Happy Crossword Puzzle Day!

Hurray Hurray it’s Crossword Day!
Calloo Callay it’s Crossword Day!
With Christmas not so far away,
please do not, to our dismay,
neglect to celebrate or say…
Happy Crossword Puzzle Day!

Yes, my friends and fellow PuzzleNationers, it’s the 104th anniversary of Arthur Wynne publishing the world’s first crossword puzzle, and we simply couldn’t let the day pass by without some sort of puzzly to-do.

So I thought I’d focus on crossword cluing, because there’s so much a constructor can do with clues. As you well know, it goes far beyond just offering a synonym or a fill-in-the-blank to get the solver moving.

No, a crafty constructor can work wonders. I once saw a crossword where every single clue started with the same letter! That’s dedication.

Recently, a constructor snuck a limerick into the first five across clues of a British-style crossword.

So, in honor of the day, here’s a sampling of the best clues I encountered over the last year. These clues are gathered from all over — including The Crosswords Club, The Los Angeles Times, Piece of Cake Crosswords, The Indie 500, Barany and Friends, and many other outlets.

As you might expect, I’m a big fan of misdirection clues, and there were some choice ones this year. For instance, Patti Varol offered “They may be called on account of rain” for CABS.

Peter Gordon clued IAMB with the brilliant “Foot in ‘the door'” while Emory Ediger challenged solvers with “Things you saw while dreaming?” for LOGS.

George Barany had several great clues this year, including “Hawaiian beach ball?” for LUAU — always nice to get a new clue for a classic crossword word! — and “His wife became a pillar of their community” for LOT.

Sarah Kampman gave us “Fresh answers, perhaps” for SASS, while Michael Shteyman played with expectations with “50/50, e.g.” as the clue for ONE.

“Hit close to home” was Mike Shenk’s terrific clue for BUNT. He also offered “Give up possession of, in a way” for PUNT and “One might be responsible for a reduced sentence” for EDITOR.

Patrick Blindauer’s Piece of Cake Crosswords, a series designed to avoid crosswordese and welcome new solvers, allowed him to indulge in some lengthy, delightful clues:

  • Best Picture winner that becomes another Best Picture winner if you add an F to the beginning of it: ARGO
  • “Brown Eyed Girl” syllable followed by lots of la’s: SHA
  • Like some battles, or how my grandpa supposedly walked to school (both ways): UPHILL
  • Surprised cry that would be aha’s cousin if things had cousins the way crosswords seem to think they do: OHO

And no list would be complete without Brendan Emmett Quigley, who paired “Ticker tape?” with ECG.

To close out today’s entry, let’s enjoy a few clues from our friends at Penny Press that didn’t get published, but still highly entertained me.

Crossword guru Eileen Saunders gave us “Camel droppings?” for ASH, which is hilarious, and constructor Keith Yarbrough offered “Get by, barely” for STREAK.

What’s more amazing is that this is just a smattering of the excellent cluing available all across the world of crosswords. Every day, wordsmiths and constructors are bending words and wordplay to their whim. It’s fantastic stuff.

Did you have any favorite clues from crosswords this year? Let us know in the comments section below!


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Puzzle History: The first NYT crossword

[A sculpture masquerading as a stack of newspapers.]

I like to think of December as Crossword History Month. It’s rather fitting, seeing as the anniversary of the crossword is celebrated on December 21. (It’ll be 102 this year!)

So it’s only appropriate that David Steinberg, friend of the blog and mastermind of the Pre-Shortzian Puzzle Project, recently published some newly revealed information about another intriguing part of crossword history: the first crossword puzzle published by The New York Times.

On February 15, 1942, a puzzle by Charles Erlenkotter was the very first, starting a long tradition of proud puzzlehood for the Times. (He ended up having eight puzzles featured in the New York Times.) His puzzles were also published by The Washington Post, The New York Herald Tribune, and Simon & Schuster, among many others. In fact, dozens of puzzles are credited to Mr. Erlenkotter.

All of the information released by David gels nicely with the research I did for our Crossword History timeline. In a memo dated December 18, 1941, an editor for the New York Times conceded that the puzzle deserved space in the paper, considering what was happening elsewhere in the world, and that readers might need something to occupy themselves during blackouts.

