Author of Southern Stories



Confessions of a Cruciverbalist


My name is William, and I’m a cruciverbalist.

I know that some readers may find it shocking—disgusting even—that I would confess my addiction in a magazine, but I do so as a plea for greater understanding and tolerance on the part of the public at large.  Other readers may question whether or not such practices are legal in this State.  I assure you that they are, the main reason being that a number of legislators are themselves closet cruciverbalists, having at times been seen engaging in this most egregious form of mental self-gratification on the floor of the House and Senate.  In fact, it’s well known in certain circles that former President Bill Clinton was said to engage in cruciverbalism while talking on the phone with foreign leaders.

Like all addicts, I didn’t set out to become hooked.  The first few times I tried it, it felt good.  I was satisfied in a way that I couldn’t quite understand.  I can quit any time, I told myself.  I do this because I want to, because I enjoy it. 

Soon, my obsession began to eat into my family life.  I’d disappear after supper on Friday nights, locking myself in my study to feed my habit.  I became bolder, sometimes practicing cruciverbalism in public places.  It all came to a head when I began doing it in bed at night.  My wife finally had enough.  With an iciness that chilled my very soul, she said, “If you’re going to lie there all night working on that damned crossword puzzle, I’m turning out the lights and going to sleep.”

Okay, enough of a bad joke, but it’s true.  I am addicted to crossword puzzles, and have been for years.  So are millions of other Americans, leading to the descriptive term, cruciverb, a rough Latin translation of the English crossword.  While riddles and word games are as old as recorded history, the crossword as we know it is a relatively new invention.  It’s generally agreed that the first modern crossword was written by Arthur Wynne and published in the Sunday magazine section of the New York World in December 1913.  The craze spread rapidly, first in Europe, then across the Atlantic to the United States.  By the 1930s, crossword puzzles were a regular feature of many American newspapers. 

The best known puzzles today are those of The New York Times, one of the last major papers to succumb to publishing a daily crossword.  While always popular, much of the Times current notoriety is due to the enthusiasm of Will Shortz, the paper’s puzzle editor since 1993.  The Times puzzles increasingly range from comfortably easy on Monday to lay-awake-at-night difficult by Saturday.  Sunday’s puzzle, with more clues and words, is of intermediate difficulty.  The puzzles themselves are written by a group of outside contributors, perhaps 300 or so at any given time, with the final selection and editing done by Shortz himself. 

Crossword puzzle construction is not a sport for the faint-hearted.  Even the seemingly easiest puzzle is the result of hours of work, following written (and often unwritten) rules and conventions.  Using the Times as an example, the daily puzzles are crafted in a 15-by-15 square matrix whose black and white squares must be symmetrical if flipped 180 degrees.  Specifications call for “intelligent, literate, entertaining and well-crafted crosswords” with “fresh” and “interesting” themes.  Clues are carefully constructed to match the tense, syntax, language and other parameters of the answer. 

The result—to a puzzle lover—is often a work of art.  Three and four-letter flightless birds:  kiwi, rhea, or emu, if living, or dodo or moa, if extinct.  Four-lettered African antelopes:  oryx, topi, puku, suni, or kudu, to name a few.  Puzzle solving requires intelligence, education and insight.  I’m not a stay-at-home type, but a quiet Friday evening with my Wall Street Journal crossword provides a goodly number of “Aha!” moments. 

What about the current Sudoku craze, you ask?   A true cruciverbalist would sniff in indignation, quickly reminding you that Sudoku is a totally different animal.  In fact, to quote a recent issue of New York magazine, “Sudoku is the complete antithesis of the crossword.”  The author goes on to say that, “you can play it even if you’re completely illiterate—hell, even if you’re innumerate, since Sudoku doesn’t even require math.  It’s the ultimate puzzle for the postliterate word.”  Sudoku solutions, like the child’s game of tic-tac-toe, can be reduced to a series of soulless algorithms better suited for a computer than a human attuned to the beauty of language.

So why do crosswords?  First of all, they’re fun and a challenge, the intellectual equivalent of a good game of golf or tennis.  Secondly, they’re educational.  (How many four-letter African antelopes could you name before you read this article?)  Finally, they keep you intellectually nimble, strengthening those memory associations that fade with age and putting your brain through cerebral calisthenics.  If you want to know more, give me a call.  But not on Friday nights.  I’ll be a little busy with the Journal puzzle….




Want to know more?   As with many topics these days, the best single source of information is the internet.  There are a number of crossword and/or puzzle sites, but my hands-down favorite is www.cruciverb.com.  It’s broad ranging, with intelligent content and basic strategy for players of all skill levels.  There are links to numerous other sites, plus access (at a small charge) to daily crosswords from several newspapers nationwide.


(This article originally appeared in the Fall 2006 issue of Splash magazine.)