Entertainment

12.21.13

The Crossword Puzzle Turns 100: The ‘King of Crossword’ on Its Strange History

On its 100th anniversary, ‘King of the Crossword’ Merl Reagle spills on the strange origins of the puzzle—and his own favorite memories from decades of creating his own clues.

I have memories of every single crossword puzzle I completed.

That’s not entirely true. But when I think about them, they play as a slide show of memories in my mind: the aroma of coffee wafting from an old mug at my grandmother’s house mixing with the arid stench of the Sunday Times as I filled out 15 across. Absent-mindedly petting my family’s white lab while erasing an errant “O” I mistakenly etched in 32 down (I’m no pro—I do my puzzles in pencil). Rocking back and forth, barely keeping my balance, while trying to remember that “Yul” was the first name of the actor who played the King of Siam in The King and I—the clue to 2 across—as the crowded N train made its journey from my apartment in Queens to The Daily Beast’s Manhattan office this morning.

There’s a myriad of things you think about when you complete a crossword puzzle—be it a fond memory or that day in 8th grade history class when you definitely learned what that Mayan temple was called. It’s unlikely, however, that you think, “This thing is old.” Or that it had to be invented at all, really.

Yet it was…and 100 years ago today.

The crossword puzzle is a weird thing. It’s such an ingrained part of so many of our lives that we just assume it’s been around forever, and yet when we hear just how old it is—100!? Really!?—it’s shocking. Merl Reagle, otherwise known as “King of the Crossword,” knows exactly how you feel. And he feels pretty guilty about it.

Reagle is a syndicated crossword constructor and author of Merl Reagle’s 100th Anniversary Crossword Book. “We kind of think it’s bad PR on our part,” he tells me, speaking on behalf of the community of crossword builders. Reagle, who sold his first crossword puzzle to The New York Times when he was 16, starred in the award-winning documentary Wordplay, and has produced a Sunday puzzle every week since 1985, is making it his crusade to, on the occasion of its centennial, share the story of its quirky, surprising origins. And while he’s at it, he doesn’t mind sharing a few personal memories from his throne as Crossword King along the way. (There’s a reason one of his most-used phrases in our conversation is, “I digress.”)

To begin with: do you know who Arthur Wynn is? You should, as he’s as much of a staple of your Sunday morning as bacon and eggs and a hangover. Wynn is, as Reagle dubs him, the Father of the Crossword. The Liverpool-born boy fancied himself a bit of a wordsmith, and particularly enjoyed creating “word squares,” a 4x4 diagram that would look something like this:

F O U R

O G R E

U R G E

R E E F

It was December 1913, Wynn was stateside and an employee at the New York World, and his editor was pestering him for something special, maybe even visual to tack on to the issue going out the Sunday before Christmas. The Dec. 21, 1913 issue of the New York World published Wynn’s response to the assignment: the first crossword puzzle.

It was not, however, the puzzle as we know it today. Here’s some interesting facts about Wynn’s first creation:

‘Today you could do 50 puzzles with that design and make it easy enough for 10-year-olds to solve. It’s strange that as he got older, the words never got less obscure.’

-It was in the shape of a baseball diamond. 

-There were no black squares.

-It was the first puzzle to put numbers in the squares (to match up with numbered clues), but Wynn put the numbers at the start and beginning of each word. So a clue marked 2-3 would begin at the number 2 and end at the number 3. It was only later in Wynn’s career that a secretary, as Reagle tells it, told Wynn, “What the hell do we need two numbers for?” So the clues began to be labeled “across” and “down. Or “horizontal” and “vertical,” as Reagle points out. “They were into that kind of fancy B.S. at the time.”

-The first puzzle contained 32 words.

-Inexplicably (though most likely because of deadline-pressure related laziness), the word “dove” appeared twice in the first puzzle, first with the clue “a bird” and then with the clue “a pigeon.”

The first puzzle, especially considering there were only 32 words in it and Wynn had the entirety of the English language to pull from, also contained some unfathomably bizarre words: NEIF, SERE, TANE, NEVA, NARD, and DOH, for example. Though Wynn’s version of the puzzle was standardized over the years, with credit especially due to Margaret Farrar, who edited the first-ever crossword puzzle book (which also happened to be the first book ever published by now-industry giant Simon & Schuster), the strange word choice has remained one of crossword’s peculiar lasting legacies. Wynn never stopped using them…and neither have puzzle makers since.

“It’s like original sin,” Reagle says. “Today you could do 50 puzzles with that design and make it easy enough for 10-year-olds to solve. It’s strange that as he got older, the words never got less obscure.” Well, at least one of them has. Though it was as flummoxing as any of the others at the time, “doh” would go on to be one of a crossword’s easiest clues. “These days it’s be so simple to clue: ‘Homer Simpson,’” Reagle says. “But then it was ‘the fibre of the gomuti palm.’”

Of course, Wynn’s “original sin” has only added to the joy of crosswords, with the tradition of his unusual words turning crossword solving into a bit of a club. I’ll never forget, for example, when my grandmother told me about the absurd group of words—I mean, “neif”? C’mon—like she was passing on a cherished family secret. “It’s like a secret code,” Reagle says. And it’s one I’ve taken special pride in passing on to my struggling solving brethren: “A female serf? Oh, that’s a ‘neif,’ sweetie. You’re welcome.”

