Crosswords in Latin

Paul Mckenna

Long before Arthur Wynne came up with his idea of a word-cross for the New York World in 1913, an unknown but ingenious Latin writer had cottoned on to the fun to be had by arranging words into a reticulated grid. The Sator Square – a word square found in the ruins of Pompeii and in many other places – is, of course, something rather special: the words read both eastwards and southwards from the most north-westerly point, as well as northwards and westwards from the south-eastern corner, and as a bonus the five five-lettered words could also make some sort of sense in Latin, “a plantsman (called) Arepo holds wheels in labour” vel sim. Quite what that actually means is something of a mystery; perhaps you can find your own interpretation.

Fast-forward some two millennia from Sator Arepo and we see that the first incarnation of Arthur Wynne’s idea has transformed into what is recognisable as a modern crossword. It has since become a permanent fixture of the majority of daily and weekly newspapers and journals in a good variety of languages around the world. Crosswords now appear in more than one form; some are plain definition-only ‘quickies’, some are General Knowledge tests, and some only allow answers to be derived from clues that contain both a definition and a cryptic build-up of the target word’s parts.

The Spectator cryptic crossword, 12 Oct. 1956.

In The Observer, a UK-based Sunday broadsheet, Torquemada (in post as crossword setter 1926 until 1939) was the first to transfix his solvers with a series of high-brow puzzles in English which were heavily reliant on tortuous wit, some left of field lateral thinking, and a very wide-ranging knowledge of Anglophone literature. Ximenes was his immediate successor (from 1939 to 1972) who did much to tidy up the whole process of producing crosswords. Ximenes on the Art of the Cryptic Crossword (1966), his magnum opus, codified the fairness by which the setter ought to obfuscate their intended route to the solution. Cryptic clues became more open to cracking, even if the subtlety of verbal gymnastics had increased.

Do you recognise anything appealingly reminiscent of Classical treatises in the title of Ximenes’ book? Ximenes was in fact the alter ego of Derrick Macnutt, the Head of Classics at Christ’s Hospital, a public school near Horsham, West Sussex, with an enviable record of producing top-notch Classicists. Do we see any connection between these two famous pseudonyms? Yes! Tomás de Torquemada (1420–98) was the first Grand Inquisitor of the Spanish Inquisition and Francisco Ximenes de Cisneros (1438–1517) one of his successors. We see the beginnings of a theme here which suggests that we might look deeper into a Neo-Latin coinage which inevitably crops up when discussing Latin crosswords:

cruciverba, -orum n. pl (etymologically crux + verbum) crosswords

Clearly on the etymological level this is a perfectly adequate calque translation and portmanteau word that is reverse-engineered from “cross” and “words”. But can we see anything else lurking in the deeper root meaning of crux? All very torturous.

Cover and dustflap of D.S. Macnutt’s Ximenes on the Art of the Crossword (Methuen, London, 1966).

An early BBC radio listings and culture publication named The Listener (1929–91) continued the idea of devious devilry, since each weekly puzzle had a unique theme. For twenty-odd years from the 1930s Janus, followed by Castor and Pollux, specialised in producing puzzles that called for (admittedly pretty advanced!) knowledge of Latin and Greek language and literature. After the winding-up of the host magazine the concept and name of the Listener Crossword was adopted by The Times. Unfortunately, though probably predictably, one’s ability to chant out a noun’s fifth declension, or jingle off a second conjugation paradigm, will not increase the chances of successfully solving a Listener puzzle nowadays.

Elsewhere in recent history crosswords in Latin have appeared in two school-focused magazines – Acta Diurna (triannual Latin newspaper, 1946–75) and Greece & Rome (biannual Classics journal, 1931–) – by T.W. “Tommy” Melluish (a London schoolmaster, long-time leading light of Classical teachers’ associations, and major player in the circle of Ximenes’ solvers). Reprising a relationship first developed for Friends of the Classics in their magazine Ad Familiares,a book of Latin Crosswords by David Dare-Plumpton (a.k.a. Plausus) and Peter Jones provides a collection which are fantastic fun and eminently accessible “solves” for Classics students of all abilities. Your essayist supplied a modest few to Omnibus (1980–), the biannual school magazine of the Classical Association, at the dawn of this century. A search of your preferred online booksellers’ websites will throw up plenty more opportunities to investigate the genre.

One of Tommy Melluish’s intricate Latin crosswords for Greece & Rome (October, 1937).

As this survey drifts up to the present day we may ask ourselves where we can easily find Latin crosswords now. Obviously I have no hesitation in recommending the O Tempora series in The Times on Saturdays. We have been at it for roughly seven years now – and puzzle #344 appeared last weekend. I am that one of the foursome with the boringly transparent and entirely non-inquisitional pseudonym Auctor (Latin for “creator” or “author”).

