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A Brief History of Word Games


Paulina Olowska, Crossword Puzzle with Lady in Shadowy Coat, 2014

After I started to research the historic previous of crosswords for my recent e book on the subject, I was form of worried to envision that they weren’t invented unless 1913. The puzzle gave the influence so deeply ingrained in our lives that I figured it must have been round for hundreds of years—I envisioned the empress Livia within the famed backyard room in her villa, serenely filling in her cruciverborum every morning­­. But surely, the crossword is a recent invention, born out of desperation. Editor Arthur Wynne at the Recent York World wished one thing to accept as true with place within the Christmas version of his paper’s FUN supplement, so he took top-notch thing about original technology that will per chance print easy grids cheaply and created a diamond-shaped place of containers, with clues to accept as true with within the blanks, smack within the guts of FUN. Nearly overnight, the “Be conscious-Injurious Puzzle” went from a place-filling ploy to the most neatly-most neatly-liked characteristic of the page.

Composed, the crossword didn’t arise from nowhere. Ever since we’ve had language, we’ve played games with words. Crosswords are the Punnett sq. of two prolonged-standing strands of note puzzles: note squares, which question of visual common sense to know the puzzle but aren’t necessarily the usage of deliberate deception; and riddles, which snarl wordplay to misdirect the solver but don’t necessarily have any roughly graphic aspect to work by.


The state precursor of the crossword grid is the note sq., a queer roughly acrostic puzzle in which the an analogous words will also be read across and down. The need of letters within the sq. is known as its “converse.” Whereas 2-squares and 3-squares are simple to create, in English, by the level you attain converse 6, you’re very seemingly to get stuck. An converse 10 sq. is a holy grail for the logologists, that is, the wordplay experts.

The previous Romans loved note puzzles, beginning with their metropolis’s name: the inverse of ROMA, to the pride of all Latin followers, is AMOR. The major known note sq., the so-known as Sator Sq., was expose within the ruins of Pompeii. The Sator Sq. (or the Rotas Sq., looking out on which diagram you read it; note converse doesn’t matter in Latin) is a five-by-five, five-note Latin palindrome: SATOR AREPO TENET OPERA ROTAS (“the farmer Arepo works a plow”).

Sator sq., Oppède, France

The Sator Sq. is the “Kilroy Was Right here” of the Roman Empire, scrawled from Rome to Corinium (in original England) to Dura-Europos (in original Syria). It’s unclear why this meme was this kind of thing. “Arepo” is a hapax legomenon, which diagram that the Sator Sq. is the fully problem it shows up within the full corpus of Latin literature—the finest working opinion is that it’s an proper name invented to manufacture the sq. work.

However the Sator Sq. has extra ideas up its sleeve. In the occasion you reshuffle the letters round a central n, you would possibly perchance presumably manufacture a Greek terrible that reads PATERNOSTER (“our father”) in each and each instructions. Four leftover letters—two a’s and two o’s—stand for alpha and omega. Early Christians might perchance want veteran the sq. as a discreet diagram to signal their presence to one one other.

By the Middle Ages and beyond, the Sator Sq. persisted as a magical object, gaining a standing as a talisman against fireplace, theft, and illness. The devil, interestingly, gets puzzled by palindromes, no longer intellectual which diagram to read, so a five-by-five two-dimensional palindrome is an additional-highly nice snare. The sq. appears to be like etched on tablets as prevention against inflamed canines, a snakebite cure, and a charm to present protection to cattle from witchcraft.

Whereas note squares maintained their quasimagical standing for a full bunch of years, other visual note games was favorite at some stage within the nineteenth century. The Victorian period observed a boomlet of visual note games, equivalent to double acrostics, that paved the diagram somewhat straight away for the crossword. Queen Victoria, an ur-cruciverbalist, constructed the “Windsor Enigma” to educate her topics ideas to bring coals to Newcastle:

Queen Victoria, “Windsor Enigma,” in Victorian Enigmas, or Windsor Hearth Researches by Charlotte Eliza Capel (1861)

Oxford mathematician Charles Dodgson, larger known by his pseudonym Lewis Carroll, invented a sport known as doublets, in which you transform one note into one other of equal length, altering a single letter at a time, the usage of as few strikes as that you would possibly perchance presumably imagine; the total linking steps also want to be legit words. As in a crossword, the assignment of provocative stepwise from letter to letter forces you to take into story the total that you would possibly perchance presumably imagine note combos. And each doublet has a theme, a roughly mini-alchemy: Power PIG into STY. Elevate FOUR to FIVE. Kind WHEAT into BREAD.

Charles Dodgson, “Doublets: A Be conscious Puzzle” (London: Macmillan and Co., 1880)

However the explicit magic of the crossword got right here when riddles entered the grid.


Crossword clues impress their origins to riddles, former and ubiquitous small games that high-tail the gamut from divine spells to dick jokes. The Exeter E-book, an eleventh-century Used English manuscript, has about a hundred riddles of all kinds: a sweet ditty about a bookworm, barely veiled double entendres about swords in scabbards and bread rising in ovens, and solemn liturgical hymns. There are “about” a hundred because these riddles are level-headed maddening their readers. In the ten centuries since their composition, students haven’t conclusively solved every person, which also diagram that about a of the issues that get treated as separate puzzles might perchance truly be one broad prolonged riddle, or what we judge is a prolonged clue might perchance want two or three solutions. Riddle snark is a cottage enterprise amongst medievalists, who esteem to argue about solutions to the riddles, mostly by diagram of prolonged, ostentatiously thorough tutorial articles. There ain’t no scholarly rap war care for a multigenerational face-off over whether Riddle 86’s answer is an “organ” or a “one-eyed vendor of garlic.”

