MGWCC #276

crossword 4:32
meta 2 minutes 

hello and welcome to episode #276 of matt gaffney’s weekly crossword contest, “Clean That Up!”. this week’s instructions ask us for a word meaning “of poor quality.” what are the theme answers? well, there’s only the one long central answer, {Indelicate crossword biz term for when a constructor tries way too hard to fit an X, Q, Z or J into their grid} SCRABBLE-F#$%ING, a term coined by matt himself in a puzzle review here on the fiend. but that’s the key to the meta, of course.

this puzzle is full of amazingly obscure/awkward entries that stick out like sore thumbs in order to get an X, Q, Z, or J into the grid. i’ve circled them in the screencap; here they all are:

  • in the upper left, there’s the X at the intersection of {Spanish city that gave sherry its name} XERES and {Dry: Prefix} XERO-.
  • the top middle has {WWII general and namesakes} TOJOS (!! how’s that for a plural name?) crossing the what-in-the-hell-is-that {Arabian plateau region} NEJD at the J.
  • the top right has {Four times a day, in an Rx} QID crossing the letter run {O-T connectors} PQRS at the Q.
  • the lower left has obscure {40’s boxer Tony} ZALE (never heard of him) crossing the {Japanese sandal} ZORI (that i’ve seen maybe once) at the Z.
  • the bottom middle has {George ___, German-American artist known for vitriolic caricature} GROSZ (who?) crossing the gratuitous french vocab {Enough, to Etienne} ASSEZ at the Z.
  • finally, we get one more X in the lower right where awkward verbified letter {Editor’s activity} EXING crosses {Asian evergreen} OLAX (!?!).

so what’s the answer to the meta? well, taking a tip from the title, you have to un-scrabble-f#$% the grid in order to uncover it. by just replacing each of those six scrabbly letters with a more mundane one, the fill can be cleaned up immensely. to wit:

  • XERES/XERO- becomes HERE’S/HERO.
  • QID/PQRS becomes AID/PARS. (EID and PERS are both fill entries i’ve seen, but not really much of an improvement on QID/PQRS.)
  • ZALE/ZORI becomes TALE/TORI.
  • EXING/OLAX becomes EYING/OLAY. i’m glad matt didn’t make me choose between EFING and EVING for this one.

so the cleaned-up grid has H, R, A, T, S, and Y instead of the scrabbly letters. those six letters can be rearranged to spell TRASHY, which is a word meaning “of poor quality” and the answer to the meta.

well, doubtless some will object to the crassness of the term this entire puzzle is built around, but i thought this was a really neat meta. it’s more meta, if you will, than most metas: matt is offering us a peek behind the curtain of crossword construction and taking a hard look at the practice of puffing up a grid with scrabbly letters at the expense of overall fill quality. to make a point, of course, he’s exaggerated things somewhat, but i do often see unassuming corners of daily newspaper crosswords that are scrabbly past the point of reason. why would you include a random roman numeral crossing a prefix just to get an extra X into the grid?

i also enjoyed the opportunity to “clean up” the grid. (in more ways than one—i hope you’ll forgive me for bowdlerizing the central theme answer, of course.) i mentally do that anyway when i see poor old ERIQ lasalle get trotted out for the 100th time just to satisfy somebody’s desire for an extra Q in their grid, so to have that be the mechanism for the meta was good fun.

what did you all think of this one?

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51 Responses to MGWCC #276

  1. Matt Gaffney says:

    Thanks, Joon. 282 right answers this week.

    All 12 lousy entries appeared in actual NYT crosswords, including their clues which I copied verbatim. And to show that I have a sense of humor, one of them (XERO) came from one of my own NYT crosswords.

  2. Paul Coulter says:

    In Matt-monde, this must be Try to Dismember September. Both early month puzzles were hardly sitters. We look forward with delighted but nervy expectation to Weeks 3 and 4. I was fooled by the absence of a W from this grid that clearly wanted to declare its quasi-pangramatic nature. I spent a long time trying to understand what that meant and why the title was hinting at something like wash or wipe or whisk. I must have rechecked the words ten times to make sure there wasn’t really a W. Or am I wrong? Finally, I decided that the solution would be straightforward in Week 2, read the clues carefully, and found the revealer in the one theme clue. Finding that Matt had carefully designed the “F***ed” words so that only one common word would fit in each spot, and that their substituted letters spelled an appropriate answer was a very nice Aha moment. Well done, Matt. I agree with Joon that this was a neat idea. But I still don’t understand the missing W.

