Word Games: Why Do We Love Them?

Los juegos de palabras combinan una vertiente lúdica con beneficios cognitivos y hasta neurológicos, y han divertido a la humanidad desde que surgió entre nosotros esa facultad tan trascendental que es el lenguaje. Repasamos su historia y principales atractivos.

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Sarah Davison

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Word games tap into a primal learning instinct: letter blocks are one of the first toys we give to young children, and spellingquizzes (‘spelling bees’ in America), crosswords and anagrams are all used in the classroom to help memorise vocabulary. 

historic communication

The ancient Romans loved puzzles. The first known word square, the mysterious ‘Sator Square’, was found in the ruins of Pompeii, destroyed in 79 AD, and has turned up on other archeological sites. The square contains a five-word Latin palindrome (a word or sentence that reads the same backwards or forwards), but no one is sure what it was meant to communicate.


Riddles, which use wordplay and other devicesto misdirect the solver, are also ancient and ubiquitous. The Exeter Book, an 11th-century Old English manuscript, contains around a hundred of them. The Victorian era saw a boom in enigmas, visual word games, such as acrostics, where the first, last and sometimes middle letters of each line form a hidden word or words. 


Crosswords became popular in the 1800s, but took their recognisable form in around 1913. Arthur Wynne, a British immigrant living in New York, needed something to fill space in the Christmas edition of the New York World fun pages, so he used new technology that could print blankgrids cheaply to create a set of boxes, and clues to help the player fill in the blanks. It became the most popular feature of the page during World War One.


While the British initially worried about the crossword —they saw it as an American import that would waste workers’ time—, it became accepted as a respectable, intellectual pastime. It was a Briton, Edward Powys Mathers (aka ‘Torquemada’), who introduced cryptic crosswords in the 1920s. The US composer Stephen Sondheim is credited with introducing cryptic crosswords to America in the late 1960s with a series of puzzles he created for New York magazine.


While some clues can be infuriating, word games are unarguably relaxing on the whole: relieving stress, distracting from worries, and offering an emotional boost21 when you solve the puzzle. What’s more, while seemingly introspective, they are also very good at encouraging communication with others.


Hangman has mysterious origins. In this fun but macabre game, one player thinks of a word and the other tries to guess it by suggesting letters, with every wrong guess bringing a figure closer to being hanged! Some say it originated in Europe during the 17th century and was actually ‘played’ with real prisoners’ lives! This is probably just hearsay, but still, the idea of language potentially saving a life seems to run through the reputation of word games. 

health benefits

Word games relieve tension and combat stress, providing a distraction from everyday worries and a warm-up for intellectual activities. Known to release dopamine, the hormone responsible for making us feel pleasure, optimism, and satisfaction, they also help us improve cognitive abilities; skills that assist the brain in thinking, concentrating, remembering and learning. Most significantly, word games improve memory: exercising the brain by activating the region responsible for both long- and short-term memory. Some research suggests they can even help people suffering from dementia and Alzheimer’s.

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