Crosswords lure wordsmiths to new Special Collections exhibit

By Hassan S. Ali

For hosting a snack-filled event aimed at garnering publicity for its newest exhibition, the Regenstein Library’s Special Collections Research Center was perhaps quieter than expected Monday afternoon, but not without good reason.

Students put wordplay over work as part of the center’s crossword puzzle competition, which special collections curators organized in an effort to promote The Meaning of Dictionaries, an exhibit chronicling the history and evolution of English-language dictionaries set to run through July 6.

Although the collection has been on display since March 12, organizers believed it could benefit from a boost in student interest, said Julia Gardner, reference and instruction librarian at the Special Collections Research Center. “We thought it would be kind of fun to draw students’ attention to the exhibit,” Gardner said, describing crossword puzzles as tools that elicit “our interest in words” and “the love of language.”

Gardner said the primary motivation behind organizing a creative event involved having “some kind of word game tied in with the dictionary idea.” After all, she said, “We’re looking at [dictionaries’] meaning in different ways.”

Those different perspectives involve a look at the changing social environment surrounding dictionaries over time, including historical tensions between British and American English, as well as the mania among some 1960s literati over dictionaries’ inclusion of non-standard words like “ain’t.”

Peering through the glass case that protects an archived copy of Webster’s Third New International Dictionary, Gardner reflected on the degree to which times have changed how people perceive the most common reference source. “Now it’s kind of hard to imagine the entire country whipped up over a dictionary,” she said.

It’s almost as hard as deciphering the clue at 52 Across—“Reached terra firma”—or picking apart the prompt at 36 Down—“Bluer than blue,” as one of the puzzles at the competition read. Gardner and her fellow organizers selected the day’s crop of crossword puzzles from New York Times puzzle master Will Shortz’s Quick and Easy crossword book, choosing a sufficient number so that each student could play a different puzzle.

Third-year David Richter, a self-described crossword fan, penciled his way in to completing his entire puzzle, becoming one of only 20 students in the competition to fill in every blank square.

“I thought I did pretty well,” he said before taking a tour of the exhibit. But when learning that students would be scored based on both accuracy and time, Richter, who clocked in at 11:25, briefly reconsidered his chances. “There are some people who are pretty intense.”

In fact, the competition brought out a largely experienced crop of puzzlers. Charged with scoring the submitted crosswords, Exhibit Assistant Kerrie Sancomb said a number of completed puzzles were perfect except for “one single letter.”

Other students bottomed out the scoring curve by turning in largely blank puzzles or taking more time than they had to spare.

A pair of history graduate students, who requested anonymity due to the “embarrassment” of their meager performances, turned in mostly incomplete puzzles after 35 minutes of work. “I prefer sudoku,” one of the students said before recalling the lighter side of crossword puzzles illustrated in the 2006 documentary Wordplay. (“I’ve always been intrigued by the letter ‘Q,’” says three-time American Crossword Puzzle Tournament winner Norman Payne in the film.) But the pair soon left without visiting the exhibit.

When the scores were tallied, a $30 gift card to the U of C Bookstore went to first-prize winner Jessica Manvell, a graduate student with a perfect score and a time of 7:12. Third-year Laura McFarland placed second with a time of 11:17, earning a $20 gift card to the U of C Bookstore. Richter, the third-year crossword enthusiast, trailed closely behind, placing third in the competition.