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Clues, code-breaking, and cruciverbalists: the language of crosswords

The recent release of The Imitation Game has revealed the important role crosswords played in the recruitment of code-breakers at Bletchley Park. In response to complaints that its crosswords were too easy, The Daily Telegraph organised a contest in which entrants attempted to solve a puzzle in less than 12 minutes. Successful competitors subsequently found themselves being approached by the War Office, and later working as cryptographers at Bletchley Park.

The birth of the crossword

The crossword was the invention of Liverpool émigré Arthur Wynne, whose first puzzle appeared in the New York World in 1913. This initial foray was christened a Word-Cross; the instruction in subsequent issues to ‘Find the missing cross words’ led to the birth of the cross-word. Although Wynne’s invention was initially greeted with scepticism, by the 1920s it had established itself as a popular pastime, entertaining and frustrating generations of solvers, solutionists, puzzle-heads, and cruciverbalists (Latin for ‘crossworders’).

"Bletchley Park." Photo by Adam Foster. CC by 2.0 via Flickr.
“Bletchley Park.” Photo by Adam Foster. CC by 2.0 via Flickr.

Crosswords consist of a grid made up of black and white boxes, in which the answers, also known as lights, are to be written. The term light derives from the word’s wider use to refer to facts or suggestions which help to explain, or ‘cast light upon’, a problem. The puzzle consists of a series of clues, a word that derives from Old English cleowen ‘ball of thread’. Since a ball of thread could be used to help guide someone out of a maze – just as Ariadne’s thread came to Theseus’s aid in the Minotaur’s labyrinth – it developed the figurative sense of a piece of evidence leading to a solution, especially in the investigation of a crime.  The spelling changed from clew to clue under the influence of French in the seventeenth century; the same shift affected words like blew, glew, rew, and trew.

Anagrams, homophones, and Spoonerisms: clues in crosswords

In the earliest crosswords the clue consisted of a straightforward synonym (Greek ‘with name’) – this type is still popular in concise or so-called quick crosswords. A later development saw the emergence of the cryptic clue (from a Greek word meaning ‘hidden’), where, in addition to a definition, another route to the answer is concealed within a form of wordplay. Wordplay devices include the anagram, from a Greek word meaning ‘transposition of letters’, and the charade, from a French word referring to a type of riddle in which each syllable of a word, or a complete word, is described, or acted out – as in the game charades. A well-known example, by prolific Guardian setter Rufus, is ‘Two girls, one on each knee’ (7). Combining two girls’ names, Pat and Ella, gives you a word for the kneecap: PATELLA.

Punning on similar-sounding words, or homophones (Greek ‘same sound’), is a common trick. A reference to Spooner requires a solver to transpose the initial sounds of two or more words; this derives from a supposed predisposition to such slips of the tongue in the speech of Reverend William Archibald Spooner (1844–1930), Warden of New College Oxford, whose alleged Spoonerisms include a toast to ‘our queer dean’ and upbraiding a student who ‘hissed all his mystery lectures’. Other devious devices of misdirection include reversals, double definitions, containers (where all or part of word must be placed within another), and words hidden inside others, or between two or more words. In the type known as &lit. (short for ‘& literally so’), the whole clue serves as both definition and wordplay, as in this clue by Rufus:  ‘I’m a leader of Muslims”. Here the word play gives IMA+M (the leader, i.e. first letter, of Muslims), while the whole clue stands as the definition.

Crossword compilers and setters

Crossword compilers, or setters, traditionally remain anonymous (Greek ‘without name’), or assume pseudonyms (Greek ‘false name’). Famous exponents of the art include Torquemada and Ximenes, who assumed the names of Spanish inquisitors, Afrit, the name of a mythological Arabic demon hidden in that of the setter A.F.Ritchie, and Araucaria, the Latin name for the monkey puzzle tree. Some crosswords conceal a name or message within the grid, perhaps along the diagonal, or using the unchecked letters (or unches), which do not cross with other words in the grid. This is known as a nina, a term deriving from the practice of the American cartoonist Al Hirschfield of hiding the name of his daughter Nina in his illustrations.

If you’re a budding code-cracker and fancy pitting your wits against the cryptographers of Bletchley Park, you can find the original Telegraph puzzle online.

But remember, you only have 12 minutes to solve it.

A version of this blog post first appeared on the OxfordWords blog.

Image Credit: “Crosswords.” Photo by Jessica Whittle. CC by NC-ND 2.0 via Flickr.

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