If a cruciverbalist plays alone, what does he play? It’s not a fair question, because ‘solve’ is a more appropriate word, and yes – I’m sure you’ve worked out the etymology by now – a cruciverbalist is a solver of crossword puzzles.
Just as the English language evolved separately into British and American forms over centuries, so also did their crossword puzzles. In fact, the first puzzle was constructed by British-born Arthur Wynne for the New York World, establishing an appropriate Anglo-American connection for the puzzle right at the beginning. Yet, calling to mind Mr Churchill’s observation that these are two countries separated by a common language, while both puzzles have symmetrical grids, and no two-letter words are allowed, there are significant differences.
In the British-style grid there are a lot of black squares. Roughly half of the letters in each word are crossed by another word (what experts call “checked”). This is known as an alternate-letter grid – mostly every other letter in a word is checked.
In the American-style grid there are fewer black squares, and every letter in every word is crossed by another. The grid is so fully checked that it’s theoretically possible to solve a whole American crossword by only doing the Down clues.
These two different grid designs lead to major differences in how these two varieties of crosswords are created and solved.
The more open structure of the British-style crosswords means that it’s much easier for the crossword setter to use a wide range of words in the grid, and they are generally a bit harder for the solver, as he gets fewer clues – in other words, if you can’t get a word, you can’t get its intersecting letters, and consequently can’t solve a word that crosses it.
The solid grid design of the American-style crosswords makes life much harder for the crossword setter – having every single letter in every single word crossing another word is really restrictive. Setters often have to resort to abbreviations, names, unusual and archaic vocabulary, foreign words, brand names, and other tricks to fill in the grid. Solving these puzzles can be a bit easier than the British-style ones, as if you’re stuck on one word, you can look for the words that cross it for further hints. More next week!