As it turns out, secret-code passing grandmothers are another common link many crossword solvers share. Just as I can remember sitting with my own grandmother—she with tackling the Times, me the Daily News—to complete my first crosswords, Reagle credits a trip to grandma’s when he was 8 with getting him into the puzzles. Grandma Reagle’s house had a big 1919 Webster’s Unabridged Dictionary, and Reagle would sit in a corner and just read it, cover to cover, like a novel. Soaking in that knowledge is what got Reagle really into crosswords—he was very good at solving them, very early on—but it wasn’t his first initiation.

“My first memory of crosswords is that I thought I invented them,” he says. He was six-years-old. Someone had given him graph paper. He could spell the names of all his classmates, and he loved building with Lincoln Logs and Tinker Toys. He built a structure out of words on the graph paper just as he would a mini-house with his toys. “My mom said, ‘No you’re just doing a Neanderthal version of the thing in the paper.’”

He sold his first puzzle to Margaret Farrar at The New York Times when he was 16. He was paid $10. “That’s pretty good, but nowadays there’s a lot of smart whippersnappers,” he shrugs. It was his third submission to Farrar, who wrote Reagle criticizing earlier drafts with clues about “dead as a door nail” and “rale” (a person’s last, dying breath) as “not the cheeriest of terms.”

It’s a lesson he’s kept close to heart. “I’m the one who dubbed it the ‘Sunday Morning Breakfast Test,’” he says, referencing a loose rule to leave out clues about death, taxes, and, you know, bodily fluids. “You don’t want to read the word ‘rectal’ when you’re reading the paper in the morning.”

Reagle sold freelance puzzles on the side for years as he sought to become a movie composer but worked temporary jobs as a film inspector and an assistant manger at a movie theater. “All the time I was supposed to be doing the job I was supposed to do,” he remembers, “I was making crossword puzzles instead.” A call from The San Francisco Examiner (now the Chronicle) changed everything. The offered him a puzzle job in the Sunday magazine. It’s since been syndicated, reaching dozens and dozens of outlets since he started in 1985.

Twenty eight years of puzzle construction brings with it some highlights. Former President Bill Clinton, a famous speed solver, became a fan of his, even sending Reagle one of his completed puzzles. He writes in all capital letters, except for “e,” because for a capital “E,” you have to pick up the pencil three times, which slows you down. He created a special puzzle for Oprah Winfrey when he appeared on the show to promote the Wordplay documentary about crosswords.

Then there was when, finally, just in time for the 100th anniversary of Arthur Wynn’s creation, Reagle managed to track down Wynne’s only surviving daughter—who happened to be living just miles away from his Florida residence—to pick her brown about the visionary’s life. “The fact that we found her was pretty cool,” Reagle says, downplaying the Sherlock Holmes-level hunt for a Wynn family member he and his wife embarked on for years leading up to the centennial. “And this was the year to do it.”

Of course, we couldn’t let Reagle, who has created countless puzzles with his own particular brand of endearing humor, go without sharing what have been his own favorite creations. After mentally sifting through the 20-30 books of ideas he’s kept at any given time over the decades, here are three of his proudest crossword creations, in his own words.

The Kindergarten Caper

I was watching Law & Order once and at the end of the episode McCoy says, “And now the finger pointing begins.” And I thought, ‘You know, finger pointing, finger painting, and finger printing are all just one letter apart.’ They’re all 14 letters long, but if you just change the one letter, it’s one of the others. So I thought what if there’s a kindergarten crime spree of some sort, where, whatever happens the final answer could be any of those things. So once the caper is over, the kids are now pointing fingers at each other, or they’re finger painting, or the finger printing begins. So all three of those letters would have to work in one square no matter what’s going down.

I had so many good little jokes for it. The cop shows up and said, “I thought there was a kidnapping.” “Yes, we woke him up.” That kind of stuff. And “somebody stole a kiss.” “The writing’s on the wall.” All this crime stuff that was related to the kindergarten. I did it on two puzzles where the first one was a cliffhanger and the next week was the interrogation of the kids. The cliffhanger on the first one was “somebody whacked the erasers.” They were chalk marks on the floor because somebody whacked the erasers. The next one was the kids looked innocent. And “I’m going to count to ten and if you don’t show and tell me what you did.” It took two years to make that puzzle work.

The Perfect Clue

I’ve been sitting on a clue about Diana Nyad, who made that famous Cuba-to-Florida swim, for years, because she has the perfect name. First, a naiad is a water nymph in Greek myth—a woman who looked over the waterways. The fact that Diana turned out to be a swimmer and not only is her last name a homophone of naiad, is crazy. But her first name is also an anagram of naiad! If you look in the dictionary today, it says “naiad: any skillful female wimmer.” It’s perfect. I couldn’t believe it. It kills me. So I made a puzzle about that, but I had been waiting for her to make that swim. She tried so many times and didn’t make it. Finally when she made it I did that puzzle. It had been sitting in my notebook for 20 years.

The End of the World

This year it’s the 100th anniversary of the puzzle. Last year it was the 99th, and it fell on the exact day of the Mayan Apocalypse. So on Dec. 21 last year we were all supposed to die, so the theme for the puzzle that week was “The Last Crossword Puzzle You’ll Ever See.”