Tens of millions of people around the world solve crosswords every day in newspapers, magazines or on tablet devices.
They can be fiercely competitive about the time it takes to complete one, and devotedly loyal to their favourite compilers.
But how did this puzzle manage to conquer the world?
Like many actors, Sir John Gielgud passed the time between scenes by doing crosswords.
Although he was renowned for the speed with which he demolished the cryptic puzzle in his daily newspaper, he did not always concern himself with such mundanities as getting the answers right.
One day a co-star peered over his shoulder as he solved and caught sight of a strange-looking word.
Crosswords have become woven into the fabric of our modern lives. Yet they were initially frowned on in Britain, despite being the invention of an Englishman, Liverpudlian journalist Arthur Wynne
‘Excuse me, John, but what are Diddybums?’ he asked.
‘I have no idea,’ came the reply. ‘But it does fit awfully well.’
Gielgud, who died at the age of 96 with a freshly completed crossword on his bedside table, attributed his longevity to the puzzles.
‘It’s the only exercise I take,’ he would say. ‘I smoke non-stop and solving the crossword clears the fumes.’
M.R. James (1862-1936), the author known for his terrifying ghost stories, was not as cavalier in his approach to accuracy.
But he was undoubtedly quick, claiming to solve a Times puzzle in the time it took him to boil an egg for breakfast — and, he boasted, he hated a hard-boiled egg.
Another well-known cruciverbalist, as crossword fans are known (from the Latin cruci for cross, plus verbum for word) was the author P. G. Wodehouse — though his own prowess was often lacking in such characters as Lord Uffenham, a bumbling aristocrat in his 1957 novel Something Fishy.
Original: The first crossword appeared in 1913. We’ve recreated it for you below. Tens of millions of people around the world solve crosswords every day in newspapers, magazines or on tablet devices
He demanded answers from his butler sotto voce so that, should a visitor happen to enter, he could appear to be dashing off the puzzle with ostentatious ease.
Colin Dexter’s Inspector Morse was not above a spot of crossword subterfuge either. In The Wench Is Dead, which finds Morse frustrated by a single remaining clue on the train from Oxford to London, ‘he quickly wrote in a couple of bogus letters (in case any of his fellow passengers were waiting to be impressed)’.
While sympathising with this tactic, all cruciverbalists know that when you’re stumped on a crossword, it’s best to set it aside and leave it for your subconscious mind to stew on. Then later, suddenly, the answer will come to you.
Morning solvers do the puzzle over a cup of coffee, to wake up the brain on their commute; lunch-time crossworders use it as a retreat from the day’s demands; night-time solvers do it to relax.
Crosswords have become woven into the fabric of our modern lives. Yet they were initially frowned on in Britain, despite being the invention of an Englishman, Liverpudlian journalist Arthur Wynne.
The son of the editor of the Liverpool Mercury, Wynne was born in 1871, into an era of booming interest in word games.
Even Queen Victoria came up with a double acrostic, a poem in which the first letters of each line spell out one word or words if read from top to bottom, and the last letters spell out another (‘Newcastle’ and ‘Coal mines’ in the case of what Her Majesty proudly called The Windsor Enigma).
Crosswords, of a kind, did exist previously. But they provided only the clues, and readers had to draw the grids themselves, based on dimensions given in the instructions.
A woman is pictured above completing a crossword as her town in Italy is on lockdown due to the coronavirus
Wynne saw many such puzzles as a child but might have given them little thought were it not for a dilemma he faced in later life.
Immigrating to America aged 19, he found himself in charge of FUN, a colour supplement in the New York World, one of the most popular daily newspapers in the country.
For the bumper Christmas edition of December 21, 1913, he had lots of space but nothing to fill it.
So in desperation he created a printed grid that looked much like a modern crossword, except it was diamond-shaped.
That first puzzle contained 31 clues. Some, such as ‘The fibre of the gomuti palm’ (3) and ‘a river in Russia’ (4) (‘Doh’ and ‘Neva’) were difficult.
But Wynne’s Word-Cross — its name until a printer’s error in the third week of publication changed it to ‘Cross-Word’ — became an institution overnight.
Soon the puzzles were appearing in newspapers across the U.S., starting a long-lasting craze.
