MGWCC #461

crossword 4:24 
meta DNF3 days 


hello and welcome to episode #461 of matt gaffney’s weekly crossword contest, “Ring Out the Old, Ring In the New”. the instructions for this week 5 puzzle ask us to find a 20th-century year. okay. what are the theme answers? eleven short across answers get *ed clues:

  • {*Secret writing} CODE.
  • {*Knifes} STABS.
  • {*Specialty of Roger Waters} BASS.
  • {*___-caps} SNO.
  • {*Tossing Manning} ELI.
  • {*Regime changes} COUPS.
  • {*Knighted one} SIR.
  • {*Camcorder button} REC.
  • {*Caustic substances} LYES.
  • {*Drinks made from honey} MEADS.
  • {*Carmela’s husband} TONY.

and that’s it. that’s all we get. it’s a bit of a strange grid, with an unusually high 82 words and no long answers. there are also a whole bunch of crappy fill entries (i’m looking at you, OHMAE-PEPTO-RSTU stack and your symmetric partner BALA-ENOTE-À CLEF), so i think there must be more to the grid than just these eleven answers.

my first thought, given the title and CODE at 1-across, was to try telephone code to convert theme answers into numbers. that gives us a whole lot of 7s, but that doesn’t really help; and of course, to get a 20th-century year you’d want it to start with a 1 (99% of the time, anyway) and there are no letters on the 1 key.

my next observation was that the clues are short. in fact, other than 37a {Alex and ___ (jewelry company named for the founder’s daughters)} ANI, every across clue is quite short, most of them only two words. there are a few more long clues among the downs, but it’s curious that there is such consistent brevity among the acrosses.

i talked it over briefly with andy on sunday night, and we got nowhere:

JP: it’s a weird grid
11 short theme answers should not be 82 words and stuff like
(although {Nat Turner} would be a hell of a clue)

AK: ooh
it woudl

JP: speaking of clues
the across clues are very short
other than 37a

AK: and a few downs
not sure what the title means

JP: me neither
my first thought was phone code

AK: promising

JP: 1a is CODE
i translated all the *ed answers into phone code
but, well, it’s just a bunch of numbers

AK: maybe these letters can all be replaced in the grid?

JP: it’s a nice thought
1 could be MUTENESS but i don’t see how any of 2-4 can be replaced

AK: back in a bit, will keep pondering this

that was the end of the conversation… but when i came back to it this morning, it turned out to be enough. MODE/MUTENESS was the key. it turns out that each of the *ed answer has (at least) one letter that can change to a different letter and still give valid crossword entries in both directions. in several cases, actually, the revision makes for a cleaner grid. now, there are a few different ways to do it in some cases, but the altered squares end up being arranged symmetrically in the grid to reduce ambiguity, and the rest of the ambiguity goes away with the big aha. check it out:

  • SNO/PSST -> ANO/PAST. (ENO/PEST and ONO/POST would also work; actually ONO is actually already in the grid, but ENO would work if not for bigger-picture considerations.)
  • ELI/IAN -> ELM/MAN, among other possibilities.

notice anything about the changed letters? the original letters in the grid spell out CASSIUS CLAY. you can change each one in place to spell MUHAMMAD ALI! check out the screenshot to the right.

that is pretty wild. and, i would say, well worth the weirdness in the grid. the constraints required to get those specific letter changes in symmetric positions … yikes. oh, and the meta answer? cassius clay changed his name to muhammad ali in 1964, so there you have it.

in retrospect, the title, too, is perfect, simultaneously playing on the idea of years, changing of old to new (names), and a (boxing) ring. the arrangement of the special squares in the grid even looks like two concentric boxing rings! i wonder if matt thought of the title before he decided to ask for a year as the instructions? either way, it’s magnificent.

whew. what a week 5 puzzle. how’d you all manage this month?

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46 Responses to MGWCC #461

  1. sharkicicles says:

    That’s… amazing.

  2. Matt Gaffney says:

    Thanks, Joon — 77 right answers.

    The title was Peter Gordon’s. Among other things, he is a phenomenal crossword titler.

