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The crossword craze — now and then — with Ben Zimmer

Episode Summary

992. It's been 100 years since the crossword puzzle took America by storm in 1924. This week, Ben Zimmer tells us the little-known story of how this humble word game launched major publishing empires and examines the public's polarized reactions at the time.

Episode Notes

992. What began as a simple word game in 1913 sparked a nationwide craze just a decade later, causing a moral panic and changing American publishing forever. This week, Ben Zimmer, a prolific crossword constructor and language commentator, takes us through the crossword puzzle's surprising early history and enduring legacy. He also explores the modern crossword scene, including competitions, digital tools, and how new puzzle constructors are shaping the future of the game.

Links mentioned in the show:

* Wall Street Journal piece on the centennial of the crossword craze:

* Crossword Craze:

* Daily Crossword Links:

* Slate crosswords:

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References for the Aging segment

van Boxtel, W, Lawyer, L. Sentence comprehension in ageing and Alzheimer's disease. Lang Linguist Compass. 2021;e12430.

Payne, B. R., Gao, X., Noh, S. R., Anderson, C. J., & Stine-Morrow, E. A. (2012). The effects of print exposure on sentence processing and memory in older adults: Evidence for efficiency and reserve. Aging, Neuropsychology and Cognition, 19(1–2), 122–149.

Episode Transcription

MIGNON: Grammar Girl here. I'm Mignon Fogarty. We talk about writing history rules and other cool stuff.

And today we have other cool stuff because I'm talking with Ben Zimmer, language columnist for the "Wall Street Journal," vocabulary judge for the Scripps National Spelling Bee; chair of the New Words committee for the American Dialect Society; and for our purposes today, the most important thing, crossword constructor for "Slate," "The New York Times," "Wall Street Journal," and others.

Welcome, Ben.

BEN: Thanks, Mignon. Great to be here.

MIGNON: Yeah, I have been enjoying your writings about the crossword puzzle so much lately. I had no idea it was such a new thing. Can you talk about just sort of the anniversary that we're having now? 

BEN: Yeah. Well, it's the hundredth anniversary of when crosswords really hit the big time in 1924. Crosswords had actually existed for more than a decade before that. So the creation of the first crossword puzzle was in 1913. A fellow named Arthur Wynn who worked at the "New York World," the newspaper, the "New York World" came up with the crossword.

He originally called it a word cross. And then apparently, you know, the second time he did it they made a mistake actually in printing it. And so word cross became crossword. That's how it…

MIGNON: That's amazing.

BEN: Through a mistake at the press. But they just went with it. And for about a decade, it was, you know, a semi-popular type of thing.

The "New York World" kept running it. Arthur Wynn ended up passing the editorial work to a young woman named Margaret Petherbridge, who would later, under her married name, become known as Margaret Farrar. But yeah, and there were…

MIGNON: That will become important later.

BEN: Yeah. A very important name in the history of crossword puzzles.

But other than the "New York World," there weren't that many outlets actually trying to publish crossword puzzles. There were some other newspapers doing it as well. But it all changed in 1924 when it became a craze. It became a fad that kind of swept the nation and really swept the world.

MIGNON: What gave it that boost?

BEN: Well, it had to do with a couple of young Columbia grads named Simon and Schuster. Dick Simon and Max Schuster were young men who were very ambitious and were looking for a way to start a publishing company, and then they needed ideas for what to start with. And they were kind of desperate, you know, cause they started this publishing company, put their names on the door but didn't really have anything to publish.

And the story goes that the aunt of Dick Simon, her name was Wixie, Aunt Wixie said, “Hey, you know, I like solving this puzzle every, you know, Sunday morning in the 'New York World.' There should be a book of these.” And so they thought, “Oh, maybe we could do that.” It wasn't an obvious thing for them to start with, this frivolous word puzzle.

But they checked in with the editors at the "New York World," including Margaret Petherbridge and Margaret said, “Well, yeah, we get, you know, we publish a lot of these crossword puzzles. We get a lot of submissions.” People, you know, that's generally how it was done. There were, you know, people actually just submitting their puzzles to appear in the newspaper.

And she said, “Well, yeah, in my drawer, I've got a bunch of crosswords that haven't been published yet. So I guess, you know, we could take 50 of those and make a book out of it.” And so young Simon and Schuster thought, “Okay, we'll do this,” but they were worried that this would be a commercial failure and that their names would be attached to it.