David and his contact Donald Erlenkotter, grandnephew of Charles, theorize that Margaret Farrar was behind choosing Erlenkotter’s puzzle. When Farrar was recruited to be the first puzzle editor for the Times, she wouldn’t have been able to use one of her own puzzles as the inaugural puzzle for the newspaper, since that would conflict with her work with Simon & Schuster.

But no doubt Charles had heard of her through her S&S work, contacted her with his own puzzles, and voila! He becomes the first of many constructors to test the puzzly mettle of crossword fans for decades to come!

I’ve long said that one of the most amazing things about the Internet is that connections can now be made that no other technology would’ve allowed for, and this is one more example. Due diligence, keen research, marvelous resources, and the ability to reach out to others with similar interests has added one more vibrant piece to the mosaic of puzzle history.

It’s moments like this that make me the history buff I am.


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Goodbye, Merl.

[Picture courtesy of crosswordfiend.com.]

The puzzle world was stunned this weekend by the sudden passing of a true crossword legend: Merl Reagle.

Merl has been one of the biggest names in puzzles for a long time now, one of the few crossword constructors who was successful and prolific enough to work on puzzles full-time.

Between his appearance in the Wordplay documentary and a cameo on The Simpsons alongside New York Times crossword editor Will Shortz, he proudly represented both the love of puzzles so many solvers share AND stood as a standard-bearer for crossword construction and quality puzzling.

Merl sold his first crossword to the New York Times at age 16 — ten years after he started constructing puzzles, amazingly enough! In a career spanning five decades, his contributions to the world of puzzles were myriad. Nearly every year, one of his puzzles appears at the American Crossword Puzzle Tournament. The crossword he constructed for the 100th Anniversary of the Crossword was turned into a Google Doodle, and, based on my research, is the most solved crossword puzzle in history.

A craftsman with humor and heart (and no small amount of anagram skill), Merl was truly one of a kind.

[Picture courtesy of tucson.com.]

I had the privilege of meeting him at the American Crossword Puzzle Tournament this year. It was only for a few minutes while the tournament participants were tackling one of the early puzzles and the vendor’s floor was pretty empty. (Otherwise, there were always puzzlers crowded around Merl’s table between tournament puzzles. He was the center of gravity around which many fellow puzzle fans orbited, a master of ceremonies wherever he went.)

He was friendly and gracious, one of those people who can strike an instant rapport with virtually anyone. He put me at ease immediately as I checked out his latest puzzly offerings and we briefly chatted about the tournament itself. (I didn’t get the chance to challenge his legendary anagramming talents, sadly.)

Fellow puzzler and friend of the blog Keith Yarbrough was kind enough to share one of this experiences with Merl:

Merl gave me his philosophy of puzzle construction at the ACPT one year. His goal, he said, was to make the solver smile. Coming up with a funny theme was the main thing. His test when he came up with an idea was to run it past his wife, who is not a puzzler. If it made her smile, it was a keeper.

He wasn’t out to frustrate the solver with obscurities or unnecessary crosswordese, so he used common entries as much as possible. His mantra was that the fill should not be overly difficult.

[Picture courtesy of cltampa.com.]

The dozens of tributes I’ve seen online are a testament to how many friends and admirers Merl earned over the years. There are too many to link to here, but I want to highlight a few from fellow puzzlers Brendan Emmett Quigley, Deb Amlen, and David Steinberg.

Merl, you will be missed. Thank you, for the laughs, for the tough crossings, the trickiest-of-tricky clues, and the many unexpected delights you managed to spring on so many solvers.

You can check out Merl’s work on his Sunday Crosswords website as well as some of his collections on Amazon. Click the links. You won’t regret it.

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It’s Follow-Up Friday: For the Wynne edition!

Welcome to Follow-Up Friday!

By this time, you know the drill. Follow-Up Friday is a chance for us to revisit the subjects of previous posts and bring the PuzzleNation audience up to speed on all things puzzly.

And today, I’d like to return to the subject of Arthur Wynne.

[Image courtesy of express.co.uk.]

In 1913, Arthur Wynne created the first modern crossword puzzle — which he called a Word-Cross puzzle — and over a hundred years later, we are still enjoying the ever-increasing variety of puzzles and clues spawned by that “fun”-filled grid. (Click here for more details on that groundbreaking puzzle.)