    • joon says:

      the meta has nothing to do with pangrams, just XJQZ. W is like any other letter.

      • Paul Coulter says:

        I disagree. All the other letters are in the grid, and the meta seems to suggest the constructor was squeezing in the missing X,J,Q, and Z. For what other reason would he do so other than to make it a pangram?

        • Matt Gaffney says:

          Constructors do it not for the pangram per se, but rather for the prestige of having more Scrabbly letters in the grid. Sometimes a pangram results from Scrabble-???king, but not always.

        • joon says:

          for what reason indeed? constructors include scrabbly letters for the sake of including scrabbly letters. perhaps it has to do with the spec sheets over at cruciverb, where some editors explicitly mention that they like to see them.

          that said, i still don’t know where you’re getting anything about a pangram. certainly not from the puzzle, as the meta suggests nothing of the sort. even apart from the lack of any mention of pangrammaticality, if these four letters were all that mattered for a pangram, why are X and Z used twice each?

          • Noam D. Elkies says:

            Well it *would* have been nice if there was only one each and their replacements formed a four-letter metapuzzle answer in the order of the clue, without anagramming. I wonder whether anybody tried the anagram “sharty”, which has the advantage(!) of vulgarity but doesn’t quite match the clue. Apropos of four-letter words, “shitty” does match the clue, and is only two letters away from “trashy” anagram-wise, so I wonder whether that word was Matt’s Plan A.

            As for pangrams, I guess they have the same constructional appeal that 12-tone rows have to a certain kind of composer. Fortunately crosswords don’t suffer as much from pangram-f#$%ing as music can suffer from tone-row-f#$%ing.


    • David Bael says:

      I, too, was temporarily thrown by the lack of a W. There must be a related term to scrabble f***ing that means trying way to hard and compromising the fill quality in order to make the puzzle a pangram.

  3. Evan says:

    Really neat idea. I don’t think I’ve ever solved a puzzle where I grumbled about Scrabble-f*cky terms, then admired them later because that’s the key to figuring out the theme. In fact, in theory, you could get all six of those crossings wrong, but still get the meta right, because all you have to do is replace the gratuitous J, Q, X, or Z with a less Scrabbly letter (say, if you didn’t know TOJOS, you might have that crossing as TOZOS/NEZD; you’d still replace the Z with R). I guess you’d just to have to be careful that you don’t put the J, Q, X, or Z in the wrong square.

    Just curious: Did anyone seriously consider WOEFUL for a bit? I did, only because I couldn’t find a W in the grid, and some solvers over at Rex’s blog like to refer to obscure terms as WOEs (What-On-Earths).

    • Barb says:

      I also answered Woeful for the missing W and the W-O-Es. I like the meta, but I think it would be a lot stronger if the author had managed to include a W.

  4. DannyBoy says:

    I was also sidetracked by W. I submitted Wretched, for W-retched. Or it could have been W-hack. Is that slang still current in America? Now that I see the real answer, I like it a lot. Excellent meta, but I think there should have been a W included somewhere. The XYZJ words didn’t bother me, as they’re all familiar except for Xeres, which is more often spelled Jerez.

  5. Evan says:

    Oh and joon, I think you have an error in your screen-cap. Isn’t 45-Across/35-Down ALDA/EDGAR, not ALDO/EDGOR?

    • joon says:

      whoops, yes. typo. sorry about that.

      • Toby says:

        This overlapping/disjoint relationship between the crossword and the meta interests me. Joon was able to answer this meta correctly even though his solved grid contained an error. I assume this is almost always the case — to avoid it, the meta solver would have to use *everything* in the grid.

        But then there are the metas which can be solved without using the grid at all (remember that MGWCC with some cockamamie story about witch doctor and a cliff…? ;-).


        • joon says:

          it is an interesting question, no doubt. but i wanted to clarify that my solved grid did not contain this error. the typo occurred when i was creating the image of the solved grid in across lite for the screenshot. i solve the MGWCC (and most other puzzles) with pencil and paper. while i’m sure i occasionally make errors that don’t get caught, i do try to check any square i’m uncertain of before tackling the meta.

  6. mps says:

    really enjoyed this one. it reminded me of the cheater squares meta from a while back. i almost missed the X on the bottom right, since eying is something editors do too and i didn’t check the olay cross clue. i had TRASH from 5 squares and it seemed off, so i restarted from an empty grid looking for any scrabbly letters i missed. knowing the gimmick, it was much more fun solving that second time.

  7. Mutman says:

    Well my streak came to a crashing end! I grokked the meta and failed to execute.

