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If you raised your hand you’re not alone, millions of us enjoy a good crossword every day. Oh the satisfaction of scoring out clue, after clue, after clue in perfect synchrony, down, across, down, across… surging with triumphant dopamine or suffering the sound of snapping pencil lead in sheer frustration.
Crossword puzzles are said to be the most popular and widespread word game in the world, but they’ve not been around for as long as you might think.
Did you know that a Liverpudlian brought us the crossword as we know it today? The British journalist Arthur Wynne, who emigrated to the United States in the 1890’s, invented the ‘Word-Cross’, as he initially called it. Published on December 21, 1913 in the Sunday newspaper, the New York World, it did not resemble the classic grid – it was diamond shaped with no black squares.
Crazes often born across the pond make their way over to us sooner or later and by the 1920s the American pastime became popular in the UK. The first British crossword was published in Pearson’s Magazine in February 1922, so we’ve been enjoying the puzzles for almost a century now.
Well, there’s that satisfying sense of accomplishment for starters and for speed lovers the urgency of working against the clock to complete the grid. There’s the social aspect too, as stumped by a tricky clue or mental block, you’re prompted to ‘phone a friend’ to complete the missing answer. Who doesn’t love collaborative problem solving?
Nature abhors a vacuum. You see that empty black-and-white grid, and you want to start filling it in. You like to fill up those squares.The New York Times crossword puzzle editor Will Shortz
For others completing puzzles, sat down with a nice cuppa in hand, is a form of meditation, giving yourself permission to switch off from day to day concerns. Online games have made crosswords more accessible than ever as people can play them on their smartphones anytime, anywhere.
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One study in the Journal of the International Neuropsychology Society found a possible connection between completing crossword puzzles and the delayed onset of accelerated memory decline in people who developed dementia. In attempting to match a certain number of letters that fit descriptive phrases we tap into our verbal memory.
The Bronx Aging Study published in 2014 found that elderly adults doing crossword puzzles helped to delay the onset of dementia by over 2 ½ years. Researchers speculate the protective powers of crossword puzzles is because they help users develop a ‘cognitive reserve’.
The jury is out on this, a Scottish study published in the BMJ in 2018 found that puzzles such as crosswords and Sudoku do not in fact protect an individual from memory decline. There’s no denying the pleasure they bring though!
It seems like we can’t get enough of puzzles to keep the old grey matter ticking over. Take the rapid rise of Sudoku in Britain, for example, that exploded onto the scene in 2004. Maki Kaji, the Japanese man known as the ‘Godfather of Sudoku’, gave the number puzzle its name after publishing it in his magazine Nikoli in the 1980s, but it only turned into a global phenomenon after The Times of London published a puzzle.
Sudoku took off in a big way from relative obscurity to front-page features across national newspapers, The Guardian‘s G2 section even advertised itself as the first newspaper supplement with a Sudoku grid on every page.
One thing is for sure, Sudoku is here to stay.
Never tried it? Check out our puzzle page for daily Sudoku challenges.