Wynne was born on June 22, 1871 in Liverpool, England, but moved to the states in the early 1890s, spending time in Pittsburgh and New York City before creating his Word-Cross puzzle for the New York World. (We can also credit Wynne with the use of symmetrical black squares in crossword grids.)

So, in honor of Mr. Wynne’s 144th birthday, I’ve got a little word creation puzzle for you! How many words of four or more letters can you make from the letters in ARTHUR WYNNE’s name?

I came up with 110! Can you match or top my wordcount? Let me know!

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A revolution in puzzles?

Crosswords have certainly changed the world. They’re the most popular puzzles in history, challenging the minds of millions every day and kickstarting a pencil-and-paper puzzle revolution in the process. Heck, they’ve even been used in England as part of the recruitment process for code breakers and other puzzly government positions!

But did you know that some constructors have been accused of trying to bring about actual revolutions with crosswords?

Oh yes! The Venezuelan newspaper El Aragueno has been accused on several occasions of hiding encrypted messages within their daily crossword puzzles in order to incite revolt against the government. (And a year ago, another Venezuelan newspaper, Ultimas Noticias, was accused of concealing messages ordering the assassination of a public official!)

While there are no details on what the incendiary message secretly contained within El Aragueno’s puzzle might have said, this isn’t the only time crosswords and constructors have run afoul of the powers that be.

Back in June of 1944, physics teacher and crossword constructor Leonard Dawe was questioned by authorities after several words coinciding with D-Day invasion plans appeared in London’s Daily Telegraph.

The words Omaha (codename for one of Normandy’s beaches), Utah (another Normandy beach codename), Overlord (the name for the plan to land at Normandy on June 6th), mulberry (nickname for a portable harbor built for D-Day), and Neptune (name for the naval portion of the invasion) all appeared in Daily Telegraph crosswords during the month preceding the D-Day landing.

So it was possible (though highly improbable) that Dawe was purposely trying to inform the enemy of Allied plans, and the powers that be acted accordingly. (In the end, no definitive link could be found, and consensus is that Dawe either overheard these words, possibly slipped by soldiers stationed nearby, and slipped them into his grids unwittingly, or this is simply an incredible coincidence.)

Either way, it just goes to show you how influential crosswords have been (and could be!) over the last hundred years.

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PuzzleNation Book Review: The Centenary of the Crossword

Welcome to the eighth installment of PuzzleNation Book Reviews!

All of the books discussed and/or reviewed in PNBR articles are either directly or indirectly related to the world of puzzling, and hopefully you’ll find something to tickle your literary fancy in this entry or the entries to come.

Let’s get started!

Our book review post this time around features John Halpern’s The Centenary of the Crossword.

With the hundredth anniversary of the Crossword only a few weeks behind us, interest in puzzle is perhaps at an all-time high. With that in mind, constructor John Halpern has put together a tribute to the crossword that’s part history, part solving tool, and part celebration of everyone’s favorite pen-and-paper puzzle.

It’s a wonderful introduction to puzzles for anyone looking to get into solving crosswords. Beyond the timeline of puzzle history and glimpses into the minds of various constructors (or setters, as they’re known in England) and crossword editors (Rich Norris of the Los Angeles Times and Will Shortz of the New York Times included), Halpern offers numerous solving hints, including a terrific breakdown of cryptic cluing for fans of British-style crosswords.

Not only that, but the book is chock full of complete puzzles for the reader to solve, starting (quite appropriately) with Arthur Wynne’s marvelous “Word-Cross” and proceeding straight through to the modern day, featuring constructors from around the world. These puzzles show the depth and variety of crossword grids and cluing, and I think even well-established solvers will get a lot out of tackling the puzzles Halpern has collected.

The book is capped off with interviews with the top solvers from last year’s American Crossword Puzzle Tournament, some terrific clues (including some from PuzzleNation Blog favorites David Steinberg and Doug Peterson), and a delightful collection of crossword-centric anecdotes, weird words, and impressive anagrams.

Essentially a cross-section of modern puzzling and the rich puzzle community, The Centenary of the Crossword is a quick and informative read, peppered with puzzles to engage and challenge you. I’m happy to report that I learned a great deal about crosswords (especially cryptics!) from Halpern’s work, and enjoyed every minute of it. What a treat.

[To check out all of our PuzzleNation Book Review posts, click here!]

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