Puzzles and word play in various forms have been a source of mental exercise and pleasure for well over 2000 years. Contemporary crossword puzzles evolved from simple acrostics and word squares into a wildly popular pastime all around the globe.
An acrostic is a poem or other form of writing in which the first letter, syllable, or word of each line spells out a word, message, or alphabet. Acrostics are common in medieval literature and were popular during the Renaissance as well.
Hold onto your dream while mindful of time.
Optimism required, let your light shine.
Persistence prevails, while some may cast doubt.
Expectation desired is what it’s about.
From the Old Testament to Shakespeare, Edgar Allen Poe, and Lewis Carroll, acrostics have been used to conceal messages, reveal prophecies, and target lover, friend, or foe with clever wordplays. Even as recently as 2017, upon resigning from the Trump administration’s Committee on Arts and Humanities, members sent a letter containing the acrostic “RESIST” formed from the first letter of each paragraph.
A word square is a special type of acrostic. It consists of a set of words written out in a square grid, such that the same words can be read both horizontally and vertically.
The Sator Square is the earliest datable 2D palindrome. It was found in the ruins of Pompeii, at Herculaneum, a city buried in volcanic ash in 79 AD. It consists of the Latin sentence, “Sator Arepo Tenet Opera Rotas” (Arepo, the sower, carefully guides the wheels). It’s remarkable in that it can be read four different ways: horizontally or vertically from either top left to bottom right or bottom right to top left. The meaning of the acrostic is debated but it is believed by some scholars to mean, “God controls the universe.” Throughout the medieval period, the acrostic was commonly carved into amulets and worn to ward off disease and ill-fortune.
The first crosswords derived from acrostic word squares appeared in England during the 19th century. They were printed in children’s puzzle books and periodicals.
The first “Word-Cross” puzzle (see below) was published in the New York World on December 21, 1913. It was created by Arthur Wynne, a journalist from Liverpool, England. During the 1920s, the idea was picked up by other publishers and crossword puzzles became a permanent feature in many American newspapers.
The first appearance of a crossword in a British publication was in Pearson’s Magazine in February 1922. British puzzles developed their own style and quickly gained popularity.
The first crossword puzzle book was published by Simon & Schuster in 1924. Sold with an included pencil, the book was an instant hit and lead to crossword puzzles becoming the craze of 1924.
In the early days, not everyone was a fan of the new fad. One clergyman called the working of crossword puzzles “the mark of a childish mentality” and said, “There is no use for persons to pretend that working one of the puzzles carries any intellectual value with it.” Another clergyman, however, wrote a complete “Bible Cross-Word Puzzle Book.”
The New York Times, an early critic of the crossword craze, didn’t begin publishing puzzles until 1942. Their decision to finally start publishing them was spurred on by the idea that a puzzle feature would be a welcome distraction from the harsh news of World War II.
“I do The New York Times crossword puzzle every morning to keep the old grey matter ticking.” Carol Burnett
The world’s first crossword puzzle
Click here for the solution.
If you enjoyed this post, check out the history of counters such as, “A murder of crows.” You might also be interested in the history of acronyms like SCOTUS, or what the word dumbbells actually means!
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