The Art of Crosswords | CommuniCrossings (2022)

Introduction | Quotes | Technology | Creativity


  • While you might not often see "art" mentioned in the same sentence as crossword puzzles,
    there are many possible meaning and layers that I will explore briefly here.
  • Arts -- fine and popular -- appear in crosswords as clues, answers and themes that refer to
    music, literature, paintings, sculpture, film, theater, etc.
  • Crosswords have been featured in different forms of art and media: song names and lyrics,
    paintings, architecture, documentaries, improv comedy, books (esp. mystery novels),
    musicals, TV shows, clothing design, etc.
  • Crossword solvers learn and apply skills (practical arts) in order to unravel a crossword:
    absorbing new vocabulary and knowledge, seeing clues in different contexts,
    and delving for deeper patterns and themes.
  • Constructors and editors of crosswords design within language constraints and format conventions,
    e.g., grid symmetry, theme relationships and placement. In a fully-crossed (interlocking) puzzle,
    word selection, especially of longer words and phrases, requires the skill of choosing words and phrases
    and intuiting which will mesh best in the crossing direction
    — and then creating clues that go beyond simple dictionary definitions to push the limits of the solver
    with ambiguity and often humor.
  • Perhaps "Art" might also refer to Arthur Wynne, credited with constructing the first crossword puzzle,
    published in New York World, 12/21/1913?
  • In addition to a few examples already mentioned above
    -- and selected quotes listed below -- there are more in sections of my crossword course:
    Why Do We Solve Puzzles? and History, Milestones and Media.
  • The Crossword Mentality in Modern Literature and Culture by Adrienne Raphel;
    .pdf; Doctoral dissertation, Harvard University, Graduate School of Arts & Sciences;
    e.g., Chapter 2. Crosswords and Literature, pp. 105-


  • "The capacity to be puzzled is the premise of all creation, be it in art or in science." ~Erich Fromm
  • "Crosswords, like any art, should reflect life." ~Will Shortz
  • "Total absorption in a task ('flow') is a state that some artists experience in their creative moments
    and that many other people achieve when enthralled by a film, a book, or a crossword puzzle:
    interruptions are not welcome" ~Thinking, Fast and Slow, Daniel Kahneman
  • "Puzzles are like songs -- a good puzzle can give you all the pleasure of being duped that a
    mystery story can. It has surface innocence, surprise, the revelation of a concealed meaning,
    and the catharsis of solution." ~Stephen Sondheim
  • "In their own way, crossword puzzles are an important language art.
    This makes constructors, editors, and publishers artists of a sort and supporters of the arts."
    ~The Muse Of Language Arts; Electricka
  • "The piercing sound of Jimmy Reed's harmonica won his attention;
    Bishop would later liken it to a crossword puzzle that he had to figure out.
    What was this music? Who made it? What was it all about?" ~quote about Elvin Bishop
  • "Writing songs and lyrics is not that different from doing the 'Times' crossword every morning.
    They both give you a good mental workout." ~Leslie Bricusse
  • "Solving crossword puzzles is part science of deduction, part mother wit, part erudition."
    ~Margaret Petherbridge Farrar, 1st NYT Crossword editor
  • "I'm drawn to a certain level of ambiguous storytelling that requires hard thought
    and work in the same way that the 'New York Times' crossword puzzle does:
    Sometimes you just want to put it down or throw it out the window,
    but there's a real rewarding sense if you feel like you've cracked it." ~Damon Lindelof
  • "We try to do a Shakespeare play every year, because I feel that it provides
    the best tool for actor training. It's challenging in performance and language,
    physicality, analytical skills, and this particular one is along the serious lines, which
    seemed to fit the bill in terms of the kind of genre we wanted to explore.
    I call this the Sunday 'Times' Crossword Puzzle for actors." ~Jack Cirillo
  • "Q. Any special exercises for your nose? A. Crossword puzzles...
    You don't really smell with the nose, it's just the channel.
    Your brain deciphers what you smell." ~Ray Matts, haute fragrance designer


"Technology, like art, is a soaring exercise of the human imagination." ~Daniel Bell

