The Story Behind "The World's Hardest" Crossword Puzzle

iStock.com/izzetugutmen
iStock.com/izzetugutmen

Earlier this year, Marc Breman, one of the most prolific crossword creators in Great Britain, released what some papers called the most challenging crossword puzzle in history. Breman creates around 13,500 crossword clues every year for publications like the Daily Mirror, the Daily Express, and the Sunday Telegraph. He has made more than 30,000 puzzles in his nearly three-decade career. But one stands above the rest.

"The World's Hardest Cryptic Crossword" got its title because of its intensely abstruse clues, and it took Breman six weeks to complete. Though the language of each clue—like 44 Down, "Fuss about a large bear," or 51 Across, "Yorkshire flower of zero application"—may read as straightforward, Breman's puzzle is said by the Daily Mail to be challenging due to its "linguistic wordplay, codes and numerous hidden meanings."

So just how hard is it? "Based on the feedback of other compilers who have seen it or tried it, mine is about 100 times harder," Breman told The Mirror in April. "If that description is indeed correct, then it stands to reason that it would take the average enthusiast 100 times longer to solve it. This amounts to 100 weeks, or just over two years."

Breman was so sure of his challenge that he offered a free copy of his 2017 novel, The Foggiest Notion, to anyone who sent him a correct solve.

A victim of its own branding, Breman's puzzle was devoured and solved, by some, relatively quickly. In an interview with The Guardian, Breman said, "[The puzzle] started as a reaction to being asked by a couple of magazines to make things easier. I decided to make the hardest puzzle I could, just for fun." But he did backpedal the claim of its impossible difficulty just a touch: "It's clearly not the hardest puzzle, it's just the hardest puzzle I could make."

Almost immediately, one reader of The Daily Telegraph said he solved the puzzle in under two hours. "I am a very keen puzzler," Simon Anthony told the paper. "Some of the clues were definitely tricky, but two years would be a stretch … it used a lot of interesting vocabulary and cluing, although some of the clues were outrageous." Anthony was the first of 10 people Breman said sent him a correct solution.

Breman's puzzle is available for download here, and it certainly is quite the challenge, even for those who can race through the notoriously difficult New York Times Sunday puzzle. How fast do you think you could solve it? Give it your best shot to celebrate National Crossword Day today! (And if you need some help, check out this video of Anthony solving the puzzle clue by clue.)

11 Words That Started Out As Spelling Mistakes

A woman sneezing, which in Middle English would have been called a fneze instead.
A woman sneezing, which in Middle English would have been called a fneze instead.
iStock.com/Dirima

The word irregardless might not be to everyone’s taste, but there’s no denying that if you were to use it in a sentence, you’d be perfectly understood—and that’s more than enough evidence for it to have been accepted into many dictionaries (albeit flagged as non-standard or informal), including Oxford Dictionaries, Merriam-Webster, and even the hallowed Oxford English Dictionary, which has so far been able to trace it back as far as 1912. So despite it having its origins in an error, and irregardless of what you might think of it, there’s no denying irregardless is indeed a word—and it’s by no means alone.

1. Expediate

Meaning “to hasten” or “to complete something promptly,” the verb expediate is thought to have been invented by accident in the early 1600s when the adjective form of expedite, meaning “ready for action” or “alert,” was misspelled in an essay by the English politician Sir Edwin Sandys (it was later corrected).

2. Culprit

There are several different accounts of the origin of culprit, but all of them seem to agree that the word was born out of a mistake. Back when French was still the language of the law in England in the Middle Ages (a hangover from the days of the Norman Conquest), the phrase Culpable, prest d’averrer nostre bille—literally “guilty, ready to prove our case”—was apparently the stock reply given by the Clerk of the Crown whenever a defendant gave a plea of not guilty. In the court records, this fairly long-winded phrase was often abbreviated just to cul. prit., and, as the Oxford English Dictionary explains, “by a fortuitous or ignorant running together of the two,” the word culprit was born.

3. Despatch

Despatch is a chiefly British English variant of dispatch, often used only in formal contexts like the name of the political despatch box in the House of Commons. The e spelling apparently began as a phonetic variation of the original I spelling, but after Samuel Johnson included it in his Dictionary of the English Language in 1755, its use was legitimized and thrived in the 19th century. Because Johnson himself preferred the I spelling in his own writings, however, it's supposed that he included the e spelling by mistake and inadvertently popularized the error.

4. Nickname

Nicknames were originally called eke names, with the verb eke used here in the sense of “to make longer” or “to provide an addition.” Sometime in the 13th century, however, “an eke-name” was mistakenly interpreted as “a neke-name,” and the N permanently jumped across from the indefinite article an to the verb eke. The same error—known linguistically as “rebracketing” or “junctural metanalysis”—is responsible for nadders, numpires, and naprons all losing their initial Ns in the Middle English period.

5. Ammunition

Ammunition derives from a faulty division of the French la munition, which was incorrectly misheard as l'amonition by French soldiers in the Middle Ages, and it was this mistaken form that was borrowed into English in the 1600s.

6. Scandinavia

Scandinavia was originally called Scadinavia, without the first N, and is thought to take its name from an island, perhaps now part of the Swedish mainland, called Scadia. According to the Oxford English Dictionary, the extra N was added in error by the Roman scholar Pliny the Elder, and has remained in place ever since.

7. Syllabus

If all had gone to plan in the history of the word syllabus, those two Ls should really be Ts: Syllabus was coined as a Latin misreading of an Ancient Greek word, sittybos, meaning “a table of contents.”

8. Sneeze

Oddly, sneeze was spelled with an F and not an S, fneze, in Middle English, which gives weight to the theory that it was probably originally coined onomatopoeically. At least one explanation of why the letter changed suggests that this F inadvertently became an S sometime in the 15th century due to continual misreadings of the long lowercase f as the old-fashioned long S character, ſ.

9. Ptarmigan

The ptarmigan is a bird of the grouse family, found in mountainous and high-latitude environments. Its bizarre name with its initial silent P is something of a mystery, as the original Scots word from which it derives, tarmachan, shows no evidence of it and there’s little reason why one should ever have to have been added to it—except, of course, if it were a mistake. The P spelling first emerged in the late 1600s, and is thought to have been a mistaken or misguided attempt to ally the name to the Greek word for a wing, pteron, and eventually this unusual P spelling replaced the original one.

10. Sherry

Sherry takes its name from the southern Spanish port of Xeres (now Jerez de la Frontera in Cádiz) and was originally known as vino de Xeres, or “wine of Xeres.” This name then morphed into sherris when sherry first began to be talked about in English in the early 17th century, but because of that final S, it didn’t take long for that to be misinterpreted as a plural. Ultimately, a mistaken singular form, sherry, emerged entirely by mistake in the early 1600s.

11. Pea

Another word that developed from a plural-that-actually-wasn’t is pea. One pea was known as a pease in Middle English, but because of that final “s” sound, pease was quickly misinterpreted as a plural, giving rise to a misguided singular form, pea, in the 17th century. The actual plural of pease in Middle English, incidentally, was pesen.

This list first ran in 2016.

Can You Guess the Meaning of These Dothraki Words?

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