The Cruciverbalist

Portland's global crossword puzzle star is deeply tied to the world of wordcraft.

By Angela Sanders December 2, 2013 Published in the December 2013 issue of Portland Monthly

Most mornings, Brian Greer fills a cup from a stovetop espresso maker in his Northeast Portland bungalow, evicts the cat from his chair, and sits down to work at an iBook G4 that dates to early in the George W. Bush era. Then, as he has for 49 years, he sets about turning words into games for an unseen, faraway audience.

The Irishman—who at 69, with white hair and a rumpled shirt, evokes Christopher Plummer in the depths of a laundry emergency—creates crossword puzzles for London’s Telegraph, Times, and Guardian, plus an occasional puzzle for the New York Times. His reach into some of the English-speaking world’s most respected papers makes Greer’s desk a global crucible of “cruciverbalism”—the art of crossword construction, which began 100 years ago this month when the New York World published the first modern puzzle.

“I don’t regard it as particularly serious,” Greer says, a trace of his native brogue lingering. “A puzzle is satisfying. It’s a piece of your life you can finish.” 

Greer got his start in 1964 for the Cambridge University newspaper, Varsity. He moved to Portland in 2003 to join his wife, Swapna Mukhopadhyay, an ethnomathematician at Portland State University. Of the thousands of puzzles he’s created, he’s especially proud of two: one running 200 clues in each direction for London’s Times, and one that revealed the phrase “Barack Obama for President.” (Citing partisanship, the New York Times declined to publish it, but Britain’s Independent ran it.) Colin Dexter, crossword puzzle aficionado and author of the Inspector Morse crime novels, named one of his characters—a female pathologist—in Greer’s honor.

“Filling out the words isn’t difficult,” Greer says. The tough part is coming up with clues—a good one packs at least two meanings. For instance, for one of his Sunday puzzles, Greer wrote, as a clue for “Chinese Lantern,” “It grows light in the East.” The clue could also lead its solver to think of “dawn.” He writes solutions on a scrap of paper and tapes it to his exercise bicycle to ponder as he works out. If necessary, he’ll carry the list to his weight bench, and finally tape it to the wall next to the bathtub. 

Eventually—in the grid of words, if not the universe—everything resolves, and the process begins again.

Attempt a crossword puzzle custom-made for Portland Monthly by Brian Greer!

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