In the 1970s, I took a Computer Science class at Stanford from Donald Knuth based on
the first book in his multi-volume work, The Art of Computer Programming.
Many might think that computers have more to do with engineering than science
and that programming has little to do with art. In his 1974 ACM Turing Aware lecture
entitled Computer Programming as an Art, Dr. Knuth compared the different relationships
and categories of "art" over the centuries with other human skills, technology and science.
Philosophers over the ages have wrestled with this issue. His lecture is a short and worthwhile read.
A few excerpts follow:

  • "Science is what we understand well enough to explain to the computer, art is everything else."
  • "The process of going from an art to a science means that we learn how to automate something."
  • "When I speak about computer programming as an art, I am thinking primarily of it as an art form, in an aesthetic sense.
    The chief goal of my work as educator and author is to help people learn how to write beautiful programs.
    A programmer who subconsciously views himself as an artist will enjoy what he does and will do it better."

It is satisfying to me, a software researcher/developer, to consider myself an artist.

The Art of Crosswords | CommuniCrossings (1)Some connections between computers and crosswords:
interestingly, young Don Knuth created crosswords for his school newspaper;
as a professor, students in his class vied in a programming contest to create
the shortest program to read and print a crossword.

There are many applications for solvers that download puzzles, lookup word patterns or clues,
or provide selective hints: e.g., AcrossLite, Crosswords; I developed an app myself: CrozzWord.

AI solvers, are no match yet for human insight
-- and, of course, would take away the fun and challenge for human solvers; e.g., Dr. Fill

Apps for constructors can assist with grid layout, display possible word options from dictionary databases,
even auto-fill when requested, and list previously published clues to be adapted or avoided:
e.g., CrossFire, Crossword Compiler.


Now, back to the connection between art and crosswords.
In the 1970s, I read several books by Arthur Koestler.
In The Act of Creation [source; 1964], Koestler begins with a 3-panel tryptch
that illustrates his overall theme about the interplay between
Humor [#1; left panel], Science[#2; center] and Art[#3; right].
Creative activity is represented on all three panels, consisting of merging
two different frames and discovering hidden similarities (bisociation):

  1. "Comic comparison is intended to make us laugh via the collision of matrices."
  2. "Objective analogy to make us understand by integrating different contexts."
  3. "Poetic image to make us marvel by their juxtaposition."

Or, as he explained slightly differently [in Encyc. Brittanica: Humor article],
"Comic inventiveness, scientific discovery, and artistic inspiration form a continuum
with no sharp boundaries between wit and ingenuity, nor between discovery and art.
Contemporary psychology regards the conscious and unconscious processes
underlying creativity in all domains as an essentially combinative activity
-- the bringing together of previously separate areas of knowledge and experience."

  1. "The humorist's game is to contrive a collision."
  2. "The scientist's purpose is to achieve synthesis."
  3. "The artist aims at a juxtaposition of the familiar and the eternal."

Very weighty stuff. Several years later, in Ghost in the Machine,
Koestler revisited these topics and very clearly and famously summarized our reactions
upon experiencing these creative bisociative interactions:

  1. humor: "haha"
  2. science: "aha"
  3. art: "ah" (or perhaps "aah" and "awe" -- Koestler includes mystical transcendence)

Interestingly, "during his years [1920s] in Palestine, Koestler became sufficiently fluent
in Hebrew to write stories in that language, as well as to create what is believed to have been
the world's first Hebrew crossword puzzle."

Did you notice "word puzzle" featured near the triptych center
-- between humor's "pun" and art's "rhyme"? Maybe crosswords aren't a trivial pursuit as some think?

As above, it's gratifying, as a long-time crossword solver and budding constructor,
to think of crosswords as art, in addition to a fun and logical challenge.

So, the next time you are solving a crossword, perhaps you'll notice the occurrence of
"haha", "aha", "aah" and "awe" in answers -- literally! More significantly, you might
experience those reactions when being misled or amused by an ambiguous or clever clue;
when enjoying creative wordplay in theme answers; when appreciating the layout and
symmetry of a puzzle grid; or when discovering deeper patterns or a puzzle-within-a-puzzle.

Perhaps this article might have been better named "The Art -- and Humor, and Science -- of Crosswords"?
As I have time and additional insights, I may expand on these ramblings.

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