    I had letter possibilities for all six ‘bad’ letters. But for some reason, I thought an ‘A’ was best in the top left: AERO crossing AERES (which for some reason seemed familiar to me). So that led me to ASTRAY which I felt was close enough definition-wise to the meta answer.

    But no cigar. Nice work Matt!

  8. Archie says:

    I contend that my solution of CRASS is equally valid, though not quite as neat:

    Substituting C for X, we get CERES and CERO, then the substitutions mentioned above, except for the X at the end, as I entered Y to get OLAY and EYING, not even considering other possibilities. Thus:
    C-R-A-S-S, which I believe can signify something of poor quality (such as a forced definition?).

  9. Bob Kerfuffle says:

    Got it, but with a little kink in my solve. I thought 20 A was IN HER Majesty’s Service, and since XERI (as in XERISCAPE) seemed as good as XERO, no bells rang. Substituting a T in square 1 gave TERES (a shoulder muscle) and TERI (as in Garr). And at square 52, changing to H gave HORI (a form of music) and HALE. So I had TRASHY, spelled out almost in order, and looking online yielded the exact definition “of inferior quality”!

  10. Archie says:

    Sorry, overlooked the fact that the substitution I made fro Zale/ZORI was SALE/SORI, but SORI is not valid. So, sorry for SORI.

  11. Jeff Chen says:

    Awesome meta! Took me a while to grok, but what an a-ha moment.

  12. Lorraine says:

    i hesitated forever sending my response in because when you substitute “TALE/TORI” for “ZALE/ZORI”, you get TORI, which is the plural of 29D TORUS. if we were meant to “clean up” the grid so that we have a more plausible grid, then there’s no way (so i thought) a completed grid would would be published that included both TORUS and TORI. however, not finding anything else i could use to produce a likely (or likelier) word for the solution, i eventually, but a little reluctantly, sent in TRASHY.

  13. Bencoe says:

    XERES is a good entry, for wine lovers it’s a very important city and region. Also, no one who has seen GROSZ’s paintings of ugly, porcine businessmen is likely to forget his very unique style.
    Some entries are obscure but worth knowing.

  14. Norm says:

    Count me among those who concentrated on the W, and the only thing I could see to “clean up” was “f***ing” but I couldn’t think of a relevant “w” word.

  15. Evan says:

    Historical question: Did Matt actually coin the term SCRABBLE-F*CKING? Doing a quick search on the intertubes, I see that Patrick Blindauer defined the term on Twitter one week before Matt posted that review on Crossword Fiend.

    I don’t doubt that Matt could have coined it, clever wordsmith that he is. Maybe they both chatted about it in some private conversation before posting it online? I’d bet more eyes had first seen the term here than on Patrick’s Twitter feed, but I dunno.

  16. Howard B says:

    This one was extra-special. Loved it for all of the reasons already stated.

  17. Karen says:

    I almost had HARSH for the answer, as I had the HARS, and wasn’t sure what replaced the olax/exing crossing. Finally tracked down that TORI/TALE was incorrect, and googled for the Z.

  18. Scott says:

    Like several others above, I was sidetracked by the missing W. I was trying to find a logical place that a W could be inserted and I thought that would point me to the meta answer. Alas, that was not it!

  19. Patrick L says:

    Wow, I feel like I’m living in some bizarro world where 282 people knew what to do for this one. I had no clue whatsoever. First of all, I don’t see how these words using Z, X, Q and J are bad. Only PQRS seems a little lame to me, but I thought the whole point of crosswords was that they often have short, unusual words. But anyway, that’s besides the point. I’m not sure I fully understand the meta.

    For example, how does XERES / XERO definitely point to H as a substitute? Why couldn’t it be P? Are PERES (Israeli President) and PERO (from Greek mythology) somehow unacceptable crossword fill? Again, I don’t know how these judgment calls are made. It would be one thing if the substitute words still fit the clue, but apparently that is not the case. I think there have been other metas in which alternate fill still fit the clue – I was in awe of those puzzles, though I never got close to solving them. I guess EXING / EYING and OLAX / OLAY is the closest. In fact, I mistakenly had a Y in my grid to begin with.

    Joon even mentions that EID / PERS are fill options that he has seen – but he doesn’t discuss further how this could derail the meta solving process. I could come up with more – how about MALE and MORI (Memento ____ seems like a well-known phrase). But maybe I’m missing something. Currently it seems that solving this meta requires knowing what is considered mundane-enough fill. How does one conclusively know that PARS is ok but PERS isn’t? I did briefly consider that ‘cleaning up’ the grid might involve getting rid of those high-value Scrabble letters, but since too many possibilities came up I ruled out that pathway.

