21 Dec 2013

100 down as the crossword celebrates its centenary

Crossword enthusiasts are celebrating the puzzle’s 100th birthday. So what is the secret of its lasting appeal? A cryptic compiler – about half as old as crosswords – gives us some insights.

Crossword centenary anniversary cryptic

All-points bulletin (4). The answer to that is, of course, NEWS, writes crossword compiler Apeman. Solvers of quick crosswords might at this point think: “That’s not a very precise definition.” But solvers of cryptic crosswords will quickly spot the reference to the compass – the word NEWS includes all of its points, so the NEWS is a bulletin including all points of the compass. In the case of international news, of course, this is literally true!

The first crossword was published on 21 December 1913 in the New York World, written by Liverpudlian Arthur Wynne. The puzzles quickly became a craze, and soon every newspaper had to have one. As they crossed the Atlantic a decade later, a Times editorial warned of the “menace” that had taken over America, “making devastating inroads on the working hours of every rank of society”. But it was too late.

But while US puzzles have stayed closer to Wynne’s original – few black squares and words indicated largely by definitions – crosswords in Britain rapidly became a test not just of knowledge and vocabulary, but a forum for ever more complicated wordplay.

Patterns and puns

Many crossword compilers will swear that a cryptic clue can be easier because, as well as a definition that may have many answers, it gives you a unique way of working out the specific answer required. Without giving too much away, 3 down in my puzzle here could just be clued as “Style” – but I’ve given you another route to the answer.

Many cryptic solvers do quick crosswords too – and many setters set them. But they tend to view the quick as a gateway drug, to lead you on to the hard stuff.
Cryptic crosswording can definitely be learned – there are a number of books that will point you in the right direction, and even professionals offering tutorials and workshops (see e.g. Tim Moorey).

It helps if you tend to see patterns in words as well as their literal meanings – if you look at a bottle of Evian and see ‘naive’ backwards, say.

But it helps if you start with a tendency to see the patterns in words as well as their literal meanings. If you look at a bottle of Evian water and see “naive” backwards, say. Even if you haven’t noticed that Cameron is an anagram of “romance”, or “Britney Spears” of “presbyterians”, do you like the fact once it’s been pointed out? Do you look at “patriot” and see “pat riot”? In which case a clue like “Nationalist Irishman’s disturbance (7)” might make sense more quickly.

A penchant for weak puns may be useful too – a fungi will find mushroom for that kind of thing in a crossword, with a “sounds like” indicator. Clues such as Micawber’s “Brassy types reported to have bagged mobiles” (10) or Tramp’s “70’s clothing sounds like Noddy Holder’s cup of tea” (6,3) are basically reworked puns (answers below – and don’t worry if you don’t crack clues like this instantly – if you were doing an actual crossword you could always come back to it once you had some letters).

Of course, the latter clue relies on you knowing who Noddy Holder is, 40 years after Slade’s last number one single. But that’s relatively fresh compared to some of the references that still litter crosswords – U and non-U, or SA to equal ‘it’ (both rather dated slang for “sex appeal”).

Try the Channel 4 News festive centenary crossword

Cracking the code

A lot of people are put off cryptic crosswords because they think they are based on a code you have to learn. But that’s only partly true – and insofar as there is a code, it’s being constantly rewritten. I’d rather indicate the letter U with “texting you” than follow Nancy Mitford half a crossword lifetime ago and call it “acceptable”.

Younger setters are reinventing the frame of reference – and not just younger ones. The much-missed John Graham (Araucaria/Cinephile), who died last month aged 92, included “Plan B” and “Scouting for Girls” in a 2011 puzzle themed on the Ivor Novello awards.

Each newspaper’s crossword has different rules and house style, often reflecting the politics of the parent.

And while such things are essentially in the hands of compilers and editors, solvers are more involved than ever – not just by writing disgustedly to the editor, but by contributing to solving and discussion blogs such as Fifteensquared (Guardian/Independent/FT), Big Dave’s (Telegraph) and Times for the Times (Times).

Most crossword solvers still use the dead tree versions, but all the main UK broadsheet puzzles are now available online – some free and some paywalled. Although there’s now no reason crosswords have to be part of newspaper sites for online distribution, they are very much still attached to their hosts. And each paper’s crossword has different rules and house style, often reflecting the politics of the parent – as in Arachne’s Guardian clues like “Throw shoe! Bugger invaded Iraq!” (6,4).

And though we may have an image as cerebral geeks, crossword aficionados sometimes express strong feelings on discussion forums about the finer points of clueing – which words are OK to indicate an anagram, or whether “indeed” can be used to indicate that something is inside the letters DE–ED in a word such as DE(BAT)ED.

This may perplex outsiders. Or, to put it another way, “Angry exchange puzzles” (10).

PATRIOT (Pat, as common Irish name, + riot)
SAXOPHONES (sounds like sacks o’ phones)
KIPPER TIE (sounds like cuppa tea with a Birmingham accent)
CROSSWORDS (angry exchange = cross words)

Further reading
There are three books out for the centenary –
– The Centenary of the Crossword by John Halpern
– Two Girls, One on Each Knee by Alan Connor
– Telegraph Centenary Crossword Collection