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Word Squares
Forerunners to Crossword Puzzles

Horizontally and vertically...

A word square is composed of words of equal length that can be read both horizontally and vertically. The words are usually the same in both directions but sometimes the horizontal words differ from the vertical ones (often called, 'double word squares'). Here are a few examples:

B A G
A P E
G E T
N O T
O W E
T E N

E V E
V I E
E E L

L A N E
A R E A
N E A R
E A R S

S T U N G
T E N O R
U N T I E
N O I S E
G R E E T

Earliest word square...

The SATOR acrostic, which dates from the first century AD, is believed to be the earliest word square. But in the sixth century BC, ancient Greeks used a style of inscription on monuments that involved arranging letters in horizontal lines of equal length even if the break occurred in the middle of a word. This 'stocheidon' style resulted in a checkered pattern. By the fifth century BC, engravers were adding horizontal and vertical lines to help them place the letters evenly. Viewed today, it suggests the modern crossword.

Squaring the circle...

Word squares were popular in Britain in the nineteenth century. In 1859, the scholarly journal 'Notes and Queries', published the following word square which claimed to 'square the circle'.

C I R C L E
I C A R U S
R A R E S T
C R E A T E
L U S T R E
E S T E E M

Contributors then provided more examples in which a person or event made the word square relevant to the current time:

Q U E E N
U S A G E
E A S E S
E G E S T
N E S T S

C R I M E A
R E M A N D
I M A G E D
M A G P I E
E N E I D S
A D D E S T

Evolved into a game...

From making squares from given words, word squares became a game in which clues had to be solved in order to construct the square.

1. To watch over
2. Below there
3. A fair lady's name
4. A memorial of the feast
5. A severe lawgiver
G U A R D
U N D E R
A D E L A
R E L I C
D R A C O

The name of an insect my first;
My second no doubt you possess;
My third is my second transposed;
And my fourth is a shelter, I guess.
G N A T
N A M E
A M E N
T E N T

From Guess Me by F. Planche (1872)

These word square games continued to appear in many puzzle books and magazines throughout the 1800's. Some used pictures as clues and some were intended to be educational (history, geography, etc.).

Not always square...

Other shapes soon made their debut and the word square was no longer limited to being square. Diamonds, octagons, pyramids and half-squares became popular. In the 1870s, the American magazine St. Nicholas featured these puzzles:

1. A consonant
2. To place anything
3. An account
4. A wild animal
5. To mark out
6. Before
7. A consonant
L
S E T
S C O R E
L E O P A R D
T R A C E
E R E
D

1. A peculiar bird
2. Apart
3. Part of a plant
4. To decay
5. A preposition
6. A consonant
P A R R O T
A L O O F
R O O T
R O T
O F
T


The first with versified clues...

H. E. Dudeney was a puzzle expert (d. 1930) who claimed to have written the first word square with versified clues. In this example, the numbers in each line are to be replaced by the solution words.

'Twas spring. The abbey woods were decked with second.
The abbot, with his fifth, no trouble reckoned;
But shared the meats and seventh which every man
Who loves to feast has first since time began.
Then comes a stealthy sixth across the wall,
Who fourth the plate and jewels, cash and all,
And ere the abbot and the monks have dined,
He third, and leaves no trace behind.

P A L A T E D
A N E M O N E
L E V A N T S
A M A S S E S
T O N S U R E
E N T E R E R
D E S S E R T

From World's Best Word Puzzles (1925)

Dudeney claimed that very few seven-letter word squares existed (at least in his time) and he had never seen a good one of eight letters.

The bigger the badder...

Today, seven-letter word squares are quite common. Besides the one above, the following are good examples which use acceptable words:

N E S T L E S
E N T R A N T
S T R A N G E
T R A I T O R
L A N T E R N
E N G O R G E
S T E R N E R
M E R G E R S
E T E R N A L
R E G A T T A
G R A V I T Y
E N T I T L E
R A T T L E R
S L A Y E R S

However, eight-letter squares usually necessitate the use of obscure words and/or archaic spellings:

A G A R I C U S
G E N E R A N T
A N A C O N D A
R E C E N T E R
I R O N W O R T
C A N T O N A L
U N D E R A G E
S T A R T L E D

Nine-word squares use a lot of unusal words and even proper names. Dimitri Borgmann claims that over 900 such squares have been constructed:

F R A T E R I E S
R E G I M E N A L
A G I T A T I V E
T I T A N I T E S
E M A N A T I S T
R E I T E R A T E
I N I T I A T O R
E A V E S T O N E
S L E S T E R E D
A N G E L S H I P
N O O N E T I D E
G O L D V I L L E
E N D W E L L E R
L E V E L L I N E
S T I L L E N E S
H I L L I N E S S
I D L E N E S S E
P E E R E S S E S

Is a ten-word square possible?

Is it possible to construct a perfect ten-letter word square? Consider that for over twelve years no person or computer has been able to come up with an acceptable ten-letter word square. Early computer efforts were disappointing as illustrated by the following which only found words for eight of the ten lines:

A C C O M P L I S H
C O O P E R A N C Y
C O P A T E N T E E
O P A L E S C E N T
M E T E N T E R O N
P R E S T A T I O N
L A N C E T O O T H
I N T E R I O R L Y
S C E N O O T L
H Y E T N N H Y

Borgmann and Darryl Francis constructed some ten-word squares using tautonyms (words consisting of two words repeated) and allowing themselves to repeat words within the square:

O R A N G U T A N G
R A N G A R A N G A
A N D O L A N D O L
N G O T A N G O T A
G A L A N G A L A N
U R A N G U T A N G
T A N G A T A N G A
A N D O L A N D O L
N G O T A N G O T A
G A L A N G A L A N

As Tony Augarde states in The Oxford Guide to Word Games, "The field is wide open for someone (or some computer) to construct a really acceptable ten-word square."

See you next time!

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