And so they used a different name for their imprint, basically, they didn't go with Simon and Schuster. Not yet. Originally they called it Plaza Publishing Company and, you know, they just picked that because their telephone number had the exchange, like the old telephone numbers have the exchanges.

So Plaza was their telephone exchange. 

MIGNON: Oh right. Like if you watch old movies, you'll hear like “Plaza 42” or something like that. It's a phone number. Yeah.

BEN: So that's what they called it as just a kind of a dummy imprint. And next thing you know, it's the sensation that just spreads like wildfire, and everybody wants crosswords and suddenly, you know, they can't even keep up with the demand.

They keep expanding the print run over and over again, publishing tens of thousands of these books just to keep up with the demand. Publishing a couple of additional crossword puzzle books just in 1924. And you know, these puzzle books basically dominated the bestsellers list by the end of 1924. And so, you know, they put Simon and Schuster on the map as a publishing company, and they, of course, put crosswords on the map.

And really, it was a kind of a sensation that, you know, there were various sensations like that back in the 1920s. There are a lot of fads going on, but the crossword fad is interesting because it's, it's held on, you know, 100 years later, sort of the craze continues.

MIGNON: Yeah. I was amazed how instrumental it was in the founding of really the big publishing industry as we think of it today. I mean, Simon and Schuster probably may not exist if it weren't for those early crossword successes. And then, you know, we talked about Farrar, the woman who was also involved. Talk about her a little bit and her subsequent company.

BEN: Yeah. So, well, she married a fellow named John Farrar, who was also in publishing and was starting up his own publishing company with some others, and that became Farrar, Strauss, and Giroux. And yeah, apparently, some of that seed money came from what the Farrars had, thanks to all of the money that they had made, you know, from those Simon and Schuster books kind of helped to seed this new publishing house.

So that's two publishing houses that probably owe their existence to this boom in crosswords in 1924.

MIGNON: All that sweet, sweet crossword money.

BEN: Yeah. And so Margaret Farrer, as she was known, you know, continued to edit puzzles for the "New York World" and doing all of these Simon Schuster books. "New York World" eventually went away. But she got a new job in 1942 when "The New York Times" finally, finally, decided that they would deign to run a crossword puzzle for the longest time.

They just poo-pooed crosswords as this silly thing that they weren't going to get involved in. Crosswords and comics, yeah, were the two things that were just, you know, not serious enough for "The New York Times."

MIGNON: That was also shocking to me that "The New York Times," which is now sort of the pinnacle of crossword, you know, the Sunday "Times" puzzle is such a big deal, and they were one of the last ones to publish crosswords, and they really looked down their nose at them.

BEN: They sure did. Yeah, no, they, starting in 1924, they published, you know, editorials and other sniffy pieces just kind of making fun of this whole craze. Their competitors in New York, you know, the "New York World," "New York Herald Tribune," the various New York newspapers were all jumping on it.

And I guess they kind of set themselves apart. Like if you want the more serious news without the crossword or the comics, then come to "The New York Times." But then finally, yeah, you know, after Pearl Harbor, that's really what it took. When you know, Arthur Salzberger, the publisher of "The New York Times," thought that, you know, it would be a good kind of diversion from all of the serious news as the U.S. went to war. And so he snapped up Margaret Farrar to be the editor of the "Times," and she stayed in that position for decades and kind of set the template for what crosswords continue to be. I mean, all of the kind of the rules for crossword construction, like the kind of symmetry that you use in crosswords, things about how many black squares are good, like how you have to have sort of interlocking entries and no two-letter words and that sort of thing.

I mean, that was all pretty much Margaret Farrar instituting that as the standard.

MIGNON: Amazing. And, you know, you said it was sort of a reaction to World War II. Okay, people need a diversion. And, you know, I didn't really realize, but during the early days of the pandemic, crossword puzzles also had another surge in popularity. So it seems like in times of trouble, we turn to crosswords and other games, of course.

BEN: It does seem that way. And yeah, you can see the success of Wordle and all of these other word games and word puzzles, especially since the pandemic. Yeah, it's something well, I mean, certainly during the pandemic when a lot of people were just, kind of found themselves with free time at home.

