A love affair with squares: Understanding crossword puzzles

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Crossword solving could be the Fountain of Youth. Norman Mailer called it a way to "comb my brain every morning," Louis Rukeyser said when solving a crossword he couldn't worry about Congress, and Roy Blount, Jr, joked that he'd have to retire if he found his name in a clue. (He has and he didn't.)

To enjoy solving the American crossword, you need to know a bit of the lingo. (Unlike the riddle-rich British style crosswords, which according to Broadway director Richard Maltby, Jr, who constructs them "are on a wavelength only dogs can hear.") Abbreviations, word fragments and borrowed bits from south of the border all make up the lingo.

With a crossword in every newspaper nowadays, it's hard to believe that this checkered pastime is only a bit over 100 years old. A newspaperman devised a grid in 1913 for the Fun section of the New York World as a holiday treat. It caught on and remained as a weekly entertainment in the World until two young men had the idea to compile a book of crosswords in the 1920s with the help of a young woman named Margaret Petherbridge. Overnight this bestseller launched the publishing house known as Simon and Schuster and created a worldwide sensation.

Petherbridge married publisher John Farrar and, as Mrs. Farrar, introduced the crossword into the pages of the New York Times during World War II. By the time I made her acquaintance in 1980, she was the doyenne of puzzles, living in a dictionary strewn apartment by Central Park. She shared many insights that I included in "What's Gnu: A History of the Crossword" (Vintage Books). For the next 20 years, I served as the publisher of a major national puzzle magazine company, keeping millions of solvers entertained. The curriculum I created for a course on puzzle solving that I taught at the New School in Greenwich Village became the basis for the Dummies series as "Crossword Puzzles for Dummies."

Bill Clinton once gave the best advice to solving tyros: Start with what you know. There is no right or wrong in solving — just looking for the clue that you can fill in. When that light bulb goes off in your head, you will join the ranks of acrossionados, as I like to call solvers, and graduate to solving in ink.

Michelle Arnot, author of "Crossword Puzzles for Dummies" and "Four-Letter Words: Secrets of a Crossword Insider" will host a morning of coffee and crosswords at 10:30 a.m. Saturday, July 28, at the Sandisfield Arts Center at 5 Hammertown Road. The event is free, but reservations are recommended at www.sandisfieldartscenter.org. Arnot serves as an official at the annual American Crossword Puzzle Tournament, organized by NPR's puzzle master, Will Shortz.


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