When Merl Reagle was a boy, he liked to build things, mostly out of Tinker Toys. But when he got to first grade in 1956, he discovered words and realized that they, too, could be building tools. He arranged the names of kids in his class on a sheet of grid paper, with one name connecting to another. It looked like a crossword puzzle, and with it Reagle became what he calls “a word nerd.”
“For some reason, it’s been eternally fascinating how words can interlock so well in English,” Reagle said.
Reagle grew up to create crosswords for large newspapers, including The Washington Post, and to write 17 books on the puzzles. (He created the puzzle attached to this story just for KidsPost readers.)
At age 6, he thought he had invented the crossword. But the puzzle has a much longer history.
In 1913, Arthur Wynne, an editor at the New York World, was asked to create a game for the newspaper’s comics section. He came up with white squares arranged in a diamond-shaped grid. Below was a list of definitions. He instructed readers to fill in the squares with words that matched the definitions.
The World published this “word-cross” on December 21, 1913 — 100 years ago next Saturday.
Readers loved it, and other newspapers began copying what soon was called the crossword.
In 1921, Wynne stepped down as crossword editor and the job went to Margaret Petherbridge, who gradually came up with rules for creating crosswords. Every letter had to be part of a word going across and one going down. Puzzles had to use English words that were at least three letters long. And the mix of blank squares and filled-in squares had to be symmetrical. (That means the pattern had to look the same whether the puzzle was held upside down or right side up.)
Constructors, or people who create crosswords, still follow these rules and a few more.
Reagle said he became aware of published crosswords by the time he was 8. He started buying magazines that included puzzles.
“When I was about 10 or 12, Highlights for Children started running these really interesting crosswords,” Reagle said. “All the words started with [the same letter], and all the clues were illustrated. As a kid, they just really struck me.”
But it wasn’t only crosswords that fascinated him.
“Any kind of puzzle I just found interesting,” he said.
Palindromes — words or phrases that read the same forward and backward — were a favorite. (Reagle mentioned one example: “Do geese see God?” Try reading it backward.)
Reagle credits teachers in New Jersey and later in Arizona for encouraging his interest in words.
“In one of my English classes I made a puzzle, and my teacher said I should sell it,” he said.
So at age 16, Reagle sold his first puzzle to the New York Times.
Reagle said he had no thoughts about his hobby becoming a job. But he submitted puzzles to magazines and later to his college newspaper.
“I was always making crosswords when I should have been doing something else,” he said.
The hobby didn’t turn into a full-time job until the early 1980s. At age 35, he got his dream job, contributing crosswords every Sunday to the San Francisco Examiner. Ten years later, Reagle compiled his first book of crosswords. His 17th book of puzzles was published last month.
Reagle has become known for creating funny puzzles. Like a comedian, he’s always on the lookout for things that will make people laugh. He writes “endless lists” in little notebooks of ideas for puzzle themes and words.
One of Reagle’s crosswords, called “Plus or Minus One,” added or subtracted a letter from a word in order to make it funny.
“So Butte, Montana, [the city’s name rhymes with “cute”] becomes Butt, Montana,” he said.
Once Reagle gathers 20 to 30 answers, it takes him about three hours to create a typical Sunday puzzle and another three hours to write the clues.
About 50 million people do crosswords occasionally, according to the 2011 book “From Square One.”
Reagle has an idea why so many people fill in the little white squares. It has to do with frustration about traditional tests.
“My theory is crosswords are the ultimate dream exam that no one’s been able to take,” he said. “The human mind wants a hint.”