Popular Culture: A Convergence of Numbers and Words


It’s easy to imagine that crossword puzzles have existed for centuries–that they were an amusing diversion for crusading knights or monks killing time between illuminating manuscripts. But they’ve been around for less than a century, having first appeared in the New York World in 1913.What started as a fad quickly became an accepted component of newspapers around the country, the notable exception being The New York Times,which viewed the puzzles as unworthy pastimes. In 1942 the Times broke down and finally published its first Sunday puzzle. That puzzle quickly became the standard by which others are judged.

For those who create puzzles, having one published in the Times is quite an accomplishment– one achieved by Byron Walden, BA’85, with just his second submission. Walden, who teaches math at Santa Clara University, started making his own puzzles about seven years ago.

“A lot of people in the ‘numbers’ professions do crossword puzzles,” he says. “I see the words as algebraic objects.To me, it’s about manipulating the letters as opposed to something like poetry where you’re thinking of words as whole units and trying to put them together.” Puzzles printed in The New York Times follow strict guidelines and rules. The puzzles get progressively more difficult during the week, with Saturday’s being the most challenging. Walden also is a regular contributor to The Onion, which started running puzzles last year.Most puzzle writers submit on a freelance basis and, says Walden, people who make a living creating crossword puzzles number in the “low dozens.”

Walden typically creates harder puzzles, sometimes with a theme, sometimes without. He spends six to seven hours on each creation.

“I always like little phrases that have strange letters in them. Someone working the puzzle might think,’Nothing could go there,’ and then once they get it, they think, ‘Oh yeah, of course.'”

His favorite clue of all time: “pitched like a girl.” The answer: “falsetto.”

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