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Judith Moore: you never need to apologize for crossword puzzles

Lost in spaces

“A glance at the Across words on the top of any answer to any crossword puzzle will reveal that at least one-third of the letters are vowels."
  • “A glance at the Across words on the top of any answer to any crossword puzzle will reveal that at least one-third of the letters are vowels."

Although I know men and women for whom doing a crossword puzzle is as natural and as necessary a part of a day as the sun rising, I would never have guessed that 50 million people in the United States work crossword puzzles. That is the estimate of New York Times crossword puzzle editor Eugene Maleska. However, I was not surprised to read in Maleska’s new book, Across and Down (Inside the Crossword Puzzle World), that men and women who regularly do crosswords diagnose themselves as addicts. The puzzle calls to them. Those who hear the siren’s song rising out of the black and blank squares, those whose very bones resonate with the empty squares’ exigent demand — Fill me! — these habitués cannot hold themselves - back from scrawling in answers to crossword clues. They are seduced by four letters for “Musical wrap-up” and beguiled, enticed, by five letters for African deer.

When the puzzler finishes or simply puts away the day’s puzzle, he or she “has” nothing.

When the puzzler finishes or simply puts away the day’s puzzle, he or she “has” nothing.

Unlike most addictions, the giving of oneself compulsively and habitually to writing Coda or Addax into blank spaces is legal, harmless to health, and not fattening. No one need pick up a partner or a dealer or find a bookie to do it. No one need seek forgiveness from a mate or absolution from a priest for succumbing to its temptation. What’s more, once the crossword is set aside, the puzzler can walk a straight line without faltering, can safely take to the wheel of a car, and efficiently operate the most complex machinery.

The harmlessness, the innocuous effects of the crossword, the pure fun of it, were recognized long ago. Word puzzles were constructed and solved in the noisy agora and along the shady, arcaded loggias of ancient Greece and Rome. Monks of the Middle Ages turned to the solace of word puzzles, leaving anagrams behind in margins of illuminated vellum Gospels. The great poets of the Italian and English renaissance deliberately made puzzles out of many of their poems. But it was not until 1913 that the first actual crossword puzzle was devised. That puzzle, called “Word Cross,” appeared on the “Fun Page “ of the New York World Sunday Magazine. Readers of that paper immediately implored the editors for more. Now almost every newspaper in the U.S. publishes a crossword puzzle, and two of the twenty-five crossword puzzle magazines on newsstands sell more than 100,000 copies apiece. The paperbound Dell Crossword Dictionary, with more than 11.5 million copies in print, ranks as a perpetual bestseller, along with calorie counters and Dr. Spock.

Among Maleska’s 50 million there exists one wing of puzzlers who justify their working the crossword by making work of the puzzle. There are those who praise the crossword as 4 “educational” and “vocabulary building.” On principle I scorn this notion of the puzzle’s utility. In practice, I doubt its validity. What, really, is particularly helpful about knowing the names of a plethora of water buffalo, Nigerian tribes, arm bones, Teutonic deities, and obscure hill towns silted out from the Old Testament? How often is one called upon to identify a habia or lindo, South American tanagers frequently seen in the crossword grids?

Then there are the men and women for whom the crossword is a bloody war of wits and for whom the puzzle’s correct completion constitutes the day’s measurement of personal worth. According to editor Maleska, these puzzlers regard their inability to finish a crossword as such a personal affront that they mail off bitter letters to puzzle editors and constructors.

Worst are the men and women for whom the crossword has become the source of competitive sport. These competitors get together in hotel meeting rooms and resort ballrooms where a loudspeaker blares out clues, such as six letters for “library desk,” eight letters for “salad dressing”; a clock shows elapsing time, and overhead projectors allow the fans and rooters to follow each solver’s progress.

Stanley Newman, a man billed as “the first U.S. Open Crossword Champion,” has edited what he calls The Ultimate Crossword Book. (What extraordinary presumption that title shows! Not only does it suggest that Newman has uttered the last significant word on the subject, but that he has spun out on paper some eschatological, ultimate vision!) This book contains his essay, “My Crosswording Career,” wherein Newman, who captured three tournament championships in 1982, tells that he devised a “training formula” that included the use of a stopwatch to time himself at puzzling. When Newman participated in the first U.S. Open Crossword Championship, he found he did not know that six letters for library desk was “carrel” or that eight letters for salad dressing was “ravigote.” But to reinforce his memory for words, Newman had organized a card file. To this card file he had entrusted an accumulation of 2500 words in six months, and at the time of writing his essay he was able to boast that there were more than 4000 words in his file.

