Wordplay Goes Back Thousands of Years
In the beginning was the word... and soon after there came the word game. In fact, the acrostic poem, where the first or last letter of each line spells out another word or phrase, goes back to biblical times. Eventually, along came more complex wordplay, such as word squares which are considered the precursor to the crossword puzzle. Arthur Wynne may have been familiar with word squares- check out the diamond-shaped word square featured in the American magazine, St. Nicholas in the 1870s.
Wynne's invention proved to be very popular and over the next few years more and more people began doing them regularly. By the 1920s, crosswords were appearing in many magazines and newspapers (But not The New York Times - more on that later). At one point it was so wildly popular that company productivity declined as people solved crosswords on company time. In some cases, it threatened to ruin lives as people became hopelessly obsessed.
In 1924, two young entrepreneurs, looking to catch the wave, decided to publish a book of crossword puzzles - the first of its kind. Its popularity, and that of subsequent editions, was such a success that a publishing empire (Simon & Shuster) was born.
Still, the beloved crossword puzzle (or cursed time-waster, depending on your point of view) kept evolving. During the late 1920s and early 1930s, crossword puzzles began to take on a new look. Thanks to certain editors, some rules governing design, word length and word count were established. The grid became diagonally symmetrical so that each black square had an opposite, answers were to be three-letters or more, a limit was placed on the number of black squares and orphaned letters were banned - every letter has to be part of both an across and down answer word. (See unchecked letters)
Next page: The New York Times pooh-poohs crosswords...