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One hundred years of solvitude: The crossword celebrates a century of wordplay

A century on from the first crossword, what is it about this seemingly trivial mental distraction that exerts such  a hold over so many of us?

It was the moment when I realised I was in with a chance. 1 Across of the Saturday Prize Cryptic Crossword was one of those monsters that fills in so much of the grid that it half-solves the puzzle for you. For it was not only 1 Across, it was the 5, 10, 23, 25, and 15 Acrosses.

“Number of words from Marx,” went the clue, “as revolutionary duo iffy – habitual adulation and dubious mythologies died away. (2,1,4,3,3,1,9,4,5,3,4,2,7,2).” After a couple of minutes spent barking up the wrong tree, thanks to the cunning misdirection implied by the words “revolutionary” and “dubious mythologies”, I realised that the Marx being referred to was not Karl, and I got it.

Crosswords are 100 years old this week. They started as rudimentary things, simple clues of definition. The first one, by a Liverpool-born journalist called Arthur Wynne, appeared in the New York World on 21 December 1913, and was called a “word-cross puzzle”. His pseudonym, which was also printed in the grid in case you wondered what the point of the thing might have been in the first place, was “FUN”. Sample clue: “to govern” (4 letters, _U_ _).

Although the design of American crosswords has changed since then – they are now squares rather than diamonds, a sea of white squares with a few islands of black – the general principle behind the clues has changed little since those early days. You are, to this day, essentially being asked questions that are variants of “to govern” (4), occasionally more sophisticated, but often not. That is not the kind of crossword we are interested in over here, on this side of the pond. True, we have our own simple, definition-based crosswords, condescendingly called “quick” or even “easy”, less condescendingly “concise”, but the king of the crossword in this country (to the extent that when it makes a rare appearance in America, it’s called a “British-style” crossword) is the cryptic, that  meaning-mangling of English language, semantics and syntax, where the surface meaning of the clue is a distraction you have to tear yourself away from and ignore.

There is something uniquely British about the cryptic crossword. Its clues demand a look beneath the surface, a look for the puns and hidden meanings that this strangely malleable language, at once so straightforward and so ambiguous, throws up.

The game had a rocky start on both sides of the Atlantic. The New York Times noted scornfully in 1924 the “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”. (That paper, realising eventually that there were perhaps graver threats to civilisation than crosswords, caved in and started printing them in 1942; our own Times had by then been running one for 12 years, and even in these debased days, doing The Times crossword marks one out as a pillar of the establishment, and at the elite end of the pillar, too.)

A further quote is from a clergyman, condemning the “childishness” of the pursuit. And in some sense they have a point: I, too, have felt that sense of futility, hard on the heels of the pride that comes with the completion of a crossword, and wondered what on earth it was all for; much as I have felt the glee, whose roots are in childhood, of sticking to a demanding task, tongue stuck out of the corner of the mouth in concentration, for the sheer hell of it. And then there are those for whom a crossword is no effort at all and you have to wonder what they get out of it.

My great-uncle shared this ability with the Cambridge don and ghost-story writer M R James: that he could complete The Times crossword in under four minutes. James would time his breakfast boiled egg by his solving the complete puzzle; I have seen my great-uncle in action, and suspect he did it even faster than that. I would not have been able to fill in the grid any quicker had I been allowed to write random capitals into the boxes as fast as I could.

Cryptic crosswords appeal to the ludic intellect: I detect in them the spirit of Lewis Carroll’s wordplay; in particular, Humpty Dumpty’s sense that words can mean whatever he wants them to mean (so “flower” can mean “river”, and so on); even the wonderfully scurrilous magazine Viz has one, proper symmetrical grid and all, but whose clues, and sometimes answers (set by “Anus”, as you’d expect), are both kosher and foul-mouthed; about the cleanest that I can both find and solve is “old shag like a fat slag, for instance (7)”. This in turn is an extrapolation from the Private Eye crossword, whose setter, “Cyclops”, could use bad language and political scandal with greater freedom than his broadsheet colleagues.

There is, always, a deliberately irresponsible and playful intellect at work in both the setting and the solving of these puzzles. But, of course, it’s taken very seriously, especially by the setters. “I hope you’re not going to make the mistake of calling them ‘compilers’,” says Colin Dexter, arguably Britain’s most famous setter (he devised the Oxford Times crossword for more than a dozen years; more famous as an author, he named Inspector Morse after his favourite setter, Jeremy Morse, who set The Observer’s “Azed”), when I spoke to him on the subject. Why, I asked him, do you think it’s such a peculiarly British phenomenon?

“It’s because of the wonderful language we have,” he said. “The French couldn’t do it with theirs.” He has a point, and if that raises the question about why the Americans don’t go in for them nearly as much, that in turn is answered by Mike Hutchinson, The Independent’s crossword editor, who directs me towards the dialogue of the Marx brothers’ Duck Soup to show that Americans are perfectly capable of crazy wordplay and adds that there are American fans of what they call the “British-style” crossword, including, most notably, Stephen Sondheim.

But you can’t help feeling that such things are not for literalists. The idea is to bamboozle, to taunt. Look at the names the setters give themselves: Torquemada, Ximenes (another name from the Spanish Inquisition), Enigmatist. In the cryptic, meaning becomes meaninglessness, and turns back into meaning: it is, as the very name “cryptic” tells us, a kind of encryption, and it is no accident that candidates for the code-breaking operations at Bletchley in the Second World War could be given Telegraph crosswords to solve within a certain period of time (12 minutes being the acceptable upper limit). That paper’s crossword came under intense scrutiny just before the D-Day landings, when, in the space of a few days, codewords for the various landing beaches, and of the whole operation itself, were among the puzzles’ solutions. MI5 hauled the setters responsible over the coals but, as one of them, a headmaster named Leonard Dawe put it later, “eventually they decided not to shoot us after all”. (John McGlashan, an intelligence agent implicated in a plot to assassinate Egypt’s President Nasser, set crosswords for The Listener magazine under the nom de guerre “Hubris”.)

Lately, the world of crosswords has achieved some fame beyond the confines of its practitioners, with the death of Araucaria, The Guardian’s most celebrated setter (the name is the Latin for “monkey-puzzle tree”), or the Rev John Graham, who reached his 10th decade (my favourite clue of his, among stiff competition: “of of of of of of of of of of (10)”) before announcing, at the top of his crossword for 11 January this year: “Araucaria has 18 down of the 19, which is being treated with 13 15.” The words were, respectively, “cancer”, “oesophagus”, “palliative” and “care”. Asked why he told the world this news in such a way, all he could say, and all he needed to, was, “it seemed the natural thing to do, somehow.”

And so crosswords continue. Despite my early optimism about the Marx clue, I never did finish that Saturday Prize Cryptic Crossword (the reward for which was a brilliantly redundant book on how to solve crosswords); one day, I will. I’ve done it before, after all. And setters may die, but others take their place. In a small way, the puzzles contribute to the continued existence of the paper version of the newspaper; you can fill one in online these days, but you can’t beat the pleasure of Biro or pencil on paper, or the aid to anagram-solving that a ring of letters in the nearest available blank space can be. Long may these mental torturers – these Araucariae, these Torqumadas, these Ximenes and Enigmatists – continue to baffle us.

Answers to the clues given in this article are: “If I said you had a beautiful body would you hold it against me”; “rule”; “example”; “oftentimes”