Newman and his ilk have missed the point. Even after twenty years’ brooding over the black and blank squares, I often leave unfilled spots behind in the daily crossword; and more often, long blank bars will run across and down my Sunday puzzle. These lacunae — empty spaces — do not rankle or diminish me. The journey, not the arrival, matters most to the true puzzler: the puzzle itself, the conundrum, set in a tense I call “present eternal,” is what I crave. I go to a puzzle seeking temporary suspension from the mundane. Puzzlement raises me above the quotidian of Wordsworth’s despised getting and spending, sails me past Shakespeare’s expense of spirit in a waste of shame. The puzzle takes me to the point where Wallace Stevens found that “The palm at the end of the mind,/ Beyond the last thought, rises/ In the bronze distance. ” And you do not get there, ladies and gentlemen, with a stopwatch, a card file stuffed with words, and the Dell Crossword Puzzle Dictionary’s exclusive cross-reference “word finder.” When you do arrive there and know the place for the first time, you will not look around and see that a clock shows elapsing time, nor will you hear a loudspeaker blare out clues, nor will the photographers rush in to take your picture, as they did on the day Newman won his round.

What Maleska calls the “land of black and white squares” bears little resemblance to the world outside the puzzle. Its place is, in e.e. Cummings’s words, “somewhere i have never travelled/ gladly beyond any experience.” Crossword geographies, bestiaries, theologies, hagiographies, cosmologies, diets, fauna, architecture, costume, its pantheon of lauded men and women, have evolved out of problems posed by puzzle construction. Characteristics advantageous for survival in the crossword environment have produced a principle of natural selection that has nothing in common with historical and physical realities as they are played out on the earthly planet.


The prime rule in construction of American crosswords (British rules differ) is that the pattern shall interlock all over. Every letter that occurs in an Across word must also fit into a Down word. “A glance at the Across words on the top of any answer to any crossword puzzle will reveal that at least one-third of the letters are vowels,” Maleska writes. “This means that about thirty to forty percent of the Down words in that area will begin with vowels. In contrast, such words consume only one-sixth of the total number of pages in the average dictionary.”

There are rules, too, for the black squares. Only about one-sixth of any crossword may be taken up with black. Black-square rules extend to the grid’s pattern. One touchstone of the acceptable crossword, according to Maleska, is that of diagonal symmetry for the black squares. If a black square appears in the upper left comer, its counterpart must be inserted in the bottom right comer; the same balance must be preserved throughout the diagram. When Maleska asked America’s first crossword puzzle editor, the grande doyenne of U.S. puzzle makers, Margaret Farrar, how this symmetry rule came into being, she told him simply, “It looked pretty.” (I suspect that crossword champion Stanley Newman would miss the piquant charm in an answer as sweet as this.)

It is Farrar’s influence, in part, that established the pacific climate circling the crossword globe. From the outset she discouraged what Maleska calls “downbeat” words and disturbing associations in crossword clues and answers. Blood, death, disease, carnage, are largely absent from crossword grids. Sex and sexually associated body parts have always been verboten in the crossword, although Maleska tells of a puzzle that appeared recently in a puzzle magazine with a clue that read, “The_mightier than the sword. ”

The exigencies of crossword construction, both those necessities of technique and those imposed by moral sanction, have instituted a world blessed with catholicity and marked by social accommodation. Iranians and Iraqis, Arabs and Israelis, cats and dogs, spiders and flies: traditional enemies exist together in happy ecumenicism inside the puzzle grid. The changes in social consciousness continue to mark clues and solutions. Feminism, for instance, has made crossword editors leery of cluing Sappho, Amy Lowell, Edna St. Vincent Millay, Sylvia Plath, or Carolyn Forche as “poetess,” or of defining female as the “tender gender.” If the puzzle editor or constructor does not raise his or her consciousness to planes that include these changes in our vision of one another, editor Maleska notes that complaints fill the switchboard and mail box.

The black and white squares recognize no distinction between past and present. In the late-twentieth-century crossword cosmos, the clock is stopped in that present eternal. The feudal serf — esne — roams as easily through Dan, Gath, Iola, and Enna as through Ohio, Utah, O’Hare, and Iowa City. His dress is timeless and international. The esne might wear a loose garment (camis, camus, cymar, simar) or one of his many jackets (Eton, jupe, bolero, baju, reefer, capote, paletot). He owns a prodigious number of headgear (taj, shako, panama, tarbush, topi, terai, and fez). He may travel on an iter, a via, path, or agger on his way to that old crossword favorite, the inn. But whichever way he chooses, he will be beset at every turn (bend, gyre, or veer) by the gazelles (ariel, admi, dama, korin, mohr, ahu, goa, cora).

