I love doing crossword puzzles. Do you? If so, then you may know that this past December 21 was the 100th birthday of the crossword puzzle. It’s history is interesting.
During the 19th Century in England word puzzles had been printed in newspapers, but the invention of the actual crossword puzzle is attributed to Arthur Wynne, a Brit from Liverpool who was a writer for the New York World. On December 21, 1913 he ran his first puzzle (which was called a “word-cross” puzzle back then) and it was an instant success. People from all walks of life began working this new kind of puzzle.
Not everyone, however, was enamored with the puzzle. Some said it was a “passing fad” and would die out in a week or two. A New York Times editorial called crosswords “a waste of time.” They said, solvers get nothing out of working these puzzles “except a primitive form of mental exercise.”
I work a crossword puzzle virtually every day–usually the one in the daily newspaper. I always use ink, but if I am unsure of an answer, I’ll write it in very lightly. When I travel, I always take a stash of puzzles with me and do them while I’m waiting for my plane or in the evening after a day of giving talks and interacting with people. I enjoy working crosswords alone. But I also enjoy asking the people around me questions like, “What’s an old Chevy model, five letters, and begins with P.” (Prizm) Or “What do you call someone who pillages—six letters, 4th one is k?” (sacker)
Why do I enjoy crossword puzzles so much? First, they’re all about words and I love words. I love the way one word, like run, can have a zillion meanings. I like the way new words come into our language–like supersize, ringtone, and selfie. And how old words take on new meanings–like surf and drone. I enjoy a clue that is a play on words: grateful? The answer is ashes because a grate might be full of them! When I work crosswords I’m always learning new words or new facts. I find that enriching and fun.
My good friend, Sr. Mary Fran Taymans who lives in Maryland, sends me the puzzles from The Washington Post Magazine regularly. (I am eternally grateful to her for this gift!) Often these puzzles have themes. I worked one recently entitled “On the iPod Menu.” The long answers were all songs with food in their title: “Cotton Candy” (Al Hirt), “Honey Pie” (Beatles). Or performers whose names were associated with food: Bread, Meatloaf, The Platters.
One puzzler, Kathleen Clary Miller, said, “Like my mother before me, my self-worth is entirely dependent on successful completion of the daily crossword puzzle.” Maybe that’s a little exaggerated, but I know I get great satisfaction when I complete an entire puzzle–even if I had to resort to a dictionary or the internet to get a few of the answers: the name of a 17th Century French novelist (d’Urfe) or the element with the atomic number 52 (tellurium). For the record, consulting references while doing a crossword puzzle is NOT cheating. You can use whatever resources you want. But the real pros don’t have to consult anyone or anything. That’s why they can finish a puzzle within minutes. Crossword puzzle tournaments are timed.
I’ve always wondered if I inherited my love for crosswords from my mother. She loved working them. And she said when she was growing up she saw her aunt (who raised her) working them all the time. In fact, her aunt once remarked, “Every time I see a crossword puzzle, my right hand begins to itch for a pen.”
Recently there’s been a claim that working crosswords can deter the development of Alzheimer’s. A new study suggests that people who read, write, play challenging games, or work crossword puzzles were a lot less likely to develop brain plaques that are associated with Alzheimer’s.
A final reason I like doing crossword puzzles was expressed by composer and lyricist Stephen Sondheim: “The nice thing about doing a crossword is, you know there is a solution.” Crosswords are a refreshing interlude from our daily life, where sometimes the challenges we face don’t have ready solutions.
Janet Stuart, a Religious of the Sacred Heart who lived from 1857-1914 (and is one of my favorite writers) wrote this to a friend who was struggling: “…you trust God utterly and don’t mind things being weird and unaccountable, do you? Because you know that God knows all about it, and will make it all right in the end. All crooked things will go right, and the word will come into the riddle, and the key into the puzzle, and we shall be delighted to think that it was right all along and that we trusted God when things were darkest and most incomprehensible.” Working crosswords reminds me of this great truth.
Do you like to work crossword puzzles? If so, why?
PS: On January 1 in “Living with Christ” I wrote about the Mary statue in our provincial house chapel in Chardon. I said it was unique because Mary is not standing, but she is sitting comfortably on a rock. She wears no veil and her hair hangs loosely down her back. Her hands are resting on her lap; her feet are bare. Her facial expression exudes peace. We always have a chair or two nearby. This invites people to pull up a chair, sit with Mary, and pray. Several individuals have asked if I would post a picture of that statue. Her she is: