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Crosswords are letter games (and thus a form of mind sport). Modern crosswords take the form of a square grid of black and white squares; the aim is to fill the white squares with letters, forming words reading across and down, by solving clues which yield the words. The black squares (commonly called 'blanks') have no letters, and are used to separate words (all contiguous blocks of white squares spell words). Squares in which words begin are numbered, left to right, top to bottom. The clues are then referred to by these numbers (ambiguities are resolved by the common practice of referring to clues by both number and direction - for example, "1 Across" or "17 Down"); at the end of the clue the total number of letters is given for the convenience of the solver. In almost all cases, the grid is rotationally symmetric.

Table of contents
1 An example
2 History
3 Notation
4 Variants
5 United Kingdom

An example

A small example, to illustrate the format:

1 2.
3   4



1. Sheep sound (3)
3. Neither liquid nor gas (5)
5. Humour (3)


1. Road passenger transport (3)
2. Permit (5)
4. Shortened form of Dorothy (3)

The solution to this crossword is:



(to be added, when I've checked my facts)


In 1913, Arthur Wynne published a puzzle in the New York World which embodied most of the features of the genre as we know it. This puzzle, which can be seen at this website, is frequently cited as the first crossword puzzle, and Wynne as the inventor.

Crossword puzzles became a regular weekly feature in the World. The first book of crossword puzzles, however, did not appear until 1924, published by Simon and Schuster. The book was an instant hit and crossword puzzles became the craze of 1924.
In 1944, Allied security officers were disturbed by the appearance, in a series of crossword puzzles published in the London Daily Telegraph, of words that happened to be secret code names for military operations. "Utah" (the code name for one of the landing sites) appeared in a puzzle published on May 2nd, 1944. Subsequent puzzles included the words "Omaha" and "Mulberry" (the highly-secret artificial harbors)

On June 2nd, just four days before the invasion, the puzzle included both the words "Neptune" (the naval operations plan) and "Overlord." That was the last straw, and the author of the puzzles, a schoolteacher, was arrested and interrogated. The investigators finally concluded that the appearance of the words was just a coincidence. The event has been so described in histories, and has even been used as an illustration of how seemingly meaningful events can arise out of pure coincidence.

According to National Geographic magazine, though, in 1984 the schoolteacher revealed that one of his students had picked up the words while hanging around army camps. When the teacher had asked his students to provide unusual words as ingredients for his puzzles, he had innocently passed them on.


A notation has evolved to allow crosswords to be rendered compactly, and enjoyed by the blind or partially sighted.

It consists of giving the locations of the black squares in each row as letters (A=1,B=2, etc.), eg for the example crossword above:

  1. D E
  2. B D E
  4. A B D
  5. A B

Although the numbering scheme could be consistently applied from this information, it is customary to quote the starting square of each clue in (number-letter) format to assist the solver.


Several variant types of crossword now exist, including:

Typically, the clue contains an actual definition that is cleverly hidden within another sentence; the remainder of the clue uses wordplay to refer obliquely to portions of the word. For example, in one puzzle by Mel Taub, the word "important" is given the clue "To bring worker into the country may prove significant." The explanation is that to "import" means "to bring into the country;" the "worker" is a worker ant; and "significant" means "important. (One of the frustrations of solving cryptic crosswords is that even after seeing the right answer, it is not always possible to figure out why it is the right answer).

(Cryptic crosswords are not to be confused with cryptograms, a different form of puzzle based on a substitution cipher.)
In 1968 and 1969, composer and lyricist Stephen Sondheim published an astonishingly inventive series of crossword-like puzzles in New York magazine. The Atlantic Monthly regularly features a crossword-like "puzzler" by Emily Cox and Henry Rathvon, which combines cryptic clues with diabolically ingenious variations on the construction of the puzzle itself. In both cases, no two puzzles are alike in construction, and the intent of the puzzle authors seems to be to entertain with novelty, not to establish new variations of the crossword genre.

United Kingdom

In the United Kingdom, the Sunday Express newspaper published the first British crossword on November 2, 1924. Several crossword experts were recruited into code-breaking activities during World War II at Bletchley Park in England.

See also: Scrabble, Upwords (board games based on the crossword concept)