What might you find upon dipping inquisitive toes? Hopefully some fun, certainly some excuse to put your chanting and jingling skills to good use, some reason to recall favourite snippets of the great Latin literary heritage, some need to uncover new quotations which may have slipped under your radar, some small relief for your cacoethes reddendi (“the incurable urge to translate”), some minimally cryptic thinking in Latin, and undoubtedly some whimsy which defies simple categorisation. When filling grids with words and subsequently composing clues, my imaginary Muse is an intermediate student of Latin who handles grammar and a dictionary mostly competently but perhaps needs a supportive nudge now and then. I hope she appreciates the extra help.

Here are a few illustrative exempla:

  1. Neck (2nd n. gen. sing.) (5)
  2. facio, facere, ____, factum (4)
  3. ____ virumque cano, Aen. 1.1 (4)
  4. mea ____ est caruisse Urbe: my sadness is to have missed Rome (9)
  5. “Are You Being Served?” (13)
  6. Historian chappie who doesn’t let much slip? (7)
  7. Quivers (non cogitandum tibi ‘tremescet’ sed quae in umeris Cupidinum pendent) (9)
  8. Snowy the Snowman (6)
Psyche revived by Cupid’s kiss, Antonio Canova, 1793 (Musée du Louvre, Paris, France).

So far I have focussed on the whos and wheres of our aenigmata from one side of the equation. But what about those in the more important group who tussle with them – you, lectrices carae et lectores cari. Who are you? In short, anyone who enjoys rehearsing a Classical education, whether that be from the somewhat distant past or still ongoing. From the feedback which we have received we know that somebody from the satirical BBC show Have I Got News For You has a go; at least one current Latin teacher mentions to their students some points which provoked interest; a retired ecclesiast uses them as a learning resource for his adult-education Latin classes; there’s an elderly gent who prides himself on only using an ancient copy of Carey’s Gradus ad Parnassum for assistance (a pleasing thought, I think, but it’s hardly a requirement); my first Latin master and certainly the chap who encouraged my lifelong love of Latin; there are some who admit to no pedagogic interest but take simple pleasure in rising to their hebdomadary challenge. One might hope that there are a few dons who would have the Oxford Latin Dictionary for breakfast too; if so, they are courteous enough to keep their quibbles under wraps of privacy.

I would encourage you to squander a little of your leisure time tinkering with an O Tempora puzzle or two – they’re really not as impenetrable as you might think.

“The most civilised way to waste time.”

Thus Colin “Inspector Morse” Dexter (1930–2017), a famously crossword-loving Classicist, on describing crosswords or, as we might have it,

modus urbanissimus otium consumendi.

Inspector Morse interrupts the important business of crossword solving for some small-talk with Lewis, his fellow crime-solver (Colin Dexter, The Riddle of the Third Mile, 1983).

Oh, and here are the answers to those clues above with explanation.

  1. colli – it is a second declension neuter noun whose form is genitive singular.
  2. feci – this is the first person perfect, indicative, active form which completes the gap in the four principal parts.
  3. arma – it is the word which replaces the underscore in the phrase found in the first line of the first book of the Aeneid.
  4. maestitia – if the quote rings no bells, a little translating should guide you to the answer which Lewis and Short sub voce will confirm. Hopefully you’ll investigate the citation in Juvenal’s Satires 53.
  5. ministrarisne – a translation clue of a recognisable English phrase.
  6. Tacitus – a double def(inition) clue where the first points directly to the historian and the second half somewhat cryptically defines a male who might keep quiet.
  7. pharetrae – a deceptive def but the Latin spells out clearly what’s needed: “you mustn’t ponder on tremescet but what dangle from the shoulders of Cupids.”
  8. niveus – an adjective defined by “snowy”, the number and gender are hinted at by “Snowman”.

Paul McKenna is a Classicist who provides crosswords for many of the ‘Fleet Street’ outlets under a couple of other pseudonyms which reflect his interests – Jason and Musaeus – as well as anonymously. He is also one of the trio who set the Mephisto crosswords in the Sunday Times. International oil and gas pipeline construction management continues to keep the wolf from the door.


If you would like to try your hand at an O Tempora puzzle in full, here is one of mine from the last decade (12 March 2016), reproduced by kind permission of The Times:

The solution is available here.


And, if you want to throw yourself into something far more complex from the Melluish archive, which will call on your Greek and English as well, you could perhaps try this (the solution, which may be welcome, can be found here).