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Thursday, October 14, 2010

Cruciverbalists Unite!

For a couple millenia, people have been playing with words.  Acrostics have been used since the time of the ancient Greeks.  The Romans played with word squares, the most famous one being:


This roughly translates to "The sower Arepo holds the wheels at work."  Arepo is a concocted name, and it's not a particularly meaningful sentence.  But the beauty of the piece is that the words can be read in all four ways:  across, down, up, and backwards.

On September 4, 1890, the first crossword puzzle appeared in the magazine Il Secolo Illustrato della Domenica constructed by Giuseppe Airoldi.  It was called "Per passare il tempo" - "to pass the time".  It was a four-by-four grid with both horizontal and vertical clues with none of the cells shaded.  In 1913, Arthur Wynne published a puzzle he called a "word cross" which later gave way to the term "crossword".   Crossword puzzles are currently popular internationally, although they are constructed differently in various countries.

American crosswords feature grids of white squares, of which usually one-sixth are shaded ones.  The pattern also appears the same when viewed upside down.  The weekday puzzles published in newspapers are 15x15 squares, and the weekend ones are 21x21, 23x23, or 25x25.  The weekday ones are easier.  The New York Times crossword, the most famous of crossword puzzles, is considered the hardest in English.  The Sunday puzzle is the most difficult, prompting actor and puzzle solver Paul Sorvino to call it, "The bitch mother of all crosswords."  The smallest words have no fewer then three letters.  Clues are given, usually separated into "Across" and "Down" columns, all numbered with their corresponding numbers in the cells.  British crosswords are similar, although in both Britain and Australia the grid design resembles a lattice, with a higher number of shaded squares.

Japanese crosswords feature a white cell in all four corners, and no shaded cells can touch.  To make things more difficult, a puzzle can use all three Japanese writing system:  hiragana, kanji, and katakana, all mixed together.  Hebrew puzzles are particularly perplexing since modern Hebrew is written without consonants, which can lead to ambiguities, but more so because Hebrew is written right to left, but Arabic numerals are written left to right.

Italian puzzles are usually oblong and large, 13x21 is typical.  They often use two-letter words, as well. The French also use two-letter words, and theirs can be square or rectangle.  Swedish puzzles don't have separate lists of clues.  Since they don't use shaded cells, the clues are placed in those spots, with vertical and horizontal arrows pointing which direction clues are to be applied.  Other countries use the same template, sometimes taking up an entire page, with photos replacing a shaded cell block.  

There are various tips for solving crosswords.  Being familiar with the author of the puzzle helps.  Young people tend to use more trendy, hip words, while older authors tend to use more classical or common knowledge words.  Sometimes there is a theme to the puzzle, which helps determine what kind of words are used.  Clues with question marks are usually tricks, the answers not being direct.  Answers do correspond grammatically, i.e., a clue in the plural means the answer will be plural.

Lately crosswords have been touted as one way to exercise your brain, even marketed as a deterrent to Alzheimer's or senile forgetfulness.  Personally, I have doubts about this, since my one Sunday ritual has been doing the L.A Times Sunday crossword for decades, and I find myself getting increasingly forgetful!

If you consider yourself a cruciverbalist (from the Latin "cross" and "word"), you may want to join the Crossword Community Center and find kindred souls!


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