Thursday, January 5, 2017

Playing Games with Words - crossword puzzles and Scrabble

 If you like writing speeches, then you might enjoy doing crossword puzzles in newspapers, or playing Scrabble. I got curious about the history of those puzzles and that game. Here is what I found.

When and where did the first crossword puzzle appear?

It was created by Arthur Wynne and was in the Christmas edition of the New York World, on December 21, 1913. As shown above, it was shaped like a diamond, 13 squares wide and high. There were single letters R, M, W, and D at the corners. Later puzzles instead had a square grid.

What word in it is often considered to have only come much later as Homer’s catchphrase in The Simpsons TV show?

That would be DOH, for which the clue is 10-18 The fibre of the gomuti palm. Wikipedia spells it D’oh! There was a Simpsons episode titled Homer and Lisa Exchange Cross Words that aired on November 16, 2008.

When did the first book of crossword puzzles appear?

The Cross Word Puzzle Book was published by Simon and Schuster on April 18, 1924, and it came with an attached pencil. Back in January Simon’s aunt Wixie had asked him where she could get a book of Cross-Words for a niece. None existed, so Simon decided to have one created.

Was there ever a film about crosswords?

Yes, the documentary Wordplay appeared in 2006.

What are typical grid sizes for crossword puzzles in the United States?

In daily newspapers a 15-square grid is typical. Examples are: Boston Globe, Los Angeles Times, New York Daily News, New York Post, New York Times, San Francisco Chronicle, San Jose Mercury News, USA Today, and the Wall Street Journal.

In Sunday papers or weeklies a 21-square grid is typical. Examples are the Sunday Boston Globe, Chicago Tribune, Los Angeles Times, New York Daily News, and the New York Times Magazine. My local free tabloid, the Boise Weekly, includes a New York Times puzzle.  

The National Enquirer has both a 21-square regular puzzle and a ColorCross  where:

“Blue squares contain vowels, sometimes including Y. Other letters are in the white squares. Pink squares can represent any letter. Unscramble the letters in the pink squares to spell the name of an actress (or actor, or TV personality, etc.)”
Their competitor The Globe has a Big X 29 claimed to be ‘America’s Biggest Crossword.’

Can you download free puzzles?

Yes, you can from the Los Angeles Times and the Wall Street Journal. Online you can play both Regular and Master level puzzles at USA Today. But, the New York Times instead wants you to buy an annual subscription for $40.

Can you get online help for doing puzzles?

Yes, there is a Crossword Solver at If you enter the phrase ‘public speaking’ replies are:



When did the game of Scrabble appear?

Scrabble came later, in 1938. It was invented by architect Alfred Mosher Butts. Each player begins with seven letter tiles, and tries to add words to the 15-square grid board. The letter tiles used in Scrabble have frequencies typical for English. That’s quite different from words in crossword puzzles. Some squares on the scrabble board have bonuses for a letter or word. When I tried to put that first crossword puzzle on my deluxe Scrabble board though, I ran out of letters before finishing, as is shown above. (I had to use a blank for one V).

The first image (from way back on January 22, 1915) of a 100-year old Ambrose Hines doing a crossword puzzle came from the Library of Congress.

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