    I love these puzzles to death but this one has been the most discouraging one yet – since so many people got it and I thought it was Week 6 caliber. Still a fan though. I hope I can do better next month.

    • J. T. Williams says:

      I think the basic answer to your question lies in the fact that you had to include parentheticals to “justify” every one of the alternatives you proposed… I had the same issue as Bob Kerfuffle above, and thus a very similar query to yours arose with respect to the crossing of _ERi/_ERES. I didn’t see what G would be any better or worse than P, neither of which helped make a good solution to the meta. And once you start going down that road, mALE/mORI, ASSEt/GROSt, eID/PeRS—well let’s just say that Google and Onelook are not especially helpful. All of that ambiguity completely disappeared when I fixed XERO.

    • Amy Reynaldo says:

      I’ve done many thousands of crosswords over the past 35 years and PERO doesn’t ring a bell as anything but Spanish for “but.” HERO is a plain English word, which makes it generally better crossword fill than a fairly obscure proper noun or a foreign word.

      • Patrick L says:

        I don’t have nearly as much crossword experience, but I think you’re reinforcing my point – for someone who doesn’t know what constitutes good or bad fill, this meta was a slippery target. Because I see lots of foreign words, usually with some kind of misdirect in the clue (thinking it’s about Nadal’s tennis instead of his nationality for example), and I find them to be very clever. And I see lots of obscure proper nouns like 4-letter river names that people refer to as ‘crossword-ese,’ so the crossword community can’t be frowning on them too much. Degree of obscurity is just something I’ll accept that I don’t know.

    • Sarah says:

      PERES/PERO is certainly not ideal. Never heard of either of the people/mythology answers, and the Spanish/French answers certainly shouldn’t be crossing each other, so that makes HERES/HERO certainly ideal

  20. Adam Thompson says:

    I enjoyed the puzzle but I have a few quibbles with it. It’s a bit strange that TOROS is used as a non-obscure word in my opinion. (Only in crosswords!) Also the 40A answer might be mistaken as the meta solution.

  21. bwouns says:

    I’m curious how many respondents chose the “Prefer not to solve” option.

  22. Amy L says:

    Was anyone offended by the vulgarity? I’m curious.

    I loved the puzzle. I guess the missing W was a wed herring.

  23. CY Hollander says:

    I was undone by not checking the crossword over with Google this week: there were a couple of squares I had guessed wrong and, unsurprisingly, they turned out to be just ones that Matt had Scrabble-fudged. I still had an X, Q, R, and Z, so it wasn’t obvious that I was missing anything. The letters I had were R, A, T, and Y, so I guessed RATTY.

    • Charles Montpetit says:

      Same here. At 1a, I had SERES (which *is* a location in Spain–I didn’t check the connection with “Sherry” but the words looked similar enough to appease my doubts). And at 1d, I had SERO (which *is* a prefix–I didn’t check the connection with “dry” but the word look close enough to SERE, meaning “arid”). This left me with A-R-T-S-Y as the replacement letters, and in that very order, too, if you scan the grid from top to bottom. Since that is the cheapo version of “Artistic,” I was sooo sure I had it that I actually complained about the leaderboard not registering my entry!

      • Dave C says:

        I had the same mistake at 1A at first, and went through the exact thought process trying to justify ARTSY. Luckily I was unsold that it could be correct, so I spent a few minutes idiotically trying to convince myself that George GROSZ was a phantom and ORDO could plural to ORDI, which would forcefeed GRIST/ASSET, and thus RATTY as the meta answer (much more plausible).

        Finally, I “trashed” both answers, went back to the completed grid in search of an error, discovered SERES/SERO, and was home-free.

  24. pannonica says:

    I was wondering—and mentioned this with my submission—if anyone would guess ERSATZ by simply latching on to the Z.

    As for the solvers who were distracted by the lack of W: doesn’t the clue for 40a [SCRABBLE … ] obviate travelling down that path by specifying “X, Q, Z or J”?

  25. Mark M says:


    I cannot answer the question as to why folks are giving this one or two stars. I thought it was a four star effort. But people forget that this is your world and we choose to live in it. I thought the level of difficulty for a Week 2 was spot on. If they want to quibble with a missing W, which makes no sense to me, then let them quibble. This was not even close to one of those puzzles where the meta fell apart. Those are few and far between.

    Don’t be sucked in by the ratings. This is not a beauty pageant. Keep doing the great work and the people who you trust will let you know when something goes wrong.

    Mark M

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