In January 1924, Richard (‘Dick’) Simon, an aspiring U.S. publisher on the verge of starting his own company, went to dinner with his aunt Wixie, who asked him where she might find a book of crossword puzzles.
Even Queen Victoria (above) came up with a double acrostic, a poem in which the first letters of each line spell out one word or words if read from top to bottom, and the last letters spell out another (‘Newcastle’ and ‘Coal mines’ in the case of what Her Majesty proudly called The Windsor Enigma)
A niece was addicted to the things, she said, and Wixie wanted to buy her a collection.
Simon brought up the conversation with his business partner Lincoln Schuster, and they realised no such book existed.
Simon and Schuster were still in the process of forming their fledgling house, and the crossword collection would be their first foray into the world as publishers.
Afraid that the book would make their new publishing house seem trivial — and also afraid it might flop — they decided to release the book under the moniker ‘Plaza Publishing’, a dummy imprint named after their telephone exchange.
The Cross Word Puzzle Book quickly proved to be Simon & Schuster’s cornerstone.
Their crossword compendia became the longest continually published book series in existence. Since its inception, the house has always had a crossword book in print.
Commuters loved crosswords. In 1924, a man on a train from New York to Boston estimated that at least 60 per cent of his fellow passengers were filling them in.
One railway company placed dictionaries in carriages. Another printed crosswords on its menus.
The most enthusiastic solvers wore their devotion on their sleeves with grid-pattern dresses, jackets, jewellery and even special wristbands with tiny dictionaries strapped to them.
At night, they danced to Crossword Puzzle Blues and Cross Word Mama You Puzzle Me (But Papa’s Gonna Figure You Out). There was even a Broadway show called Puzzles Of 1925, set in a sanatorium for crossword-solvers whose obsession had driven them to insanity.
Such an idea was not that far-fetched, according to the British newspapers that led a moral crusade against the puzzles.
One article, headlined ‘An enslaved America’, claimed five million hours a day were being wasted on this ‘unprofitable trifling’.
‘It has grown from the pastime of a few ingenious idlers into a national institution: a menace because it is making devastating inroads on the working hours of every rank of society,’ it said.
Crosswords were thought to be as dangerous as the cheap gin that had plagued 18th-century London.
But it was impossible to ignore the money to be made from them and British publishers began capitalising on their addictive allure.
‘This is not a toy!’ cautioned the preface to a crossword book published in 1924. Much like today’s health warnings on cigarette packs, it cautioned readers that solving even a few simple puzzles might keep them from their work for as much as a week.
Soon many British newspapers had followed the New York World in printing daily crosswords of their own — and all over the country, established leisure activities were being abandoned as people pored over the puzzles.
‘The picture theatres are complaining that the crosswords keep people at home,’ announced the Nottingham Evening Post. ‘They get immersed in a problem and forget all about Gloria Swanson, Lillian Gish and the other stars of the film constellation.’
Solvers could eat their words with Cross-word Cream Biscuits, made by Huntley & Palmers. And libraries were inundated with visitors to their reference sections.
In February 1925, the Western Times reported that the wear and tear on library dictionaries in Wimbledon ‘has been so great that the committee has withdrawn all the volumes.’
In Dulwich, library staff blacked out white squares in the crosswords to stop people hogging public newspapers for hours.
Libraries weren’t the only resources taxed. Zookeepers in Nottingham reported being beleaguered by crossword questions about species: ‘What is a word with three letters meaning a female swan? What is a female kangaroo?’ (‘Pen’ and ‘Jill’, in case you were wondering.)
At the city’s Theatre Royal, the entire cast of a production titled The Wandering Jew were so in thrall to crosswords that ‘Mr Matheson Lang… missed his entrance in the Inquisition scene through becoming absorbed in a puzzle.’
In Staffordshire, one local newspaper claimed that puzzles ‘have dealt the final blow to the art of conversation and have been known to break up homes’.
These family breakdowns were supposedly the result of husbands spending time solving clues rather than earning a crust: ‘Twice within the past week or so there have been reports of police magistrates sternly rationing addicts to three puzzles a day, with an alternative of ten days in the workhouse’.
