MGWCC #378

crossword 3:40
meta 2 days 
mgwcc378hello and welcome to episode #378 of matt gaffney’s weekly crossword contest, “M Is for Merl”. for this week 4 puzzle, matt asks us to find an adjective that describes Merl Reagle, who passed away suddenly last week. and he reminds us to be sure to read his memories of merl. okay.

so there are no theme answers in the grid, and in fact the first thing that jumps out at you is that matt has used the exact same grid as merl’s themeless final round puzzle from the 1985 u.s. open (no, not that one) that matt cited in his blog post. that’s pretty clear. this puzzle is a direct homage to a constructor many (i dare say most) of us revered, admired, and consciously emulated.

what about solving the meta, though? well, with two identical grid layouts, my first instinct (perhaps from doing lots of mystery hunt-style puzzles where this sort of thing is commonly done) was to overlay the grids and see what letters occupy the same position in both grids. are you ready for the spectacular results? here they are:


well. that looks less like an adjective that describes merl and more like a random assortment of common letters.

the next thing that jumped out at me was the presence of OYE COMO VA in merl’s grid and SANTANA in matt’s, clued as {“Oye Como Va” band}. that can’t be a coincidence, right? and perhaps it wasn’t, but it didn’t lead me anywhere. oh, sure, GOT was also in merl’s grid and in the clue for LATHERED {Got soapy} in matt’s, but that seems attributable to mere coincidence. same with ADE in merl’s grid and ADES in matt’s.

the next thing that caught my eye was the unusually stilted wording of the clue {Hitchcock had him star in “Foreign Correspondent”}, for joel MCCREA. why “had him star”? why mention hitchcock at all? i thought there had to be something there. but if there is, i still don’t know what.

so i had to put the puzzle aside for a couple of days. even before i came back to it, though, i had an inspiration while lying awake in bed: i had never used the title, a classic blunder on a week 4 puzzle. the letter M must be important somehow! my first thought was to look at all of the M’s in matt’s grid and pick out the corresponding letters in merl’s. that didn’t get me anything (or rather, it got me MOESSI, which is pretty close to lionel MESSI but also close to nothing), and i quickly realized that to encode a message in this fashion, it makes much more sense for matt to use the M’s of merl’s grid and put the letters he wanted in the appropriate places in his own grid.

and that’s exactly what he did. you can see from the circled letters in the screenshot above that the M’s in merl’s grid, reading top to bottom, correspond to MASTERFUL, certainly an apt descriptor of merl and his work.

i wonder if matt imposed any other restrictions on himself in constructing this puzzle than the use of merl’s grid pattern and those nine letters in the appropriate places. did he start on a sheet of graph paper? he certainly didn’t limit himself to clues and answers that made sense in 1985—among other things, there’s HAVE A HEART, the {Bonnie Raitt hit of 1990}, and IN THA {“___ Beginning…There was Rap” (1997 compilation album)}. you could clue HAVE A HEART generically, but i don’t think IN THA meant anything 30 years ago, unless INTHA is like an arrow poison used by indigenous peoples of the amazonian rainforest.

this was an easier meta than last week’s, but that’s fine with me. week 3 played a little more like a week 4 anyway.

that’s all for me this week. we’re going to miss you, merl.

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22 Responses to MGWCC #378

  1. George says:

    I got stuck on the same letters across the grids. Just didn’t have time this week to dive in full, but upon reading the answer, this was actually a fairly tame week 4. Wish I had put in more time. Thanks Matt!

  2. Matt says:

    Thanks, Joon — 218 right answers this week.

    I can’t take credit for this amazing grid, though. My original intention was to fill in Merl’s grid by hand, as he had done. A tough enough task, but about 30 minutes of trying convinced me that, with the inclusion of nine pre-placed letters, the feat was going to be essentially impossible. You’d need an excellent database for that. I don’t have one, so I asked a friend with one of the best databases in crosswords to put it to work on the grid (he declined a co-author credit, and I’m not sure if he wants his name revealed here — I’ll let him do that if he’s around.) It took even his database almost an hour! So no human would’ve had a chance.

    • Amy Reynaldo says:

      Is this your first database-filled “themeless,” Matt?

    • Jason T says:

      Well then, my compliments to the database – or to you, as the case may be – for POPPIN’ FRESH. That was a fun entry! Poppin’ fresh, one might say.

