Read an Excerpt
Crosswords: What The Hell Are They?
I am already judging you.
Because you downloaded or picked up this book, I am assuming you are a crossword solver, a crossword maker, or a very intellectually curious human being, who loves language in particular. This book is for all three types. I will call you “word nerds” for short.
We’ll discuss how various flavors of crossword are made and solved. But as word nerds, you probably know that we always have to start by… defining of terms!
And while the word “crossword” probably feels like familiar territory, defining it accurately can be a bit of a challenge. Certainly, crosswords themselves don’t seem to be very good at it. See for yourse—
(Spoiler alert! This book is going to give away some or all of the answers to many of the finest crosswords published since 1913. We can’t help it! There’s no way to discuss the magic without revealing the secrets. So decide which matters to you more: your crossword virginity, or the never-ending quest for greater knowledge. Choose!)
Kevin McCann’s Cruciverb.com database tracks the clues and answers found in nine different syndicated crosswords, from 1994 to the present at this writing. (All stats in this book are as of January 1, 2012 or later.) Among those thousands of grids, the word “crossword” shows up three times, “crosswords” seven, for a total of ten. Discount the jokey answers like “Bah humbug!” (CROSS WORDS, get it?) and the weird ones like “Black and White #5,” and we’re left with four:
Mentally stimulating pastime 
Newspaper treats since 1913
Daily pastime for millions
According to this wealth of information, we can determine that crosswords might be horoscopes. I don’t know when horoscopes were first put in newspapers, but 1913 sounds like it could be right. “Enigmatology” could relate to the mysteries of the cosmos, and “mental stimulation” could refer to the exercise of figuring out how the horoscope applies to you.
Vague! But what should we have expected? Crosswords are puzzles, and puzzles are coy. They’re not supposed to tell you everything. Let’s give the dictionaries a shot at this instead.
A puzzle in which words are filled into a pattern of numbered squares in answer to correspondingly numbered clues and in such a way that the words read across and down.
Okay, this is an improvement, but… shouldn’t the definition of a crossword mention that the words should, you know, cross?
A puzzle in which an arrangement of numbered squares is to be filled with words running both across and down in answer to correspondingly numbered clues. Also called crossword puzzle.
—American Heritage Dictionary
“Numbered squares?” “Correspondingly numbered clues?” “A puzzle in which?” Where did you get such original phrases, American Heritage Dictionary? And still no mention of words crossing? You’re just embarrassing yourself here. You’re like a Webster fangirl.
A puzzle consisting of a grid of squares and blanks into which words, crossing vertically and horizontally, are written according to clues.
—Oxford English Dictionary
Thank goodness Oxford is here to give us some British class. This is a good place to start. And all three definitions correctly focus on filling in words rather than filling in individual letters in squares. As we’ll see in rebus puzzles, some squares can contain more than one letter.
But two issues remain. There are kinds of crosswords where the two directions traveled aren’t horizontal and vertical… as well as some which cross in three (or more) directions. So we won’t want to mention “vertically and horizontally,” specifically.
And while this definition opens up a lot of doors, one door should be closed. The word search contains words crossing, and generally contains clues of some kind too, whether it lists all the words included or an instruction like “find all 50 states.” But it is essentially a reading puzzle, engaging a different part of the brain than a writing puzzle like the crossword as we know it. It has its influence over a couple of legitimate types of crossword, but that’s just not enough.
Sorry, Searchio! Better luck next book.
 Kevin McCann, Cruciverb.com. Also notable in this regard is Matt Ginsberg’s more comprehensive database at http://otsys.com/clue, not included here because it includes some clues without publication info.
 Nancy Salomon, CrosSynergy Syndicate, Oct 28, 2003.
 Sherry O. Blackard, The New York Times, Mar 27, 2001.
 Holden Baker, The New York Times, Aug 27, 2001.
 William A. Hendricks, Creators Syndicate, Nov 15, 1999.
 William I. Johnston, The New York Times, Jul 26, 2000.
 Patrick Berry, New York Sun, April 13, 2007.