British compilers took great patriotic pride in making their puzzles harder to solve than those of their American counterparts.
When The Times finally caved in to popular demand and began publishing its daily crossword in 1930, it printed a Latin puzzle too, to reassure its readers that all hell had not broken loose.
What really set British puzzles apart, however, were those containing cryptic clues — based on complex wordplay — which remain a niche in the U.S., even today.
During World War II, British military intelligence staged puzzle competitions in national newspapers to identify and recruit potential codebreakers to Bletchley Park.
Among them was Stanley Sedgewick, a clerk, who later recalled being told that they were particularly looking for ‘chaps with twisted brains like mine’.
MI5 also kept an eye out for compilers who might be using crosswords to send secret messages to the Germans.
So there was great concern when, in the months leading up to D-Day in June 1944, various Daily Telegraph crosswords featured words such as MULBERRY, OMAHA, NEPTUNE and OVERLORD, all codenames related to the landings.
The coincidence was too strong to overlook — but it turned out that the compiler, Leonard Dawe, was headmaster of a London grammar school evacuated to Surrey, next door to a camp for American and Canadian troops.
Dawe often invited his pupils to fill in blank crossword grids with words for which he would later set the clues.
Unfortunately, those same pupils were in the habit of creeping close to the fence separating them from the loose-lipped soldiers next door and eavesdropping on their conversations.
Eventually the bewildered Dawe worked out that the codenames had appeared thanks to his co-setters.
He avoided arrest and, although he was made to burn the notebooks in which he jotted down ideas for clues, continued compiling until shortly before his death in 1963.
Answers for the world’s first crossword and our top teasers
Top Teasers Answers
1) Carnivorous (anagram — signalled by the word outbreak — of coronavirus)
2) Scrambled eggs (the letters SEGG rearranged, or scrambled)
3) Spelling mistake (Piccadilly has two Cs)
4) Double agent (007, doubled)
5) Rovers Return (a pub — or bar —on the TV soap Coronation Street)
6) Water (the letters H to O, or H2O)
7) Has not got a clue (well, it hasn’t!)
8) Patella (Girls’ names Pat and Ella form the anatomical name for the kneecap)
9) Jag (A Scottish word for a prick or thorn and also an abbreviation of Jaguar)
10) Weather forecast (as expected by the Met, or Meteorological, Office)
First puzzle answers
2 Sales 4 Receipt 6 Mere 8 Farm 10 Dove 12 Rail 14 More 16 Draw 18 Hard 20 Tied 22 Lion 24 Sand 26 Evening 28 Evade 30 Are
1 Rule F Face N Neif 2 Sere 3 Spar 4 Reverie 5 Trading 6 Moral 9 Mired 10 Doh 13 Lad 19 Dove 20 Tane 23 Neva 24 Side 31 Nard
By then, Arthur Wynne had long grown sick of crosswords. In 1920 he had tried to patent his invention but the New York World had refused to foot the bill, considering the puzzles a passing trifle. This was rather short-sighted, given that a patent cost the equivalent of only £1,000 today.
Transferring his compiling duties to his secretary, Wynne left the New York World in 1921, spending the rest of his career working for rival papers before dying in Florida in 1945.
According to his daughter, he often lamented that he never made a penny from crossword puzzles. But his legacy lives on.
Bill Gates, Bill Clinton, Natalie Portman, Daniel Craig and Sting are all well-known cruciverbalists. And while computers have beaten humans in most mental pursuits, including backgammon, Scrabble and draughts, we have yet to see the software that can solve all crossword clues thrown at it.
Humans are better at creating crosswords, too. Unlike Sudoku, which are largely computer-generated, most crosswords are still devised by real people.
Unseen and oft-cursed, they are the army of compilers who continue Arthur Wynne’s work, more than a century after he came up with the puzzle that was born of desperation but has gone from novelty to craze to routine.
Thinking Inside The Box: Adventures With Crosswords And The Puzzling People Who Can’t Live Without Them, by Adrienne Raphel, is published by Robinson, £18.99.
To order a copy for £15.20 (20 per cent discount, P&P free), go to mailshop.co.uk or call 01603 648155. Offer valid until 31/05/2020.