  3. Justin says:

    Pretty impressive. I saw the outer corners could be new letters (different ones than needed for the intended solve) but that’s as far as I got.

  4. Jeff Mizrahi says:

    Pen…drop. Nice work.

  5. Robert Hutchinson says:

    I was so much closer than I thought! I toyed with changing letters in some of the starred entries to make new words, but without seeing CASSIUS CLAY, it never felt justified enough.

    (I thought of LOLL and INFINITI … if CORNEA had ever crossed my mind, maybe then …)

    “Carmela’s husband” gave me the most trouble, as it led me down two different red herring paths: the anagram “caramel” in another clue, and the thought that it could also be answered VITO (Corleone), and then wondering if there were alternate answers for the other starred clues.

  6. jefe says:

    Oof. I noticed that several letters could be changed, but there were so many options (change one letter? change multiple letters? change all the letters?) that I didn’t get anywhere. I had BASS -> CASH, so the first row’s post-changed letters spelled MUCH, and in the lower right SKIT and STRATEGO could be SKIN/STRATEGY, so TONY->NYNY. Lot of wrong pathways here.

  7. pgw says:

    I saw a few of these possibilities but never put it together. In the end I just guessed 1988 ’cause its roman numeral is the longest of the 20th century at 11 letters. But I didn’t think much of it.

    • Paul Coulter says:

      Same guess I did for the same reason. MCMLXXXVIII came to 11 and it seemed likely each short word with a starred clue was contributing. I got the M in muteness/cuteness; mode/code to cooperate, then not so much for the C of SCABS/STABS, er, uh, nothing for the DOWN, then back on track with the M of MASS/BASS; MART/BART. Also noted it could start MUH, and I had ALI for the bottom row. I even looked up the years for his most famous victories, but never saw the name change thing. Entirely my fault – fantastic meta.

      • wordsmix says:

        I did exactly the same, Paul !!!
        But I was back-fitting the substitutions after deciding that MCMLXXXVIII was the answer.
        But it was a week-5 and I knew everything has to be perfect and symmetric. The symmetric idea eventually lead me to the correct answer.

  8. ajk says:

    Nowhere close, though the correct approach seems like something I should have tried well before half the things I did try. :)

  9. Pete Rimkus says:

    Going through my notes I had them all except I had ENO/PEST, DYES/CORNED and TONE/INFINITE.
    Which of course led to nothing more than alphabet soup.

    A few too many multiple possibilities (the ones I got stuck on as well as RYES/CORNER & the afore-mentioned ONO/POST) to make this really cool, but the concept is terrific!

    And now I know what ‘Ring’ had to do with it. Brilliant!

  10. Garrett says:


    I did not twig onto what needed to be done, but I tried very hard to crack it.

    My first thought that the clue [Secret writing] and the fill of CODE was some kind of key. I tried variations of ROTn but there was nothing there.

    Then I was looking at the word sizes:

    4 4 4
    3 3
    3 3
    4 4 4

    Just… curious.

    Then I did a letter distribution:

    (this looks great in fixed-width font, but here not so much)

    1 2 3 4 5 6 7 8 9 10 11 12 13 14 15 16 17 18 19 20 21 22 23 24 25 26
    A B C D E F G H I J K L M N O P Q R S T U V W X Y Z
    3 2 2 2 5 – – – 2 – – – 2 1 2 3 – – – 2 7 2 – – – – 2 –

    Multiply the position of each letter (1-26) by the number of times that letter appears (i.e., 2, 4, 6, 8, 25 for the first five ABCDE, and so on) and sum them. The result? 433

    I think that is an amazing coincidence.

    I tried a number of other things, but never hit on the key to
    figuring this out. Very clever meta, and I can’t imagine constructing the grid. Must have been quite difficult.

    Giving this one a 5!

  11. Joe says:

    I toyed with this idea but never put all the pieces together. Was trying to change all the letters, not just one per answer. Also went down a rabbit hole set off by the Roger Waters clue, with “Pink fluid” appearing in a different clue (suspiciously close to Pink Floyd??)
    Also tried doing something with the birth days/years of all the people mentioned in the puzzle but nothing came of that.