It seemed to be a time when a lot of people got very interested in both solving and constructing crosswords. Actually, I had been kind of very interested and semi-involved in the crossword world for many years, but it wasn't really till the pandemic when I started being a constructor and getting crosswords published in, "The New York Times," and now I'm a regular contributor to "Slate," which just started a daily crossword in April.

So yeah, I got sort of more fascinated just in making them and then also in the history of them and looking back to the 1920s and to see how similar in many ways it was to the 2020s in terms of how the crossword has kind of provided this welcome diversion.

MIGNON: Yeah, I want to talk a lot more about the practical aspects like that in a minute, but I do want to go back to history one more time and talk about how people thought that, like, there was this whole train of thought where, that people who did crossword puzzles were, you know, mentally ill or morally degenerate or, yeah, I was very surprised to read about this reaction to crossword puzzles.

BEN: Yeah, well, I guess because it just sort of spread so quickly, and it just became a thing that everyone was suddenly doing, there was a kind of a moral panic as often happens when there's some new, you know, cultural phenomenon like this, that seems to come out of nowhere. And yeah, it's interesting too because there's a new book out by Anna Shechtman called "Riddles of the Sphinx," which talks about how very often this was sort of gendered as something that, women, particularly housewives, would do.

And you know, it wasn't strictly housewives doing crosswords, of course, but that became kind of the stereotype. And so you see from 1924, all of these articles and cartoons and even songs talking about, you know, how a woman in particular becomes obsessed with crossword so much that she abandons her wifely duties or, you know, is so, so busy with that that she forgets to do anything else.

And so it's, yeah, there was a lot of things involving kind of gender politics and the idea of gender norms involving women on the domestic scene where crosswords seem to be this disruptive factor. So, you know, again, that was something more specific to the scene in the 1920s, but it is fascinating to look back on that now and and see exactly how people were really not just poo-pooing crosswords like "The New York Times" did, but in some cases, really being concerned that this would be somehow a detriment to society.

MIGNON: Yeah, like even blaming the Sunday crossword on a decline in church attendance.

BEN: Right. It got blamed for lots of things.

MIGNON: Well, we're going to take a quick break for our sponsors and when we come back, we'll talk about the world of competitive crossword puzzling and constructing your own puzzles and more. We'll be right back. 

Welcome back to the Grammar Girl podcast. I'm here with Ben Zimmer from many places, including, a website that documents the 100th anniversary of the crossword puzzle craze that launched in the early 1920s. Ben, so, you know, you said in the early days that people submitted their own crossword puzzles, and I was charmed that one of the very early books included a puzzle from a 15-year-old named … let me, I wrote it down here … Isidore Edelstein.

And you know, not everyone knew he was a teenager and that was just charming. And then his descendants have gone on to become competitive crossword puzzle players. How do you actually refer to people who competitively complete crossword puzzles?

BEN: Solvers. You could call them solvers or yeah, there are various crossword puzzle tournaments. The big one being the American Crossword Puzzle Tournament held each year in Stamford, Connecticut, and overseen by Will Shorts, the "New York Times" puzzle editor. So yeah, you mentioned this website, which I'm involved in along with Parker Higgins and Natan Last, who were both very interested in kind of documenting what was going on a hundred years ago. So we joined forces and started publishing posts starting on April 10th to the day, the 100th anniversary of when the Simon and Schuster book came out that kicked off the craze.

And so we just started putting up posts about that. And I just found out, you know, via a Facebook group of people who attend the American Crossword Puzzle Tournament, that one of these puzzles in this first book was created by the ancestor of, sort of, current crossword puzzle competitors.

And yeah, so his name is Isidore Edelstein. And yeah, there was no mention in the book that he was only 15 years old, almost 16 at the time that the book was published in 1924. And so it was amazing, I mean, just to find that connection back to 1924. And so, in fact, two of Isidore's children, Eugene and Sylvia, are both alive and were, proudly talking about their father's accomplishment.

