Making Wordplay Magic with Word Squares!

[The Smyrna word square, uncovered as a bit of puzzly graffiti in 2016.]

Have you ever tried to make a word square, fellow puzzlers? It’s an intriguing twist on crossword-style construction, except the words you place read both across and down in the grid.

For instance, a five-letter word square could read:


As you can see, 1-Across is also 1-Down, 2-Across is also 2-Down, and so on. (Appropriately enough, our friends at Penny Dell Puzzles have a puzzle involving this puzzly trope, and they call it “Across and Down”)

Word Squares have been around for centuries. One of the most famous is dated all the way back to 79 AD in Pompeii (though it has been found in other places throughout history), and is known as the Sator Square:

Not only is it a word square, but it’s a palindrome as well!

It’s a neat little linguistic challenge, and as you might expect, they become more difficult to construct the larger they get.

But physicist, computer programmer, and all-around word enthusiast Eric Tentarelli might’ve cracked the code to making word squares in heretofore impossible sizes…

Doing so in Latin.

In the introduction to his WordWays article “Large Word Squares in Latin,” Tentarelli explains:

Large word squares have been pursued in many languages, but large word squares in Latin appear to have remained unexplored, despite the form’s origins in ancient Rome and despite the benefits offered by Latin inflectional endings.

New word squares constructed in Latin are shown to surpass in size those created in other languages to date, most notably by attaining the holy grail of logology: the first known non-tautonymic ten-squares consisting entirely of solid, uncapitalized words in a single language.

So, what does he mean? Well, essentially, people have been able to pull off word squares of impressive size — 8×8, 9×9, and 10×10 — but not without using certain undesirable words and word variants.

Those variants would include hyphenated words, tautonyms (scientific names where the same words is used twice, like vulpes vulpes for “red fox”), and capitalized words, aka proper nouns. Also, some puzzlers have mixed languages in order to create these word squares, similar to crossword constructors getting themselves out of a tough corner by using a European river.

Ideally, you want a word square consisting of, as he says, solid uncapitalized words in a single language.

Like this:


Say hello to the first verified 11×11 word square in a single language.

“I produced these squares by selecting final rows that combined to produce common endings and therefore maximize the chance of completing the rest of the grid.”

By compiling lists from reliable, verifiable dictionary sources and building a database of potential words, Tentarelli gave himself a strong base to start with.

But by choosing Latin as the language of choice, he significantly increased his chances of success. Thanks to “its extensive and overwhelmingly regular system of inflectional endings,” Latin was an excellent choice for word squares, which are commonly constructed by placing the bottom words first and building upward from there.

From David Brooks’ article in The Concord Monitor about Tentarelli’s work:

English has some endings that finish up on many words, “-ING” being the most obvious example. but Latin has plenty more including some that extend to four and even five letters, which makes it easier to find word squares. “In Latin, if the words in the bottom rows combine to produce nothing but common inflectional endings, such as -NTUR or -ATIS, there is good reason to hope the remainder of the square may be filled,” he wrote.

tintorelli 2

[Four 10×10 word squares built from the same three final words.]

It’s honestly mind-blowing and so inspiring to see what puzzlers can achieve by combining their own linguistic insights with the processing power of computers.

Tentarelli has helped push an ancient style of puzzling to places it has never gone before, and he managed to do so in the original language. How cool is that?

And he’s not done. Apparently, he’s working on a 12×12 square now.

There’s no telling how much farther he could go in the future.

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We Found Some Ancient Puzzly Graffiti!

[Image courtesy of]

The other day, I was perusing Crossword Kathy’s daily news post, and I stumbled across an article with this provocative title: “Ancient crossword puzzle found in Smyrna

Naturally, I clicked, being something of a puzzle historian. (I also looked up “Smyrna” because I wasn’t sure precisely where that is. Turns out it was an ancient Greek city, now known as Izmir, a city in Turkey.)

This puzzle was found on the wall of an old basilica in the marketplace (or agora, for the crossword fans in the audience), and dates back to somewhere between 2,000 and 2,500 years old.

[Image courtesy of]

According to the person in charge of the excavations, Akin Ersoy:

It looks like an acrostic. The same words are defined both top to bottom and left to right in five columns. The word ‘logos’ in the center is said to have been used by a Christian group to communicate with each other during times of oppression. We want to consider this as a puzzle because there are benches in front of these wall paintings. The lives of those who were working here are depicted in these paintings.

Unfortunately, calling this a crossword is a bit of a misnomer. The puzzle is a 5×5 grid where the entries read both across and down. This isn’t a crossword, it’s a word square.

[Pictured above is perhaps the most famous word square in history,
known as the Sator Square. Image courtesy of Wikipedia.]

The Smyrna word square consists of five words, and some researchers believe there’s a Christian message or some religious intent behind the square.

[The full text of the Smyrna square.
Image courtesy of]

The middle word, Logos, for instance, is shaped in a cross, and is believed to represent the incarnation and work of Christ.

But whether this is a religious message or simply some impressive puzzling that has stood the test of time, it’s fascinating to turn up more examples that puzzles in some shape or form have been with us not only for centuries, but for millennia.

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Palindromes and Magic Words

[Palindrome, written as an ambigram.]

Regular readers of PuzzleNation Blog know that I am a history buff. I love delving into the past and exploring the myriad ways that language and puzzles have evolved over the centuries. Whenever puzzles tie into a moment in history, whether it’s wartime cryptography or rumors of crossword espionage, I’m immediately hooked.

And it turns out that palindromes have been around far longer than I previously suspected.

Palindromes, as you probably know, are words, phrases, or sentences that can be read the same way backwards and forwards. From “race car” to “Madam, I’m Adam” to “Go hang a salami, I’m a lasagna hog,” palindromes are a classic example of wordplay.

One of the most famous palindromes is dated all the way back to 79 AD in Pompeii (though it has been found in other places throughout history), and is known as the Sator Square:


Not only is this a working palindrome, but its use of five-letter words makes it a word square as well, since it can be read left-to-right in rows and top-to-bottom in columns, as well as in reverse in both directions.

Another ancient palindrome has been uncovered recently on the island of Cyprus, and the amulet on which it appears dates back nearly 1500 years!

The amulet has multiple pieces of religious iconography on one side, including references to Egyptian and Greek mythology.

On the other side, there is a palindrome written in Greek:

According to, it roughly translates to “Iahweh is the bearer of the secret name, the lion of Re secure in his shrine.”

It’s believed that the amulet was meant to protect the wearer from danger, illness, or harm. And the palindromic nature of the inscription was key to the amulet’s supernatural potential.

Although word games and wordplay have seemingly always been popular in one form or another throughout the ages, it’s worth mentioning the power many assigned to words.

These weren’t simply displays of linguistic trickery or deftness, these were incantations or wards.

These were magic words.

In Jewish mysticism, words were said to give life to the Golem. The word “abracadabra” was originally used to ward off malaria. Invoking the name of a god and utilizing these carefully chosen words to do so combined some potent magical elements.

And once again, a puzzly moment in history offers an opportunity for greater understanding. Aren’t puzzles great?

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