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Mary Brotherton
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Inside my Brain

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Thursday, February 24, 2005

The Crossword Craze

The Crossword Craze had to be one of the most intense and enjoyable projects I worked on for Senior Life of Florida. I also had the opportunity to learn some secrets about my personal friends during the research phase. The only problem I had with it, was that another writer got credited for the work - yet I got paid for it - I'm still struggling with which is more important.

In the late 18th century, archeologists in the ancient Roman city of Pompeii found a word-square, possibly the oldest crossword puzzle to be discovered. English scholars in the 19th century devised word puzzle books for children, based on the word square. Arthur Wynne, a British native working as a journalist in New York created what has turned into the international experience we know as the Crossword Puzzle. The puzzle was first published in the New York World in December, 1913 and was an immediate success. It was a simple puzzle with a diamond shape and relatively easy to solve clues and was called a word-cross. During the early 1920's other newspapers picked up the newly discovered pastime and within a decade crossword puzzles were featured in almost all American newspapers. It was in this period that crosswords began to assume their familiar form. Ten years later the concept caught fire in Europe. After World War I the American partnership of Simon and Schuster published crossword puzzles in book form, which were phenomenally successful. One of the last holdouts to the crossword craze was the New York Times, which first published a Sunday puzzle in 1942 and a daily puzzle in 1950. Now, many crossword enthusiasts will confidently proclaim that the New York Times publishes one of the most challenging puzzles to be solved.

There may be two reasons that the New York Times crossword puzzle is so challenging. Margaret Farrar was the first crossword editor of The Times, and she instituted the idea of having the puzzles become more difficult as the week went on. Monday's was the easiest, with the weekend edition’s puzzles much more challenging. The second reason may be Will Shortz, who has been the puzzle editor of the New York Times since 1973. He's the world’s only academically accredited enigmatologist. In 1977, the word enigmatologist was coined and it means "addicted to word puzzles". Before he earned his unique degree, Mr. Shortz was a dedicated cruciverbalist.

He is in good company, as more than 50 million Americans are also cruciverbalists, or people who love crosswords. Maybe one reason the newspaper crossword puzzles are so popular is because they provide something for people to do besides just reading the paper. People may read the news, the sports, the features, or even the comics, but they “do” the crosswords. Crossword puzzles are reported to be the most popular and widespread word game in the world.

Crossword puzzles appeal to all ages, genders, and socioeconomic levels. While the puzzles that appear in most newspapers are considered for people who possess general knowledge, elementary crossword puzzle books are created for a younger audience. Crossword puzzles are not intelligence tests, but a familiarity with certain facts comes in handy if a person chooses to work a puzzle designed for a general audience. Even at the level of everyday vocabulary, some words with which everyone is now familiar, such as yak, emu, and oasis are more often encountered in the squares of crossword puzzles than in real life. Newspaper puzzles may require knowledge of athletes, actors, and musicians, as well as a wide-ranging knowledge of United States and world geography.

Crossword puzzles have evolved dramatically from their beginning last century. Today, enthusiasts can find crosswords which are themed specifically to appeal to particular audiences, such as history or science buffs, animal lovers, or technology. Educators use crosswords to help students struggling with spelling, math concepts, or even learning a new language. Some cruciverbalists will argue that the cryptic or mysterious crosswords are as enticing and challenging as anything offered in the New York Times, but advocates of that publication’s crosswords may debate the very idea. Crossword puzzles can be found not only in specialty books and newspapers; they also appear in magazines, online, and in electronic games that are convenient when paper and pencil may be out of reach.

There is an annual American Crossword Puzzle Tournament which is in its 27th year and will be held in Stamford, Connecticut. The tournament began in 1978 with 149 contestants and a few hundred dollars as a grand prize. In 2003, the prize had risen to $2,000 and nearly 500 contestants tried their puzzle solving skills under a time restraint. Some will claim that they prefer to take their time and work a puzzle in a more relaxed arena, but others love the challenge of trying to beat the clock as well as their opponents.

Many people who enjoy working crossword puzzles also enjoy playing other games which challenge their minds and vocabularies such as Scrabble, Boggle, and Jeopardy. For some, solving a crossword puzzle is pleasant past time, for others it is a way of life with family members who all sit down together to work on their puzzles.

Katherine Rabenau from New York stated that crosswords “are fun, and good mental exercise. I used to do my puzzle first thing in the morning as a kind of wake up exercise. I've gotten my sister hooked on the Sunday New York Times crossword. We often do it together, but we are both possessive and territorial, so sometimes we each have to get our own Sunday paper--one of us gets the conservative paper, and one gets the liberal”.

Judy Bassett of Florida told how she receives pleasure from crosswords even though she does not do them. “However, my 83 year old mother, who recently passed into crossword puzzle heaven, worked them all of her life. As far back as I can remember, she had crossword puzzles nearby, and I'm 61!”

Mrs. Bassett continues, “When she was losing her battle with cancer, she worked those puzzles right up to the last day she was conscious! Said it kept her mind off of herself! Those last few days she would sit propped up on pillows with a puzzle before her and pencil in hand. She was too weak and sick to really "work" it any more, but she said it was just "comforting."

“My mom was dyslexic, and all her life had a real hard time reading directions to anything, so she just "figured them out" on her own. But, she could do those crossword puzzles with no problem! It was common for her to be working more than one at a time. When she got stumped, usually near the end of a puzzle, she would start another, and soon the "lost" word from the first puzzle would pop into her head! When I see a crossword puzzle now, I always think of my sweet mother, so I am now the one getting pleasure from them!”

Crossword solvers develop their own unique style for doing their puzzles. For some, solving the puzzle is a daily routine, for others it is a weekend indulgence. Men and women of all ages establish their puzzling rituals, from the puzzles they engage, to their chairs, and even the lighting they choose. Some are very particular about whether they will use a favorite ink pen or a sharp pencil with a good eraser. There are avid crossword solvers who have worked the puzzles for so many years, they hardly remember a time when they didn’t do them. Some won’t alter their daily ritual of taking their beloved crossword to their porch in the morning with their first cup of coffee, a freshly sharpened pencil, a few reference books and special crossword dictionaries; others frown on the idea of even calling their friends for help. Some solvers have pens that are only used for the puzzles, while others will grab any writing utensil at hand. Doing the crossword is a highly popular event, but one that is unique to the individual.

Among the 50 million Americans who do crossword puzzles, there may be more than one million reasons to do it. Many people don’t even know why they engage in this past time. They do it because their parents and grandparents did it, they do it because it is fun, or they do it because they are bored and want to wake up their minds.

Others, like 67 year old Nancy Bell of South Carolina do it because," I feel that I learn a lot about things in the fields of geography, history, the arts, entertainment, unusual words, etc."

Many people state that as they get older there are fewer things that interest them, or that they can do. Some older cruciverbalists will admit that they think working the puzzles helps them keep their minds sharp and clear. They may be right.

The University of Kentucky conducted a study in the late 1990s which indicated that people who exercise their brains by doing crossword puzzles and other challenging mind activities tend to suffer less from Alzheimer’s Disease or Dementia. Other studies have supported this theory. Those studies might be enough to make some people check into crossword puzzles for the first time.

Judy Bassett suggests that we should all “Do a few crossword will give you a different perspective!”