Monday, February 18, 2013

Puzzling how fanatical puzzlers used to be

(This article appeared on the Feb 18, 2013 Globe & Mail under the title "Crosswords": A 10 letter word for obsession)

Puzzling how fanatical puzzlers used to be


Howard Richler

What activity do the descriptions “epidemic obsession” and “veritable menace” suggest to you? These characterizations appeared respectively in the Canadian Forun and the London Times in 1924 to describe a mania that was sweeping North America.

A little hint – the word starts with C. If you guessed “Charleston” or “cocaine” you'd be wrong. The answer is “crossword.”

No, I do not jest; crossword puzzlers are nowadays a staid, orderly group but their past in much more frenetic. The November 1924 edition of the Canadian Forum featured an article entitled “The Psychology of the Crossword Puzzle” in which the author asks psychologists tp explain the regressive tendencies found in crossword puzzlers: “Psychology should..attempt some explanation of what may be regarded as the epidemic obsession of the crossword puzzle.” Later on this writer reveals that his plea for an explanation is rhetorical: “It is obvious from the similarity of the crossword puzzle to the child's letter blocks that it is primarily the unconscious which is expressing itself in the crossword puzzle obsession.”

A legacy of this crossword madness could be found in the New York Public Library thirteen years later. Then, a prohibitive sign commanded in glaring block letters. THE USE OF LIBRARY BOOKS IN CONNECTION WITH CONTESTS AND PUZZLES IS PROHIBITED.

What sinister force led to the need for such a draconian sign being posted in 1937? In order to answer that question, let us go back to the genesis of the crossword puzzle exactly a century ago.

The inaugural “word-cross” puzzle appeared in the New York World on December 21, 1913. Its creator was Arthur Wynne, the Fun Page editor. What Wynne developed was actually an adaptation of a puzzle that first surfaced more than two millennia ago. The puzzle was called a word square and its distinguishing mark was that the same words read both across and down. Creating word squares became popular in 19th century England. Here's an example:







It occurred to Wynne that the horizontal words didn't have to be the same as the vertical ones and he arranged his puzzle in a diamond-shaped grid and inserted numbers in some of the squares. The puzzler was given clues that indicated the start and position of each word. Before long crossword mania had swept the continent.

In Creative Cruciverbalists, author Helene Hovanec itemizes some of the compulsive behaviour of puzzlers in the 1920s:

Welz Nathan was fined $5 and remanded to jail for an evening for obstructing traffic in a restaurant. He and three friends were so involved in solving a crossword puzzle that they refused to leave when the owner tried to close the establishment. Nathan opted to finish the puzzle in a four-letter place of confinement.”

Mrs. Maria Zaba of Chicago complaining that she was a 'crossword' widow, sued her husband for non-support. Mr. Zaba was so engrossed in solving crosswords that he didn't have time to work. Judge Sabath ordered Zaba to limit himself to three puzzles a day and devote the rest of his time to domestic duties.”

Theodore Koerner of Brooklyn asked his wife for help in solving a crossword. She begged off, claiming exhaustion. Koerner shot her (superficially) and then shot himself (fatally).”

By the 1920s, crossword parties were all the rage. Social intercourse all but evaporated as fanatical puzzlers endeavoured to complete puzzles before their deranged peers.

In the early 1930s, newspapers exploited puzzle contests in an attempt to increase their readership. To solve some puzzles, readers frequented libraries to search out arcane words secreted away on spider-webbed bookshelves.

Long lines of neurotic puzzlers formed in previously deserted libraries all searching for the Holy Grail, the word that would unlock the puzzle's mystery and earn them glory. To gain an advantage over other cutthroat competitors, some ruthless afficianados stole or desecrated some of the rare reference books.

By 1937, officials at the New York Public Library were forced to take action against the puzzling hordes. A library user naive enough to admit to being a dreaded puzzler was presented with this stern note: “Dictionaries, encyclopedias and other works of reference are not provided for use in connection with puzzles or contests of any kind.”

So reader beware. Remember in this centenary year of the invention of the crossword puzzle: lurking in the depths of the next passive puzzler you spot lies a wordstruck maniac just waiting to break out.

Howard's book From Happy to Homosexual and other mysterious semantic shifts will be published in March by Ronsdale Press of Vancouver. Also his puzzle book Anagram Triplets is available on your IPhone on Puzzazz.

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