embedded within the clue itself. For example “some teachers get hurt” is solved by the word “ache” which is included in the word “teacher”.

There are lots of other common uses of jargon in the wonderful world of crosswords. For example, the use of numbers will often translate to Roman numerals, “love” or “duck” will often be used in a sporting sense to represent a zero, and “workers” are often ants. Keep an eye out for plenty more examples, there are literally dozens that you will begin to recognise with practice.

And therein lies the beauty of the crossword. Anyone can play and there are variants of the game for every level of ability and experience. Practice does indeed make perfect when it comes to solving crosswords and all that’s needed is a little lateral thinking, a few moments of peace and of course, a pen (or a keyboard).