A Straight Dope Classic from Cecil's Storehouse of Human Knowledge

Why are crossword puzzles symmetrical?

May 11, 1984

Dear Cecil:

I've noticed that crossword puzzles in the newspapers are always symmetrical — that is, if you rotate them 180 degrees around their centers, they look exactly the same (except, of course, that the little numbers are upside down.) Why is this? If we find out, will it help us solve the puzzles? Please investigate!

Cecil replies:

Tranquilize yourself, laddie. Crossword puzzles are symmetrical mainly because (1) symmetrical puzzles appeal to their authors' neurotic love of order (have you ever talked to a crossword puzzle editor?), and (2) the word arrays that crossword puzzles are based on have always been symmetrical, dating back to ancient times, when they were thought to have mystical significance. The first crossword puzzle, devised in 1913 by Arthur Wynne, an editor for the New York World, was diamond-shaped with no black squares at all (instead there was a diamond-shaped cutout in the middle), but it was symmetrical nonetheless. Wynne said he based the first crossword on word puzzles he had seen in magazines as a youth in Liverpool. In these puzzles, which were supplied without diagrams, you were asked to construct some sort of symmetrical word array (usually a square or a diamond, but sometimes a star or other shape) on the basis of various clues.

These puzzles had in turn been suggested by two earlier gimmicks: the acrostic (if you solved all the clues the first and/or last letters of the solutions would spell out another word or words), and the good old word square (the words read the same horizontally or vertically). Acrostics, word squares, and word arrays in general have been around for millenia. One ancient Greek oracle used acrostic verses to spell out prophecies. A version of the famous word square below was found in the ruins of Pompeii, among other places:

ROTAS

OPERA

TENET

AREPO

SATOR

This square is unique in two respects: it can be read in four ways (up, down, right, and left), and it also makes a passable Latin sentence, which we may translate as "The sower Arepo holds the wheels at work" (I rely here on Roger Millington's Crossword Puzzles: Their History and Their Cult). Using a bogus word like "Arepo" suggests that Roman puzzle-smiths were as fond of cheating as their modern-day counterparts, but I might note that the term does mean "plow" in Celtic.

Rotational symmetry was one of a number of crossword conventions established by the Amateur Crossword Puzzle League of America in 1924. Nobody seems to remember why, but I'd guess it's because rotational symmetry makes for more compositional flexibility than mirror-image symmetry. (An equally inscrutable convention is that puzzles usually have an odd number of squares on a side, so that there's always a square in the exact center). None of this information, needless to say, will help you in the slightest in solving a crossword. However, if you want a five-letter word meaning "synonymous with brilliance" (Hint: It starts with C) — hey, just give me a call.

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