The esne’s diet, like all else in the crossword world, is determined by the constructor’s needs. The esne, therefore, more often sits down to meals made from fish than from flesh meats. For snapper alone there is sesi, pargo, and tamure; and there are always eel, olm, conger, and elver. Okra is served frequently, alone or as gumbo. There are salads of cos and celtuce. Ice, trifle, pie, mousse, and peach Melba (the last is named after the Australian singer Nellie Melba) are desserts frequently served.

When time comes to pay for his meal, the esne can pay in besa, girsh, talari, ora, sceat, quan, yuan, lakh, hoon, avo, pu, and rap. Every currency is equally acceptable in the crossword.


The crossword puzzle landscape shows the mark of its maker. Each constructor has his or her proclivity, bias, and tic. One will show a penchant for ovine references, and will crowd her puzzles with cotes, sha, sna, urial, bharal, nahoor, and oorial; perhaps even Nabal, the biblical sheep owner, will peek out from a 12-Across. Another constructor will be predisposed toward punning clues, or sports, or film, or music references. My favorites among the daily and. Sunday crosswords have always come from the New York Times. One Times puzzle may span the history of drama from the Greek Sophocles to the present-day Tom Stoppard, and subject matter that demands both baseball’s Hank and the Dark Ages ’ Huns. Even the Times, however, has its quirky side; one of the regular contributors of puzzles to the paper, for example, mentions composer Ned Rorem far more often than Rorem’s contribution to American art song would seem to demand.

As horizontal and vertical clues are deconstructed, as blank grids go from empty to full, as solutions merge, interlock, and depend, a dialogue can begin between constructor and puzzler. In an epiphanic moment, the mind of the puzzle maker opens to the solver, a moment that gives a delicious, transgressive thrill. On the other hand, a particularly skillful puzzle constructor can reverse this process. Most often this constructor will deliberately mislead the puzzler to an incorrect word choice. He will beguile the puzzler forward, lure, seduce, and then trip him. More than once I have fallen for a constructor’s flimflam. I have been given three letters for “small dog” and entered “pup” instead of “pug,” or when given four letters for “walk heavily,” I have disastrously chosen “plod” rather than “slog.” And then I have gone on to enter “Pindar” rather than “Sappho” for a six-letter Greek poet. The tendency is to reject a simple reply, to believe that four letters for “praise” could not be “clap” and must be “laud.” If I am fortunate, I will see my mistake before the ink is dry and will feel the blush rising up my cheeks.

For most of us for whom the crossword is a necessary part of a day, it is a world of private onanistic bliss. The crossword provides the setting for my most intimate daydreaming. Bordered by the exterior of its grid and thick at the epicenter with more than one world’s worth of mountains, streams, and seas, the puzzle is a felicitous space that swarms with elands and nabobs and my own unforgettable past and as yet unseen future. It exists in a never-ending, elegant equilibrium, is calm, and except for an occasional riffling of “palm at the end of the mind,” it is soundless.

When the puzzler finishes or simply puts away the day’s puzzle, he or she “has” nothing. This absence of utility makes doing the crossword unique among a day’s activities. My scorn for vocabulary-building and acrimonious puzzlers comes from my belief that the joy of a crossword is a sufficient end in itself. True, the rigidly practical may see the puzzle as wasted time. The person who is not as plodding will hail the time spent poring over a crossword as another grand gesture of holy waste.

Recently I picked up a stranger’s worked puzzle from the seat of an airplane. The sheet of newsprint, folded in quarters and creased, was smudged by contact with the heel of the hand at the puzzle margins. Stately capital letters had been arduously printed, marked with such pressure that I noted the downward strokes scarred through the paper’s layers. In the puzzle’s right-hand corner, erasure had worn the newsprint’s burr down to a dirty fuzz. The puzzle had belonged to a man in a three-piece navy-blue pinstriped suit. As the plane lifted off, he had gripped a pencil and concentrated intently over five letters for “parks a boat’’ and four letters for “Soprano Gluck.”

Grasping my fellow passenger’s folded newspaper, I considered that since man first lumbered through jungle on hands and feet, grunting and magnificently hirsute, unable to read or to write, he has come a long way. I regarded this airline puzzler’s mind, set down in the dust-free engine room of modem consciousness, poised above this puzzle, hard at work on “parks a boat” and “Soprano Gluck. ” To get to “moors” and “Alma” had taken so much evolutionary plodding through so many dark and terrible eons. What deep cogitation had gone into these blanks! One of the fine minds of this man’s generation had committed a half-hour’s labor and had accomplished nothing. I smiled, thinking how poignant man is, how brave, how intrepid, how easily pleased — how hopeful we are.

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