Word Traveler: Crossword Puzzles

This feature is for all word lovers as well as those studying for the SAT and seeking to learn new vocabulary.

The crossword is the most popular and widespread word game in the world, but its history is short. It developed from the acrostic and word square, combining elements of these with cryptic clues similar to riddles. We're all familiar with the look of a crossword diagram, but did you know that the spaces to be filled by letters are called lights? Crosswords are usually symmetrically designed so that the pattern looks the same when the puzzles are turned upside-down.

The person credited with inventing the word game was a journalist, Arthur Wynne, whose first crossword - which he called "word-cross" - appeared in the New York World Sunday edition of December 21, 1913. Readers were enthusiastic about its inclusion in the newspaper, so Wynne continued making puzzles, which were renamed "cross-words." Readers even began to contribute their own crosswords. By 1923, crosswords were being published in most of the leading American newspapers. The standard crossword size now is 15 squares across by 15 squares down, though you can find crosswords of many other sizes. Since the late 1950s, the words in one puzzle may adhere to a theme, usually announced in the crossword's title, pertaining to things like music, sports, literature, or geography.

It may seem that solving crosswords is a trivial pursuit, but it is known to extend the vocabulary and stimulate the mind. The computer age has inevitably led to attempts to construct crosswords by computer. Experts have devised programs that fill in words on an empty diagram. The trouble is that constructing the puzzle is only half the task. Writing the clues demands more ingenuity than computers can be programmed to generate. Some puzzles employ abstruse definitions, puns, and anagrams.

The movie Wordplay (now out on DVD) featured famous people who love doing crosswords, like Bill Clinton, Ken Burns, and Jon Stewart. The movie also pointed out how some crossword constructors like Will Shortz of The New York Times have become well-recognized in popular culture. The number of crossword puzzledoers is legion; estimates reach as high as 40 million.

The world of crossword puzzles has some special vocabulary of its own:

  • clue: a description provided to lead the solver to an answer in cryptic or humorous puzzles; a camouflaged definition
  • composer: the deviser of a puzzle, also called compiler, constructor, puzzlemaker, setter
  • cryptic puzzle: a crossword puzzle whose answers emerge through clues rather than definitions
  • definition: a description provided to lead the solver to an answer in a conventional puzzle; the different types are definition by class (ornamental vine is a definition by class for IVY), definition by description (e.g., providing a historical fact), definition by example (Princetonian or Yalie is a definition by example for IVY), or definition by model (in which the solver must consider language and/or format as well as the words' meanings, Roberto's mom is a definition by model for MADRE).
  • fill: the smaller words, often unrelated to the puzzle's theme, that make up the majority of the answers in a conventional crossword puzzle
  • grid: the rectangular arrangement of squares that contains the puzzle's diagram
  • waist: the center row of a diagram, often containing a long answer; a central column with this long answer is called a spine

Dictionary.com has its own Crossword Puzzle Dictionary with 390,000 clues and answers - and counting. This dictionary is being added to each week, especially in the areas of people, places, and things.

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