July 23, 2015
(+++) VEXED VERBIAGE
The Crossword Century: 100 Years of Witty Wordplay, Ingenious Puzzles, and Linguistic Mischief. By Alan Connor. Gotham Books. $16.
The crossword puzzle is an American invention, but Alan Connor gives a very British view of it, in the spirit of mutual theft between two nations separated by their parlance. Originally published in 2014 to mark the crossword’s centennial year of 2013, The Crossword Century is now available in paperback and is quite prepared to put to the test Oscar Wilde’s assertion that “we have really everything in common with America nowadays, except, of course, language.”
This means that the presumably gentle reader, whatever his or her proclivities where word puzzles are concerned may be, should expect to receive herein no edification whatsoever about the meaning of Macmillan nurses, bumf, or “horses for courses.” What Connor does offer, however, is neatly summed up in his remark, “To tackle a crossword is to enjoy the experience of your brain pulling on many different areas simultaneously, working in a way that everyday life rarely calls for.” This is a fine encapsulation of the appeal of these century-old puzzles, whose history and elements Connor discusses, for the most part, entertainingly. Readers learn of the original “Word-Cross” (as it was initially called) and of some earlier, ancestral word puzzles; they find out when and how crosswords really became a fad on both sides of the Atlantic, and why the moralists of the time took umbrage at puzzling; they receive some insight into the way puzzle constructors think as they design their word games; and they even discover how puzzles have been used in espionage and war.
What readers do not see here are puzzles. There are only four in the whole book, two used to illustrate specific points Connor is making plus two appended at the very end. During the rest of the book, readers must be content to absorb narrative that can and does easily veer far into the abstruse: “Lord Archer is a British politician accused by a newspaper of having had sex with a prostitute. He won substantial damages, but suspicions lingered… He and his wife live in a building called the Old Vicarage, Grantchester, which further upset his critics because it is the former home of Rupert Brooke, whose much-loved poem of the same name is a nostalgic, patriotic favorite. Just when Archer’s rise seemed unstoppable, he was found to have lied in court about the prostitution business, was banished from public life, and went home to lick his wounds. And so when the retired churchman John Graham, better known as the constructor Araucaria, wrote the clue ‘Poetical scene with surprisingly chaste Lord Archer vegetating (3, 3, 8, 12)’ – a lovely long anagram of THEOLDVICARAGEGRANTCHESTER – solvers found their pent-up indignation regarding Archer expressed with wit and economy in an ingenious and memorable eight-word rebuke.”
Well, ahem. It is true that this is an unusually complex example of puzzle construction, but although Connor remarks that “such specific knowledge is rarely necessary” for puzzle solving, many of his examples are cut from much the same cloth. This makes the book less of a romp and more of a chore than by rights it ought to be. Connor’s style has some irritating elements, too, no matter on which side of the pond a reader may live. He ends every chapter with a parenthetical remark that is not really parenthetical at all, but serves to introduce the material of the next chapter – an affectation that very quickly wears thin. He also misses some opportunities for commentary, apparently in his haste to move on to the next topic. For example, in discussing spoonerisms, he explains about ways in which “early French surrealists deliberately switched syllables in their prose to attack the idea that words and sentences have fixed meanings.” He cites a sentence by Marcel Duchamp (who would have denied being a surrealist and is usually considered a dadaist) – without mentioning that Duchamp himself was known to have switched the syllables of his own name to “Marchand du Sel” (salt merchant). This is surely relevant in a context of Connor’s own creation.
Also, Connor either mis-writes some material or suffers from poor editing, most strikingly in a section discussing P.G. Wodehouse writing to fellow novelist Denis Mackail, “‘What is “Exclaim when the twine gives out” in ten letters?’ (This is a clue for the musical instruction STRINGEDO [sic], and one of the most baffling, dismaying efforts at wordplay I have ever encountered.)” Connor might have been less baffled and less dismayed if he had counted the letters properly: the musical word in question is STRINGENDO, which refers to a passage to be played gradually faster and is a perfectly reasonable bit of wordplay on “String end! O!”
Lacks, omissions and misstatements aside, The Crossword Century contains a great deal that is informative and a great deal that is fun – testimony to the enduring popularity of crossword puzzles and the very large amount of amusement and information to be culled from them. Connor reserves a few pages at the end of his narrative to contemplate where crosswords may be going in a post-newspaper age – they are, after all, intimately bound up in their ink-on-dead-trees past – and while he does not get very deeply into that subject, the mere fact of his raising it is good, since it is highly unlikely that crosswords as they are now generally known can survive what appears to be the near-extinction of the medium in which they have appeared for 100 years. It is unlikely that there will be a book called The Crossword Bicentennial, although there may be a study with that title prepared and presented in some medium yet undiscovered. Connor’s work, although scarcely the last word on crosswords’ first century, may turn out to be one of the few historical sources available to the future chronicler of whatever sort of thing the crossword turns into in years to come.