Oh, my: Blogging the USA Today puzzle

Now that I have a shiny new Mac running on an Intel chip, I downloaded Alex Boisvert’s Crossword Butler tool to fetch Across Lite versions of crosswords. Like others who wouldn’t do the puzzle if they had to track it down or if it weren’t available in Across Lite, I wouldn’t seek out the USA Today crossword.

Region capture 15But Tyler Hinman and Jeffrey Krasnick are so entertaining when pointing out (via Twitter) the woeful fill and themes they find in the USA Today and Universal crosswords (both edited by the same person), so I had to at least give USA Today a shot. Today’s puzzle by Alice Walker (not, I don’t think, the author of The Color Purple) is called “Color Coded” and the theme entries are BLACK BEAR, GRAYBEARDS, WHITE BREAD, and GREEN BEAN. Thematic concerns:

  • GRAYBEARDS is one word, while the other three are two-word terms.
  • GRAYBEARDS is arbitrarily pluralized.
  • GREEN BEAN, on the other hand, really should be used in the plural, as people seldom contend with just a single green bean.
  • The color quartet is so odd. Black, gray, white…and green?? Red, green, blue, and yellow make a great foursome, and black, gray, and white make a great trio. Even changing the BEAR to BROWN would make for a less jarring combination of colors.

Surprising answers in the fill:

  • 5d. [Old fiddle] is REBECK. Whoa. I’ve seen REBEC in crosswords (and it’s not the sort of answer a constructor wants to include), but never REBECK.
  • 18d. Right beside REBECK is KRAAL, a [Boer’s pen]. This answer makes 19A: KRAIT, [Poisonous snake], seem much more accessible.
  • 48d. I’ve never seen the word NEBULE, or [Small cloud].
  • 26d. I do know the BAOBAB tree and think it’s a terrifically cool word—but it rarely shows up in the other mainline crosswords. It’s clued here as the [Monkey bread tree]. Oh, look: the word “bread” also appears in a theme entry.

Clunky clue:

  • 65a. [Been around longer] clues OLDER. This fails the substitution rule as well as violating the part-of-speech equivalency rule. “I have been around longer” = “I am older”? Fail. Verb phrase vs. comparative adjective? Fail.

There weren’t any deadly crossings, but the unfamiliar cluing style and the three out-there entries slowed me down to about 3:50, longer than the standard Monday-to-Wednesday puzzles.

I may be instructing the Butler not to open the door when the USA Today crossword comes knocking.

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13 Responses to Oh, my: Blogging the USA Today puzzle

  1. Amy Reynaldo says:

    Oh, look. I didn’t hide the solution grid behind a spoiler-free jump. Apologies if this vexes you.

  2. joecab says:

    It only vexes me by making me weep openly seeing the actual fill.

  3. Eric Maddy says:

    Tim Parker exists only to make us more greatly appreciate people like Will Shortz, Peter Gordon, and RIch Norris.

    Even when the puzzle is halfway decent (which it is sometimes), there’s always a REBECK in the grid, and you know that kind of crap would never slip past a real crossword editor.

  4. Meem says:

    I work these when we travel and USA Today is the paper that appears outside our motel room door. Puzzle spouse will tell you that my observations about quality are seldom charitable!

  5. joon says:

    honestly, it doesn’t even seem that bad. most of the problems tweeted by tyler and crosscan are far more hilarious. today, for instance, tyler says: Nothing screams “Monday puzzle” like Universal’s “African amulet (Var.)” = GRIGRI. what is that even a variant of? REBECK seems pretty tame in comparison.

  6. *David* says:

    My understanding from the people in the know is once you go USA Today, you can never go back. I have resisted the siren call but now with Amy on board, I think I have no choice but to join the converted.

  7. Eric Maddy says:

    Today’s USA Today wasn’t particularly bad, which is more a statement on the usual quality of that puzzle than it is on today’s puzzle in particular.

    Funnily enough, I am far less fazed by GRI-GRI than by REBECK. GRI-GRI is a variant of GRIS-GRIS, which is kind of like JU-JU — it’s a voodoo charm. My familiarity with it comes from reading about African soccer — everything I know I learn from its association with soccer.

  8. Alex says:

    Oh, no. Are we going to get more comments on this post than the regular Monday post?

    Anyway, good news for *David*: Dan Feyer has kicked the habit after doing these puzzles for a while, so if you start them, you may be able to stop. But … just don’t start doing these puzzles.

    I’m kinda sorta hoping that I get a “cease and desist” e-mail from the USA Today and Universal puzzles so I have an excuse to not offer these puzzles any more in the Butler.

  9. Jeffrey says:

    Like Meem, I did this one today in the hotel room. That doesn’t make it any better. Of course, it seems like a stumper compared to the other puzzles on the page.

    Easy Sudoku 3×2 boxes. 1/2/3/4/5 are filled in. What could the sixth box be?

    Can’t wait for tomorrow’s paper.

  10. Howard B says:

    When does the line become blurred between ‘Sudoku’ and ‘counting’?
    You know, I’ll try to solve anything with blanks, with an open mind. I don’t want to be a puzzle snob, or whatever. But the USA Today puzzle hurts my cranium.

    I think that may come from that intangible feeling that with USA Today’s wide circulation, it helps to support a stereotype of crosswords being a pastime for those with obscure, stodgy word knowledge disconnected from the real world – that’s a concept and ‘feel’ of crosswords that good constructors and editors work so hard to overcome. And most do so well at that, too. It’s a shame.

    Not that I don’t like new, quirky, and interesting words or grids, but hey, USA Today: a little advice on those odd words: Just like oregano, a little on the pizza is good, but don’t pour the whole jar on there, OK? And avoid those pesky variants, misspellings, completely blocked-off grids, nonsensical themes etc. Thank you :).

  11. Matt Gaffney says:

    Meanwhile, Peter Gordon doesn’t have a daily crossword to edit…

  12. Jordan says:

    For years I’ve done the USA Today puzzle as one of the six to twelve puzzles I do each day – quite honestly, it may not win any Oryx awards but it’s really not as bad as all that, and it frequently has words the others don’t. I _want_ to see words that are new to me precisely because I _don’t_ know them. Certainly the editing could use some improvement in terms of issues like direct substitution, but frankly the early-week Newsdays, although I do them, seem far more like pointless time-wasters.

  13. Eric Maddy says:

    @Jordan — “I _want_ to see words that are new to me precisely because I _don’t_ know them.”

    I agree — IF they’re new to me because they’re new to the vocabulary, or have a new usage. If they’re new to me simply because nobody’s put them in a crossword since Maleska died, well, I can do without those for the most part. I want fresh new words; the “new” words I get from USA Today are usually pretty damn musty.

    I tried the USA Today puzzle again today. BACCA and ANTRUM? Eugene would’ve liked them….

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