    • Garrett says:

      I was wondering how difficult that was for you to do. I was trying to imagine matching everything up, and it seemed pretty daunting to me when I started thinking about it. Did you have the word in mind already and pre-fill the M positions with the letters and then have the database try to fill that?

  3. Scott says:

    I give it 5 stars even though I did not come close to solving the meta. It was really well done though.

  4. J. R. says:

    After sending in one wrong answer, thought of MEmoRabLe solely because of Memoriesof Merl.

  5. Tom says:

    I had literally the exact same solving path as Joon, except my epiphany was while hiking, not in bed. Great puzzle and another great tribute to Merl.

    • Daniel Barkalow says:

      Likewise, but commuting.

      I did notice that, if you highlight the letters that are the same in both grids, it says, diagonally in the upper right corner: “MAIS”. The only four contiguous same letters, and they’re in a line and a crossword-suitable word, but…

      I was tempted to send in “MastERfuL”, but ended up capitalizing the whole word.

  6. Ephraim says:

    My solving path was so much like Joon’s, it’s spooky. Right down to mapping new M’s to old grid before old M’s to new grid.

    Besides the admirable construction, I really liked the answer being absolutely unmistakable. Once it was visible, there was no question about it.

    • Matthew G. says:

      Ditto to tracking joon’s different approaches, in almost exactly the same order, before finally landing on the correct approach Sunday afternoon.

      With regards to the first approach–looking for the letters that are the same in both grids–joon appears to have overlooked the very first shared letter: the M in I’M HIP / AMBER in the northeast corner. That means the first three shared letters are actually MER … a surely unintended red herring, but one that had me checking my grids for quite some time to see if there was an L that I had missed. At that point, I was thinking that perhaps MERL IS (adjective) would be hidden in the shared letters somehow.

      • joon says:

        oh, funny. i certainly noticed that that letter was an M in both grids (in fact, it gives the first letter of MASTERFUL), but somehow i failed to circle it on my paper copy of the puzzle. thanks for pointing it out.

        • ICDogg says:

          I also followed, pretty much, Joon’s path. Even to the point of putting it down and looking at it again with fresh eyes later.

    • Garrett says:

      Ditto here.

  7. Dele says:

    After seeing the solution, I’m sad I didn’t have more time to work on it this week. What a wonderful tribute to Merl!

  8. Amy L says:

    I kept reading the blocks around the central black square as “HAS NO HAIR.” But since that didn’t apply to Merl, I kept looking and found the answer pretty quickly.

  9. Bret says:

    Yes, exactly the same solving path, eerily the same. Fortunately remembered to read the instructions shortly after the MERAISASEEOEOLERREAEPOERED dead end, then got MOESSI before finally getting it right.

  10. Jason T says:

    I also was thrown off by the clunky wording of the clue {Hitchcock had him star in “Foreign Correspondent”}, and was convinced that it was a mechanism to get an “m” in the clue. Circled all the m’s in all the other clues, looked for patterns, looked for connections with the corresponding words in Merl’s grid, and so on, to no avail. The real answer turned out to be much more straightforward. And masterful, of course!

  11. pgw says:

    I too had a similar solving path. My epiphany about using the Ms came on a plane. At the end I was hoping for an Easter Egg and checked out whether Merl’s Rs mapped to anything interesting (they didn’t) – I didn’t realize nine preplaced letters would constrain things so much, though it is quite a grid.

    The “had him star” clue also intrigued me, and I looked at some of the other wordy clues. Nothing meaningful, but one of them has initial letters that anagram to CODICIL, if anyone was wondering.

  12. Kristin G says:

    When I looked at the Memories of Merl blurb, I was really impressed to see the grids were identical. Nice tribute right there – just that in and of itself. I, too, went through most of Joon’s process trying to arrive at the answer but never thought to overlay the puzzles (drat! I should’ve thought of that – not beyond the realm of discovery for me, which is likely a lower threshold than most!).

    One thing I tried that hasn’t been mentioned (perhaps because it was so off base!) was that when I saw the title, “M is for Merl,” I tried to replace each instance of “M” with “MERL” to see what anagrams I could get. Of course, another dead-end path. But that’s what makes it so fun – thanks for a great puzzle and even better tribute to someone who deserves it. I don’t usually post (okay, never), but this was an exceptional puzzle, in my opinion.

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