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The Polemic History of Crossword Puzzles

Carolina Avendano
Carolina is a journalism student based in Canada who enjoys learning and sharing information about how to lead a meaningful life. She is passionate about traditional culture, handmade crafts, and the connection between humans and nature.
Published: March 5, 2022
Solving crossword puzzles is part of a century-old tradition. While it has proved to improve mental sharpness, it was banned in the past for allegedly causing mental illness and threatening American Industry. (Image: Stevepb via Pixabay)

To many newspaper readers, solving the crossword puzzles inhabiting the back pages of the bundle has been an essential part of their Sunday routine. The seemingly simple layout of black and white squares has the ability to challenge the reader, who is likely to experience a unique feeling of achievement after solving a particularly difficult grid. 

While widely considered an exceptional tool to promote mental health, word puzzles have also faced condemnation as a social threat. The divergent views opposed each other for decades, relenting only with the onset of WW II, from which crosswords provided welcome distraction.

Can crossword puzzles really improve your brain?

In 2011 a study published in the US National Library of Medicine found that solving word puzzles could delay the onset of memory decline in patients with dementia. In December of 2018, however, the findings of a new study were announced, stating that  crosswords and puzzles did not prevent mental decline, but could only provide a “higher cognitive point” from which to decline. A later study was published in 2019 in the Science Daily journal, showing that solving word and number puzzles regularly resulted in older adults having a sharper mind. 

Crossword puzzels
While doing crosswords may aid in maintaining the brain active which helps older people to manage their daily tasks better, the activity is not believed to prevent or slow down mental decay, for which more active pursuits are recommended. (Image: Cottonbro via Pexels)

While a definitive conclusion to the debate may never be realized, The Global Council on Brain Health advises people to engage in stimulating activities such as learning a musical instrument, designing a quilt or gardening rather than brain training to help their brain function in later life.

A social concern

In 1924, the London Times posted an article titled “An Enslaved America,” declaring that crosswords puzzles were “almost a national menace” in the United States due to its intrusion into the working hours of the population. 

The article described that the entertaining grids were becoming omnipresent throughout society, estimating that over ten million people spent half an hour each day working out the puzzles when they should have been working. The increasing number of people being found pondering words in subways, factories, offices and even courtrooms; made crossword puzzles be seen as a threat or “wild hyacinth” to American industry. 

US Specialist Robert Kiefer from the 1st Platoon Alpha 3-71 Cavalry solves a crossword puzzle as he rests in his barracks before leaving for a mission in Afghanistan. Word puzzles are practical games that can be solved anywhere and anytime, including working hours. (Image: Manan Vatsyayana/AFP via Getty images)

The black-and-white game did not spare the UK from its effects. The case of a British woman who took her husband to court for staying in bed until 11 a.m. doing crosswords, became widely known. The European country saw how this hobby, if taken to extremes, could give rise to interpersonal conflicts. 

As expected, the growing popularity of the often individually-played game was seen to have an impact in the way people interacted, dealing the “final blow to the art of conversations,” according to the writer and amateur historian Louis Anslow.

Word puzzle solvers: Intellectual giants or mentally ill?

Enhancing the long-held belief that word puzzles can improve one’s mental abilities, some recent studies have demonstrated that they can also serve as an effective tool to expand one’s vocabulary. Thus, the social notion that puzzle solvers have a sharper mind emerged decades ago and is still currently embraced. 

However, decades ago, puzzle solvers were considered far from brilliant individuals. In his essay “In abuse of the cross-word puzzle,” Arnold Palmer claimed “vocabulary does not consist of isolated words, and is not acquired by hurried raids on the dictionary.” 

This view, added to the allegedly increased distraction and decreased productivity of the population at the time, caused crosswords to be perceived as an antisocial habit and even the cause of a “nation-wide epidemic,” as mentioned by O.L. Scott in his article to the Tampa Times. 

The Grand Duchess Viktoria Feodorovna of Russia in her suite at the Waldorf Astoria on December 9, 1924. The pastime had become popular in all spheres of society (Image: Underwood Archives via Getty Images)

A health concern

“Crossword Puzzleitis” was the medical term created to refer to the puzzle habit. Health authorities and physicians started reporting cases of memory loss, insomnia, headaches and weakened eyesight, all allegedly caused by solving crossword puzzles. Later, sensationalist journals reported stories in which the seemingly inoffensive pastime had caused physical assault.

Finally, strict measures were taken against crossword puzzles. According to newspaper reports compiled by Louis Anslow,  libraries banned crosswords by removing the games sections from the freely available newspapers, as well as limiting access to dictionaries within reading rooms, with claims like, “So many books have been damaged that it has been decided to withdraw all the dictionaries from the room.”

The attitude towards crossword puzzles also extended to other grounds, with the University of Michigan placing a ban on the games in its lecture halls. 

Why did crossword puzzles come back?

While the “distraction” offered by this pastime was widely condemned, it was also found to offer relief from the pain and fear brought on by World War II. Editors of various journals resolved that the puzzle could be a welcome escape from the harsh news of the war. 

Photograph of Battleship Row taken from a Japanese plane at the beginning of the Attack on Pearl Harbor on December 7, 1941. Crossword puzzles made a comeback as a helpful distraction during war times. (Image: Imperial Japanese Navy via Wikimedia Commons Public domain)

“I don’t think I have to sell you on the increased demand for this kind of pastime in an increasingly worried world,” wrote Margaret Farrar to The New York Times publisher right after the attack on Pearl Harbor. “You can’t think of your troubles while solving a crossword.” The New York Times began to publish crossword puzzles on 15 February 1942, thus reviving the tradition that is still going strong today.

Word puzzles today – how much is too much?

Despite the emergence of new ways of entertainment, word games are still part of a century-old tradition. New game variations such as Scrabble and Wordle appeared and gained traction in recent years, becoming a free source of entertainment. 

Nevertheless, the popularity of word games and its tendency to become a habit, can also be utilized by journals as a strategy to increase subscriptions. Thus, it is best if readers enjoy this pastime in moderation and remain alert for what Dr Mark Griffiths, Professor of Gambling Studies at Nottingham Trent University, calls “obsessive cruciverbalism.”

Ancient Wisdom teaches how to enjoy a pleasant activity without going to extremes, thus resulting in a balanced life (Image: Shiva Smyth via Pexels)

Ancient Wisdom provides meaningful insights on the issue of going to extremes in any activity that is particularly enjoyed. The Middle Way taught by the Buddha, explained that both indulgence and deprivation were equally harmful and could only lead to disharmony. It follows that by being aware of our habits and their influence on us, we are capable of achieving a balanced life that is filled with elements that are both diverse and satisfying.