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The Oxford English Dictionary

Words and Word Games

The English have a passion for playing with words - everything from Scrabble to crosswords. The first acknowledged crossword, published on December 21, 1913, was created by Englishman Arthur Wynne for the "New York Sunday World".

Newspaper crosswords
Newspaper crosswords
© Cognitive Applications/Maria Gibbs
Within ten years, it was estimated that Americans spent five million hours every day doing crosswords and the cryptic craze soon swept across the Atlantic. Crossword fans included Queen Mary and Prime Minister Stanley Baldwin. However, it was not until February 1, 1930, that the first crossword was published in The Times.

Other word games, though slightly more obscure, continue to test a worldwide audience with a thirst for language and lexicons. For instance, the -Gry Puzzle asks you to name the third English word, other than "angry" and "hungry," that ends with the letters ‘gry’ - although there is no single word that is not a place name ending in "gry" in current usage. However, the Oxford English Dictionary (2nd edition) does contain the phrase "aggry bead" -  a "glass bead found buried in the earth in Ghana", and many obsolete words end in "gry".


Scrabble board
A Scrabble board
© Cognitive Applications/Maria Gibbs
It’s surely no coincidence that word games have proven to be some of the most popular and enduring shows on both British radio and television. My Word! was a radio panel game which launched on the BBC Home Service on January 1, 1957, and  ended on Radio 4 in 1990. Comic writers Denis Norden and Frank Muir captained two teams, originally consisting of film critic E Arnot Robertson and journalist and author Nancy Spain, which had to solve a number of word games and literary quizzes covering vocabulary, etymology and bits of poetry. The quiz became famous for its final round, in which each team was asked to give the origin of a famous phrase or quotation, and Muir and Norden told a long-winded story, finishing with a cleverly constructed pun, which supposedly gave the "real" meaning.


Frank Muir became the master of the word quiz show when he became one of the team captains on Call My Bluff, the popular series which originally ran on BBC2 from 1965 to 1988. The most memorable Call My Bluff line-up featured chair Robert Robinson, with Muir’s wits pitted against opposing captain Patrick Campbell. The show was resurrected in 1996, with Alan Coren and Sandi Toksvig the team captains, and Bob Holness - former chair of the cult teenage quiz show Blockbusters - as chairman. The game consists of two teams of three celebrity contestants taking it in turns to provide three definitions of an obscure word, only one of which is correct. The other team then has to guess which is the correct definition, the other two being "bluffs".



But most lexicon lovers would agree that the Daddy of them all is Countdown, the words-and-numbers show that Channel 4 chose to announce its arrival with on 2 November, 1982. Based on the French game show Des Chiffres Et Des Lettres (Numbers And Letters), Countdown is now one of the longest-running game shows in the world and made an unlikely celebrity of its late presenter, Richard Whiteley, who died in 2005.

In each episode, two contestants compete in three disciplines, two of them focusing on words: letters rounds, in which the contestants make the longest possible word from nine given letters; and the "conundrum", a buzzer round in which the contestants have to solve a nine-letter anagram in the fastest time possible. The other Countdown mainstay is Dictionary Corner, featuring a lexicographer and a celebrity guest. The lexicographer’s role not only verifies the words offered by the contestants but also offers any other interesting or longer words available. Many lexicographers have featured but, since her debut in 1992, the O.E.D’s own Susie Dent has now made more than 1,000 appearances.  

The winner of each Countdown series receives the Holy Grail of lexicography: a leather-bound copy of the 20-volume Oxford English Dictionary. However, the winner of series 31, David Acton, refused this, because of his strict veganism, and opted for a CD-ROM version instead.