Matt Gaffney’s Wall Street Journal contest crossword, “Majority Rules” — Jim’s review
Jim here again one last time while Dave is on holiday. This week we’re looking for a “familiar two-word phrase.”
So what are the theme entries? Well, it’s not entirely clear at first. The longest Across entries are ANACONDAS, POSSESSES, ASSASSINS, and AL MARTINO. There’s not a lot in common there at first glance.
So if you flailed around a bit like I did, well, then, you’re forgiven. But look at those two middle ones. That’s a lot of Ss (or esses). ANACONDAS doesn’t have a lot of Ss, but it does have three As. But then, what to do with AL MARTINO? Only two As there.
Well, the title is “Majority Rules,” so maybe we’re looking for the most letters in an answer. That explains the first three, but again, what to do with AL MARTINO?
Flail around a little more and you may then notice other entries that have a lot of common letters: BOO-BOOS, WWIII, UH-HUH. Ok. Now we’re on to something here.
Are we looking for the letter in each word with the greatest frequency? But there’s nothing in FILTH, Ls in TELL-ALL, I’s in WWIII, but then 2 Ds and 2 Es in STEADIED. So…nope.
How about if we go by rows? Ls in the first row. I’s in the second row. But then the third row has 3 As and 3 Ds. Nope again.
By this point I felt pretty confident about the Ls, Is, Os (in BOO-BOOS), and maybe the Ns in ANNAN. Hey, that spells LION and — hold the phone — LION’S SHARE is a two-word phrase that means “majority.”
I smelled blood now. With the Ss from POSSESSES and ASSASSINS I was sure. Add the Hs from UH-HUH, As from ALABAMA, Rs from ERROR, and Es from REFEREE, and there you have it. Our answer this week is LION’S SHARE.
But still I was dissatisfied. Why didn’t the As from ANACONDAS fit?
The answer is that the As don’t make up the majority of that word. In every other case, the letter in question isn’t just the most frequent letter, it is found more than half the time in that word or phrase. Here then is the list of theme entries and their respective letter counts.
- L – TELL-ALL (4/7)
- I – WWIII (3/5)
- O – BOO-BOOS (4/7)
- N – ANNAN (3/5)
- S – POSSESSES (5/9)
- S – ASSASSINS (5/9)
- H – UH-HUH (3/5)
- A – ALABAMA (4/7)
- R – ERROR (3/5)
- E – REFEREE (4/7)
This is really slick and elegant. No other words in the grid have this feature, not even in the Down direction. This is especially impressive when you examine the 3-letter fill. Matt had to avoid everything from AHA to EGG to PIP to ZOO. That’s a lot of constraints, without even mentioning that there are 10 theme answers.
So that’s why we get entries like DELAYERS, ELINOR, and ERBIUM, and the alphabet soup of ASU, SCH, PSA, RAF, ERS, ESL, and FWD. I’m okay with all of that when you have a theme this cool that’s been executed so cleanly.
Clues of note:
- 65a. [Clipping caller] is REFEREE. Clipping is an infraction in football. Wikipedia definition: “throwing the body across the back of the leg of an eligible receiver or charging or falling into the back of an opponent below the waist after approaching him from behind, provided the opponent is not a runner.”
- 20d. [He hisses] is TOM. Seems hinky to me. For a time, I thought this was referring to Helium and balloons.
- 34d. [Only well-known English word from Finnish] is SAUNA. I love this little factoid!
- 26a. [Boutros-Ghali’s successor] ANNAN. My daughter just started her freshman year at Macalester College in St Paul, MN. You know who’s an alum of Macalester? One Kofi ANNAN. (And not just any Kofi ANNAN. The Kofi ANNAN.) You may know he’s a Nobel Peace Prize winner, but did you also know he was the table tennis champion his senior year at Macalester in 1961? Or that there is a Kofi ANNAN Ping Pong Table? You do now. You’re welcome. I think we need to invite the former Secretary-General to the ACPT and set up a Shortz /ANNAN exhibition match. Who’s with me on this?!
In conclusion, Matt gives us a beautiful puzzle today whose meta answer makes for a fun a-ha moment and is supremely logical given the puzzle’s title and the methodology used to find it. In a word, elegant.