Speaking of distractions, Wordle has leapt from obscurity to mass-addiction in seemingly record time. In honour of its ascendance, it felt appropriate to dig into the original word game: the crossword puzzle. Join us as we journey into word games and learn some interesting facts along the way.
Fill-in-the-letter type word games have existed in Europe since the 1860s. As literacy became more widespread, so too did novel ways to enjoy it.
In 1913, Arthur Wynne designed the first contemporary crossword, called the “Word-Cross.” He was the jokes and puzzles editor of the New York World and wanted to create a new game for the Christmas edition. Fortunately for us, humour of that day is preserved in “Laugh Again”, a book written by Henry Martin Kieffer and published in 1913. One of Kieffer’s knee slappers goes as follows:
A visitor to the British Museum asked the curator if they had a skull of Oliver Cromwell. Being answered in the negative, “Dear me,” said she, “that is very strange. They have one at Oxford.”
I could see how Wynne would be looking for some fresh material. In a subsequent Word-Cross, the illustrator mistakenly changed the title to “Cross-Word” and the new name stuck.
The Cross-Word was not an immediate success. In 1924, Richard L. Simon and M. Lincoln Schuster (who would later become THE Simon and Schuster) decided to start a company and publish compilations of crossword puzzles. Simon’s Aunt was a fan from the New York Evening World and the two men saw an opportunity. Concerned about failure, they published it under the label “Plaza Publishing.” The first run was only 3,600 copies, but The Cross Word Puzzle Book would go on to sell over 1 million copies. The puzzles were written by Margaret Farrar, a former secretary of Arthur Wynne. She was also the first to sort clues into unifying themes and came up with the horizontal and vertical clue divisions.
Simon and Schuster followed up their crossword puzzle best-sellers with other notable works by greats such as Hemingway, F. Scott Fitzgerald and Ursula Le Guin.
Simon and Schuster were possessed of a unique marketing savvy. They included a pencil with early editions to make it a complete gift. They also founded the Amateur Cross Word Puzzle League of America, which became quite popular and led to the first crossword puzzle tournaments. There was even a song in 1924 called “Cross-word Mamma You Puzzle Me (But Papa’s Gonna Figure You Out)”.
Popularity of the crossword led to their inclusion in every major newspaper… except one. In 1924, Wordle’s new owner, The New York Times, referred to crosswords as a "sinful waste in the utterly futile finding of words the letters of which will fit into a prearranged pattern, more or less complex. This is not a game at all, and it hardly can be called a sport ... [solvers] get nothing out of it except a primitive form of mental exercise, and success or failure in any given attempt is equally irrelevant to mental development." Ouch.
All of that changed in World War II. The New York Times now considered it a responsibility to give readers some amusement. In a letter to the editor at the Times, Farrar wrote “I don’t think I have to sell you on the increased demand for this type of pastime in an increasingly worried world,” she wrote. “You can’t think of your troubles while solving a crossword.” The Times started publishing crossword puzzles regularly in 1950. Monday is notoriously the easiest and they get harder through the week. Will Shortz has held the position of crossword editor at The Times since 1993.
The longest word ever used in a published crossword was the 58-letter Welsh town Llanfairpwllgwyngyllgogerychwyrndrobwllllantysiliogogogoch. It was clued as an anagram in a 1979. (Editor’s note: I’m just going to assume that spelling is correct.)
There is a whole branch of crosswords called Cryptic Crosswords that, for the life of me, I cannot understand how to play. I was prepared to leave them out of this missive entirely until I discovered an interesting fact: they were imported to North America in 1968 by Stephen Sondheim (yes, that one), with their first appearance being in New York magazine.
There have been many word games since the crossword. Jumbles, word searches, mad libs, etc. None have caught the imagination of the public quite like the recent phenomenon: Wordle. The invention of the aptly named game by Josh Wardle, Wordle is a word guessing game the software designer built to be played by him and his partner. Within weeks, over 300,000 people were playing it every day.
The way it works is that the player guesses a five letter word. After guessing, the game tells you whether any of your letters are in the secret word and whether they are in the correct place. You have six tries to get it right. This has inspired a cottage industry in determining the best possible first word to use. IRATE and ACUTE are popular, although ROATE is technically the best way to start according to PhD candidate and TikTokker @tokbyzeb.
Players can only play once a day and everyone gets the same word. An enterprising Wordle fan developed the “share” button, allowing players to share their results with family and friends without giving away the answer of the day. Unfortunately it’s all-too-common for over-excited Wordlers to screenshot and share their results (unhidden!) on social media before midnight in the last timezone to the great dismay of some players.
The New York Times acquired Wordle in January of 2022 as part of their strategy to “entertain more solvers with puzzles every day - especially during these anxious times.” It is interesting to see things come full circle. Word puzzles as response to cultural anxiety.
Word games have driven fascinating scholarship. This summary is interesting. It discusses the (considerable) research done on the role of word games in preventing dementia (results: inconclusive). I was intrigued by the question of whether word games use your short or long term memory. As a life-long Scrabble loser, I finally felt like my inability to play had some larger explanation. I know a lot of words but when I see those tiles my mind goes blank. Researchers tested puzzle aces against college students who scored above 700 on the verbal sections of the SATs (where was my invite?). They found that when puzzle masters pulled words from their memory, they also pulled images (vs the students who just pulled words). From now on, no more Scrabble!
Wordle feels like the online version of Wheel of Fortune. Wheel is the longest running game show in US history, with over 7,000 episodes aired. Just because it has been on since the 1980s does not mean that people have gotten any better at it. Watch this maddening clip below to see multiple adults fail repeatedly to guess AN*THER FEATHER *N ***R *A* (ANOTHER FEATHER IN YOUR CAP).
I enjoy Wordle as a distraction each day, but I stay away from the copycats, for now anyway. Don't want to go down that hole of needing to do loads of puzzles. I love how a guy can create something for his partner and then become a millionaire selling it to the NYT, who as you said, didn't believe in crossword puzzles :)
Enjoyed CONSIDER CROSSWORD PUZZLES. How about a sequel: CONSIDER CROSS WORD PUZZLES?