There are four overall ways that riddle common sense operates: staunch riddles, wordplay, neck riddles, and anti-riddles. The enigma, a metaphorical assertion that’s designed to truly feel care for it has one solution but truly contains unresolvable multitudes, is deal of. Think of koans, care for What’s the sound of one hand clapping?, or meditative statements care for 1 Corinthans 13: 12: “For now we glimpse by a pitcher, darkly.” These are common sense knots that are looking out out for to preserve knotted, or (k)no longer solved.

Riddles, then yet again, attain are looking out out for to be solved.


A staunch riddle transforms thing A into solution B (A—>B). Take Dinky Nancy Etticoat:

Dinky Nancy Etticoat

In a white petticoat

And a crimson nostril;

The longer she stands,

The shorter she grows.

The answer? A candle: the “white petticoat” is the wax, the “crimson nostril” the flame, and needless to claim the longer you swagger away a candle standing, the shorter it’s going to vary into. Factual riddles rely on a logical connection that’s no longer glaring on the surface, so you would possibly perchance presumably want to curl your brain to get it. They’ve been round for millennia, and the finest have been repeated for that prolonged. Take, as an instance, “What has six legs but walks on four toes?” (Resolution: a horse and rider.) Or the Sphinx’s riddle: “What walks on four legs within the morning, two within the afternoon, and three within the night?” (A human: crawling as a child, standing upright as an adult, and the usage of a cane when frail.)

When riddles change into baked into culture, they’ll flip into in-jokes. Think about an egg. Egg’s a huge solution for many photos: a dwelling without doorways or windows; a dwelling that can no longer be reentered; begets parent; and extra. In actuality, one egg riddle has change into synonymous with the total genre of riddling itself: Humpty-Dumpty—or, as soon as you happen to take dangle of, his counterparts: Boule Boule (France), or Tille Lille (Sweden), or Wirgele-Wargele (Germany), or Hümpelken-Pümpelken (also Germany)—was in the beginning printed as a riddle with the answer “egg.” The staunch riddle can thus change into a meta-riddle.


A wordplay riddle does the an analogous thing as a accurate riddle, but provides an additional layer of trickiness (A—>∀—>B). Wordplay riddles consist of puns and other bits of linguistic gymnastics to steal the anticipated answer to the subsequent step. A rebus, as an instance, makes snarl of letters as fragment of the clue. One simple French rebus riddle makes snarl of appropriate two letters—G and a—to be read as J’ai huge appetit (G huge, a petit”). A syllable riddle acts as a sport of charades, connecting reputedly disparate factors, as in this eighteenth-century example:

My first is expressive of no disrespect,

But I by no diagram call you by it as soon as you are by;

If my 2nd you continue to are resolved to reject,

As ineffective as my total, I shall currently lie.

The answer: “herring” (her + ring).


A neck riddle affords a solution that will per chance be unimaginable for the solver to advance at without context (?—>B). The time duration “neck riddle” comes from stories in which the hero makes snarl of an unsolvable riddle to outwit a deem and keep himself from being hanged: a neck riddle saves your neck. One identical outdated folktale example:

As I walked internal and outside yet again

From the ineffective the residing got right here.

Six there’s and 7 there’ll be,

So expose me this riddle or place me free.

The answer is a horse’s cranium that contains a bird hatching eggs; six have hatched but one is level-headed to approach serve. A neck riddle has a solution that’s so explicit it’s deeply unsatisfying, because that’s exactly the level: despite every thing, it’s doubtlessly no longer a solvable, it’s bought to be this kind of stumper that you get off scot-free. Frequently that’s executed by overprecision, but normally a change in viewpoint will attain the trick. In The Hobbit, our hero Bilbo Baggins bests Gollum in a riddle contest by asking him the unknowable “what’s in my pocket?”


An anti-riddle is one who ideas the reader by taking a watch care for a riddle but doubtlessly no longer being one in any recognize (A—>A). “Why did the rooster terrible the road?” smells care for a riddle, but the answer, “To get to the other side,” is appropriate the literal answer. “What’s gloomy and white and crimson/read all around the place?” is no longer going to be “a newspaper” but moderately “a zebra with blood on it,” defying the anticipated pun with the suddenly ultraliteral.


In the occasion you’re a fraction of man made intelligence map, you would possibly perchance presumably need a anxious time solving a crossword. You’d want to separate the puzzle into two separate strands of complications to tackle the difficulty: ideas to make a choice out what a clue is announcing (or, moderately, what it’s exactly no longer announcing); and ideas to accept as true with the letters within the grid within the diagram that makes the most sense. Crosswords power the brain to terrible wires and solve each and each these complications straight away, balancing the visual-spatial fragment of the brain with the common sense-pun fragment of the brain. Right here is fragment of the aim even the finest crossword-solving AI within the enviornment isn’t yet larger than the finest human: the AI can accept as true with within the grid somewhat instant, but by diagram of resolving that grid by riddle common sense, humans are level-headed a step ahead. The most innovative side of the crossword is that, by braiding collectively initiatives the mind already wanted to attain, it created an itch we didn’t know we had. And yet we’ve constantly been primed to solve them.

Adrienne Raphel is the creator of Thinking within the Box: Adventures with Crosswords and the Puzzling Folks Who Can’t Stay without Them.

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