Six hundred and not a X-word

By Bob Gregory, February 21, 2014

Last year celebrated 100 years since the first crossword appeared in the USA and today sees the publication of my Jewish crossword number 600 in the JC.

I was invited to start a Jewish-themed crossword feature for the JC back in 2002 and Number One was published on September 13 of that year. There’s been a JC crossword every week since.

While there isn’t exactly a vast amount of material to work with, I have never knowingly duplicated any crossword and it’s been loads of fun, even mischief. Fair game has included Jewish personalities of stage, politics or religion, Torah and Talmud extracts, romanised Hebrew, anglicised Yiddish and sundry biblical material with references.

Our crossword is a bit of a hybrid being part “concise” and part “cryptic”. It would be a bit tricky to write a cryptic clue for, say, Tekiah Gedolah (the last blasts of the shofar) but there’s another difference, too — the question of how you spell a solution in Yiddish or Hebrew.

I seek to overcome this little problem by marking a clue with a “variant spelling” suffix so that a correct solution can still present itself. I also try to make the crossword contain at least 75 per cent of the clues or solutions — or both — with a Jewish flavour, but the constraints of making the grid fit might necessitate some non-Jewish solutions too (“lights” in “crosswordese”).

Where this is unavoidable, I usually try to construct a nice cryptic clue to keep the crossword aficionados at bay.

Down the years, there have been the odd compliments from readers but these have been balanced by brickbats aplenty — usually a grumble about variant spelling but occasionally a robust complaint about an incorrect reference. I do try very hard to avoid the latter! Occasionally I’m even asked for an explanation of a cryptic clue’s construction.

How do I “populate” the grid? A very large and always growing wordbase helps.

Perhaps it’s not out of place to write a few words about crosswords in general. The first crossword was published in December 1913 in the New York World, composed by one Arthur Wynne.

The puzzles quickly became a craze and soon every US newspaper had to have one – but not everyone liked the new craze. One woman, describing herself as a “crossword widow”, sued her husband for support and won! Three diners at a restaurant were so absorbed by an early crossword that they refused to leave when asked by the proprietor to go. The police were called, the three were arrested and sentenced to 10 days in prison. Apparently all parties were happy: the restaurant owner was vindicated, and the three had a quiet place in which to pursue their addiction.

In Britain, the crossword gradually took a turn away from its American originator. Crosswords in the US use straight definitions but the British crossword normally contains cryptic — and sometimes very tortuous — clues.

As the craze crossed the Atlantic around 10 years after its birth, a Times editorial warned of the “menace” that had taken over America, “making devastating inroads on the working hours of every rank of society”. But it was too late.

The crossword even played a small part in helping win the Second World War. Avid crossword fans were head-hunted in the fight against the Nazis. Seeking citizens with the brains and tenacity needed to break the German Enigma codes, a newspaper competition was set up challenging readers to solve a difficult cryptic crossword in under 12 minutes. Successful solvers were then invited to work at Bletchley.

Since then there have been millions of chewed pens and scratched heads. I set “normal” cryptic crosswords for a number of publications under the pen-name “Cullen” but the JC crossword, unique in its format, is one of my favourites. I hope that it will continue to give those JC readers who tackle it week by week more pleasure than torment.

Last updated: 1:45pm, February 21 2014