The Sunday Edition

1-across and 2-down: The history and mysteries of the crossword puzzle

What do Bill Clinton, Jon Stewart, the Indigo Girls and Sir John Gielgud have in common? They are all cruciverbalists, people who love wordplay and crossword puzzles. Adrienne Raphel is the author of Thinking Inside the Box: Adventures with Crosswords and the Puzzling People Who Can't Live Without Them. It's a passion The Sunday Edition's Michael Enright shares.

There's even an official term for a crossword-puzzle addict

Adrienne Raphel is the author of a new book, Thinking Inside the Box: Adventures with crosswords and the puzzling people who can’t live without them. (Penguin Random House/Nina Subhin)
Listen18:05

What do Stephen Sondheim, Jon Stewart, Harry Houdini, The Indigo Girls and Sir John Gielgud have in common?

They are all dedicated cruciverbalists, the official term for a crossword-puzzle addict.

The crossword, just over a century old, quickly became a regular feature — and a major selling point — in newspapers and magazines, and the New York Times crossword became the gold standard.

Ironically, the Times rejected the idea of including a puzzle at first, says Adrienne Raphel. She is the author of a new book, Thinking Inside the Box: Adventures with Crosswords and the Puzzling People Who Can't Live Without Them.

"'Other lesser newspapers might need an addictive grid to get people buying the paper, but we are the New York Times. We don't need that,'" is how Raphel described the newspaper's initial reaction to the idea, but it later relented.

The crossword really did just reflect a kind of old boys' club, as it were.- Adrienne Raphel

"So the New York Times said, 'Okay, if we are caving to demand and having a puzzle, it will be the greatest puzzle,'" added Raphel, a dedicated cruciverbalist herself.

Her book traces the history of the crossword from its invention in 1913 by a New York editor named Arthur Wynne — who never bothered to patent it — to the publication of a wildly popular puzzle book by Simon and Schuster in 1924. That was the spark that ignited a global crossword frenzy.

Raphel has constructed a puzzle, a process she describes as a mechanical feat, "where you do something in one corner and it ripples all across the board, and then you have to make compromises or figure out new solutions and shift things around."

She thought it might take her an afternoon to complete, but it was two or three weeks of effort before she submitted it for publication. The New York Times rejected it.

There are cries for change in the crossword puzzle world, says Raphel.

"It's a great movement happening right now in crosswords…The crossword really did just reflect a kind of old boys' club, as it were," she said. "A lot of the clues were more culturally tied to a very, very, very specific, narrow band of…upper-middle-class, white, elite men."

A lot of the clues were more culturally tied to a very, very, very specific, narrow band of…upper-middle-class, white, elite men.- Adrienne Raphel

This is why, for example, there is a preponderance of clues about male athletes and male writers, and far fewer about women. Clues also have caused controversy for reflecting racist attitudes or for ignoring certain cultural references.

Recently, the New York Times received a petition from a large group of puzzle aficionados, initiated by two of Raphel's friends.

"The idea is, 'We want the New York Times crossword to continue to be the gold standard, moving forward into the 2st century,'" said Raphel.

Click 'listen' above to hear the full interview.

 

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