Solving crosswords – particularly, cryptic crosswords – is a uniquely British phenomenon.
Crosswords’ history – and the myth-making around them – is tied not just to titles but to people, personalities and professions who symbolise the eccentricity of the Briton. This reputation is based in fact (the recruitment of solvers to work at Bletchley Park), and fiction (foreign language Sherlock Holmes love to flourish their master detective’s pen while solving crosswords from ‘The Times’ of London).
The associations between solving crosswords with a peculiar type of brain power can make crosswords forbidding – an opaque other world, with separate rules, occupied by dusty intellectuals. This misunderstands what crosswords are. Crosswords are in effect a clever and playful conversation among friends about the flexibility of our language and the world around us.
Solving crosswords: the most human of puzzles
In their most academic sense crosswords are an intense applied semantic exercise forcing one to reconsider what words mean and how our thoughts can be structured – and there is a real utility in pumping up your critical faculties. However, I prefer to think of cryptic crosswords as a kind of friendship – the most human of puzzles. A place where like-minded people get together to have some fun to take their minds away from the grit and grime of the real world.
Whilst these puzzles might have rigour at their heart, they’re more than that – they are a trusted guide who help you shake the sleep from your eyes before talking you on a cerebral ramble. The patterns of clues, answers, cultural references and jokes at their best are like a great conversation with a confidante who shares their world view with you, tells you what is on their mind and encourages you to think the same.
A rather cryptic relationship
This act of sharing found its most complete form when the most famous solver of recent times Araucaria announced he was suffering from cancer through a crossword grid and its answers. In effect he was telling us that the witty, fun conversations we had been having for so long would continue for a short while longer, but soon he would have to go.
What Araucaria’s announcement shows us is the humanity of these puzzles – the way personality, incident and emotion could be communicated in such a human way, a way that no quick crossword, wordsearch or Sudoku could ever do. It is this honesty, without any fear, that crosswords represent: a meeting of minds, a sharing of stories – and the ultimate expression of Talking Human.