Two major events happened on this day in history.
First, today marks the birthday of Red Deer legend and my friend Calvin Caldwell. On a slightly more significant note, today is also the 100th anniversary of something that confounds and entertains people to this day. Kind of like Cal.
One hundred years ago today, a peculiar puzzle (right) appeared as a filler in an edition of the New York World newspaper. It was originally called word-cross, then later cross-word, and later still (when a typo dropped the hyphen) a crossword.
While the New York World is gone, as is the creator of the ‘word-cross’, Arthur Wynne, the crossword survives, even thrives.
Millions of people do the crossword every day, including me. I’ve been doing a daily crossword puzzle for probably about a decade, since I first picked one up during an idle moment while on holidays. I found it incredibly difficult, and it took me the better part of a three-hour car ride to solve it, but I was hooked.
I do the Edmonton Journal’s main crossword (a.k.a. the easy one) every day. It’s part of my morning routine, and I have a very specific way of doing it. I have a clipboard that I use as a base for writing, and I use the same pen every day. (Woe betide my household if my crossword pen goes missing!) I begin the crossword over my morning bowl of cereal, and if I’m really hot, I can finish it by the time I’ve had my last Alpha-Bit. Most of the time, however, I have to finish it off in my Thinking Room, where I spend a few moments getting rid of my morning bowl of cereal. On a particularly challenging day, if the breakfast/bathroom combination doesn’t give me enough time, or if I am particularly asea over the answers (‘asea’ being one of the most commonly used four-letter words in a crossword) I let it sit for a while and come back to it later. Funny thing about a crossword: what can stump you in the morning can be as easy as ‘She loved Lennon’ in the afternoon. (‘Ono’ has appeared 123 times in the New York Times crossword from 1996-2012.)
Some days, when I have extra time, I might also do the New York Times crossword — up to a point. For those of you unfamiliar with it, the Times crossword is the gold standard of crossword puzzles. Times crossword editor Will Shortz is so famous, he even made an appearance on The Simpsons. (A crossword puzzle fan or creator, by the way, is a cruciverbalist, No. 27 of The 144 Things I’ve Learned From Watching The Simpsons.) The Times crossword is very clever, often with quite brilliant wordplay that makes you go ‘oh, NOW I get it’ when you’re forced to look at the answers. But it gets progressively harder as the week goes on. The Monday puzzle is relatively simple; I can safely complete it, 99 times out of 100. By Tuesday, it gets a little tougher, but still mostly doable. Wednesday is where I usually hit the wall. I might be able to get it done, but only with liberal use of online crossword puzzle clue websites. After that, I don’t even try. The Saturday puzzle is so far beyond my ability, it actually ends up making me feel stupid. For example, today’s puzzle included clues like ‘Norwegian Romanticist’ (there was a Norwegian Romanticist?) and ‘Early tragedian Duse’. They’re not all brain busters, however; a clue in today’s puzzle was ‘———— Place (Edmonton Oilers arena)’. I take some comfort in the thought that someone in the world reading that clue is probably saying, “How is anyone supposed to know that?”
Crossword puzzles keep the brain sharp, or so the research says. This is especially important for those of us with aging brains. Thanks to crossword puzzles, I know that ‘olio’ is a dish of many ingredients, while ‘oleo’ is another word for margarine. I know ‘agha’ is a Turkish title of honor, and ‘agar’ is the glop they use in labs. I know Dr. Zhivago’s mistress was Lara, while the O’Hara home was Tara. You can describe Ireland as Eire, Eyre, or Erin. Oh, and an erne is a sea eagle.
What do I do with all this knowledge? Mostly I use it to annoy my sons with my bottomless well of trivia. That alone makes doing the crossword puzzle worthwhile.
So thank you, Charles Wynne. Or, if you were a crossword puzzle clue, ‘Puzzle creator, or casino owner’.