And so they're obviously advanced in age now. They're in their 80s. Eugene still goes to the American Crossword Puzzle Tournament in Stamford, as does his son Larry, and then his daughter, Betsy. And so it's this sort of family affair now. And I believe Sylvia doesn't compete, but her daughter competed in the pairs division of the American Crossword Puzzle Tournament with their husband. And so it's fascinating. And also this guy, Isidore Edelstein, in addition to being this young phenom as a crossword constructor, also won a crossword puzzle tournament himself back in 1935. So anyway, it's just one of these wonderful, kind of historical connections that when we started posting about the crossword craze, we didn't expect necessarily there would be people now who have such an important connection to what was going on a hundred years ago.

MIGNON: Yeah. It's like a proud family tradition. And you, I think you have a picture of the gold goblet that he won in his tournament. 

BEN: Yeah, it’s a family heirloom now. Yes.

MIGNON: Yeah. So I am wildly curious what it's like at a crossword tournament. I mean, there's pairs, like, how does that work? How does it all work?

BEN: Yeah. Well that's a new thing that they just introduced for the American Crossword Puzzle Tournament in Stamford. They did that for the first time in 2024. They had a pairs division. Other crossword puzzle tournaments have experimented with that format before. And now the ACPT as it's known does it too.

So typically, at a crossword puzzle tournament, everyone's just solving on their own. At ACPT in Stamford, it's at the Stamford Marriott in the big ballroom. There are so many people who want to compete now though, they have an overflow room with a whole other room full of people solving as well.

There were about 800 or so, more than 800 people competing this year. It's just, again, the craze just keeps growing. And then there was additionally a pairs division where people could solve together and just, you know, work together as a team and you, you know, each team of two kind of worked out their own system.

Like one might start at the top left and the other one might start at the bottom right and they'd meet in the middle or, you know, they have just different ways of doing that. And so yeah, that's sort of a fun new wrinkle to crossword puzzle tournaments, but yeah, it's a very fun thing to be involved in. Yeah.

MIGNON: Are they writing on the same piece of paper or do they each have, yeah, so they're like sort of elbowing each other to get the words on the page?

BEN: Yeah. Well, they figure out how to do it. Sometimes, you know, it depends on the, the, the pair. Maybe one person is sort of more in charge of writing and the other one sort of whispering things into their ear, or they're both writing, you know, as long as they can work that out. But then they're trying to solve as quickly and as accurately as possible, just like the solo solvers.

It's a blast. I recommend not just the ACPT, but you know, other regional crossword puzzle tournaments to anyone who's interested in joining. Obviously there are the crazy fast speed solvers who can end up, you know, winning the whole tournament, but for the most part, it's just people enjoying themselves.

They know they're not going to actually win the thing, but it's a wonderful kind of social experience. For anyone who's seen the documentary “Wordplay” they'll know that it's, you know, as as the tournament was sort of shown in that movie, it really does just kind of feel like a homecoming when you when you sort of meet up with these people again, because they're just, you know, just such a warm and inviting place to come and experience that. I've competed in the past, but for the last several years, I've just been at Stamford as an official.

So I'm one of the judges in the back room. Actually scoring the puzzles to see, you know, not just how fast people are solving the puzzles, but making sure they don't have any mistakes. Because if you have an error, then that can cost you in the standings in terms of how they calculate the points.

And so it's, anyway, I just have a blast hanging out with that crowd. And yeah, and now I'm doing more and more sort of crossword related activities.

MIGNON: It sounds really fun. What kind of times are we talking about here? When you say speed, is that like a minute? Is that 10 minutes? How long does the speedy people complete?

BEN: Well the fastest solvers could solve, say, a Monday "New York Times" crossword puzzle in under a minute, believe it or not. 

So for a big tournament, the championship puzzle is actually solved on big boards. So the three finalists at the ACPT have to solve it basically using a marker on easels. And they have the clues in front of them and everybody's sort of watching them solve these puzzles on stage.

MIGNON: So much pressure.

BEN: Yeah, just a bit. So yeah, normally during the course of the tournament, you're just solving on paper, but then it's a special event for the finals. And even with all that pressure and that kind of like, awkward, unnatural way of solving a puzzle, they can solve these extremely hard puzzles in about, five or six minutes.

So Paolo Pasco won the most recent American Crossword Puzzle Tournament in April. And I believe his time on this very difficult final puzzle was yeah, something like five and a half minutes.

MIGNON: Amazing. Amazing. So if people want to get started competing, like what's the best way for someone who's never done it before to get started?

