Meet Will Shortz, The Puzzle Master

What’s a 12-letter word for “the study of all that puzzles”? If you guessed enigmatology, you have Will Shortz to thank. The New York Times crossword whiz helped spell out this new field of research. His career started in 1974 when he customized his curriculum at Indiana University to earn a degree in enigmatology, making him the only academically credentialed enigmatologist in the world. After graduation, he edited Games magazine for 15 years before joining the Times. These days, Shortz edits seven puzzles a week, serves as puzzle master on National Public Radio every Sunday, and regularly promotes all things enigmatic. In the process, he’s transformed crossword puzzles from an obscure art to a popular science.

What exactly is enigmatology?
Shortz: Literally, it’s the study of riddles, but at Indiana I defined it as the study of puzzles. It draws from a broad range of disciplines. I took classes in English, math, philosophy, journalism, and, of course, linguistics. My thesis was on the history of American word puzzles before 1860.

How far back do puzzles go?
As far as human history. Some of the earliest surviving manuscripts contain arithmetical problems that were done for recreation, and those go back to ancient Egypt. There are riddles in the Bible.

Is there a type of person who’s predisposed to puzzle-solving?
It’s a broad range, from teens to as old as people get. I’ve seen every occupation represented. Crosswords involve analytical thinking, which tends to attract mathematicians and computer types. They’re also a literary activity, so they attract word people.

Why are we so drawn to puzzles?
We’re faced with puzzles every day in life. What’s the fastest way to run some errands? What’s the lowest price we can get on home repair? Most problems we’re faced with, we just do the best we can – we muddle through. We never know if it’s the best solution or not. With a human-made puzzle, when you answer the challenge, you know you have a perfect solution. It’s satisfying.

How have crossword puzzles changed in the past decade?
The puzzles reflect life and language better than they did 10 years ago. They’re full of words, phrases, and names that are used every day. In the old days, it was rare to find a reference to current events or pop culture in a puzzle. Now a word might not even be in the dictionary, like v8engine.

What about computers and the Internet?
Ten years ago, people didn’t use computers to create or solve puzzles. Some crossword constructors still use pencil and paper today, but a lot of people use computer databases and programs for filling grids. There’s also a whole online culture. In the old days it was a solitary activity. Now there’s a great Web site called with a forum for crossword constructors and all sorts of tools. Puzzle makers from around the country work together. I’ve published crosswords in the Times cowritten by constructors living in different parts of the country who had never met each other.

University of Toronto semiotics professor Marcel Danesi says that in ancient times, you would have been a prophet.
Some prophets were put to death if their sayings didn’t come true. I’m happy just to be a puzzle maker.

How does it feel to be the father of a whole new field of research?
Every school should have a course in enigmatology!

Written by Jonah Freedman