BEN: Well you know, you can get the information about the ACPT by going to There’s also lots of other regional tournaments, as I mentioned, for people who want to get their feet wet. New York City, for instance, has one in August. That's called Lollapuzzoola. And there are actually a couple of new ones just starting this year.

There's one in Chicago. That's the Midwest Crossword Puzzle Tournament. And then there's one out in the San Francisco Bay Area starting this year called Westwords. And so yeah, I mean, that just goes to show again how this kind of crossword craze is continuing. I would recommend, yeah, trying out one of these tournaments there.

There's also lots of activity online. There are Twitch streams, for instance, which is where you can watch people solve crosswords or even make them sometimes. There is a Discord server called “Crosscord” where a lot of crossword folks hang out and exchange ideas about both solving and constructing and share in this kind of new community building.

So 100 years ago you had to do it all just via these newspaper puzzles, but these days, you know, much of the action is online.

MIGNON: Right. And so then if like Isidore of long ago, you want to construct crossword puzzles, like how do people get started doing that?

BEN: Well unlike a hundred years ago, now there's software that helps you create crosswords. And so I would recommend, actually, for people who want to sort of get a sense of all of this stuff, including the crosswords that are published in various venues, tournaments, software.

If you go to, that's a repository that is also in the form of a kind of a daily email that goes out to everyone who's interested to see all the puzzles that get published and all the different outlets. And there's many, many outlets these days. I mentioned "Slate," of which I'm involved in as one of the new ones, but they're kind of flourishing in lots of different places online these days. That will also have links to resources like crossword construction software, which there are some, you know, free software packages and others that you might have to pay a bit for. 

But they all kind of work the same way, where you can fill in the grid, you have a word list that you work from that's sort of scored by, you know, you have the entries that you would like to see in a puzzle with a high score and the stuff that you don't necessarily want to see in the puzzle with lower scores, and then the software can help you build that crossword. And it's quite a godsend, I have to say.

I mean just to think back on the old-fashioned way that crosswords were made just on paper by hand was much, much more time consuming. And also nowadays the fill, meaning, you know, the, the words that are filled in while you construct it are just much higher quality because you don't have to rely on the old crossword-ease, all of those, you know, words that used to fill up crossword puzzles that nobody really ever used or ever saw outside of crosswords. Nowadays, you can avoid all of that and come up with sort of fresh and interesting words and phrases.

MIGNON: In my mind, like the people who construct crossword puzzles are an elite group. Like, I feel like there may be fewer of them in the country than there are lexicographers, you know, which is also a rare group, But I mean, is it possible? How possible is it for just the average person who really would love to publish crossword puzzles to do that? Is it a hopeless goal or is it easier than I might think?

BEN: Not at all. It's probably easier than you would think. Yeah, I mean, there is really no barrier to becoming a crossword constructor if you set your mind to it. And again, the fact that there is this new kind of, you know, way of making crosswords with software levels the playing field a lot and makes it easier for people to make them without having, you know, spent decades trying to make them.

And so we got a lot of young people, even teenagers who, like Isidore Edelstein back in the day, who get involved with not just solving, but constructing crosswords. And they may get published in big venues like the "New York Times" or "Wall Street Journal." Or, you know, there are so many different places online that are publishing and people very often just publish on their own blogs now.

And that's wonderful to see because you get such a diversity of voices. You know, you get lots of young voices with their own ideas about what works in crossword puzzles. And just again, yeah, not the sort of whatever the stereotype might be of the old white guy, let's say making crossword puzzles.

It has become much more diverse and much more of a kind of a youth movement, which is great to see, which to me means that, you know, crosswords are just going to keep going and going because they're kind of like revitalized by a new generation that puts their own mark on it.

MIGNON: Amazing. Well, we will put all these links in the show notes. And again, you can find Ben Zimmer's writings along with others on the crossword history at If you want to find Ben's crosswords themselves, you can find them on "Slate," "Wall Street Journal," and "The New York Times," sometimes. Like, you're everywhere.

That's amazing. So thank you so much, Ben, for being here and telling us all these wonderful stories today.

BEN: Oh, thank you. It's been a pleasure.

MIGNON: I hope you all enjoyed that as much as I did. I'll be back with new shows next week on Tuesday and Thursday. Until then … that's all. Thanks for listening.