  12. Dan Seidman says:

    Once I figured out what to do, I didn’t notice any ambiguities. And for what it’s worth, I liked the ACLEF entry — I liked the way the assumed pronunciation of Roman was misleading.

    This was a real work of art.

  13. CFXK says:

    Amazing Meta: floats like butterfly, and stings like a bee.

  14. Jimmy says:

    Came around this from the other way – my first random thought upon seeing the symmetrical placement of the theme answers happened to be to look at their letters that lay on the diagonals/vertical radiating from the center of the grid. Was absolutely shocking, hardly ever do week 5s (or 4s, or 3s) fall into place so quickly! Had the changeable letters been in different placements in each word, there would’ve been no chance, ha

  15. Stephen McFly says:

    My Hail Mary was “1988,” which is the only 20th Century year that has 11 Roman numerals (11 starred answers) and is also the longest such string in the 20th Century.

    Great puzzle.

  16. LuckyGuest says:

    I submitted “1992.” I did a letter frequency count of the 11 themed entries, and saw three letters (M, P and U) occurring 1 time (assuming the date would probably start with a 1), but with only S occurring 9 times, I ruled out M and P. Started going through the “USxx” possibilities (like to see if “USAF” came out to be 1-9-4-7 in the frequency list, for example) and ended up with 1992 = USSR. Checking the title, I thought I’d hit on it, because that was when they “rang in the new” (with the old USSR being “rung out” in 1991). And thus my streak of ending streaks earlier than planned continues! Outstanding meta!! “Pen drop” indeed…

  17. Garrett says:

    I wanted to mention that I had not heard of the term Roman à clef before. It is a French term that is used to describe literature that is thinly veiled fiction about real people or real-life events, and has been used by well-known authors such as Truman Capote, Ernest Hemingway, George Orwell, and Michael Crichton. Apparently, if the novel is too thinly veiled the author could be held libel, and so some authors have described their character as having a small penis, with the idea that the real person would not come forward and claim to be the real-life character the fictional character represents.

    I thought I had read every book by Michael Crichton, but I somehow missed “Next,” Chrichton’s Roman à clef, which actually goes way beyond use of The Small Penis rule. More about that here:

  18. Garrett says:

    Was thinking about how long another clue eluded me [Pink fluid, casually]. I remembered an old commercial for Pepto Bismol and found it on youtube:

  19. Kaille says:

    That? Was a thing of beauty.

  20. Jim S. says:

    Floored. I’m stunned just to realize that his before and after names had the same letters! Add in the fact that Matt symmetrically placed those letters in a grid such that they could be manipulated back and forth to get the names?!?! Holy cannoli!

  21. Brian says:

    I actually noticed the letters CASSIUSCLAY just by picking one letter from each theme entry in a symmetrical way. Then I noticed they could be consistently replaced to MUHAMMAD ALI, but wasn’t sure if there was more to do after this. Now it seems that I did it backwards, and was supposed to notice the replaceable letters first, and the symmetry was more or less for aesthetics? Nice puzzle!

  22. aries says:

    OHMAE = the cost of brilliance. So, so, bad as a crossword entry, but used in service of a theme that’s really, really, really, great. Good isolated counterargument for the strictest “war on fill” disciples, in my opinion. OHMAN!?!?, Nay, OHMAE.

    Oh, and that [Nat Turner] clue is drop-dead gorgeous, joon.

    • joon says:

      i agree. there’s also a certain level of trust matt has earned, so that when i see something like OHMAE in the grid i am not thinking “well this is garbage” but rather “there has to be a reason that was necessary”. he very rarely lets us down!

      • aries says:

        Think you’re onto something with the “constructor/solver” trust reciprocation in Matt’s case. I think Merl built up a ton of equity in this area as well. It’s an earned trust, as you mention, and a trust that takes many decades of elite-level work to gain.

      • ajk says:

        I also find this useful in convincing myself to abandon rabbit holes. Even though I’ve only been doing these for like 1.5 years, I have often said “no, this is clearly going nowhere, no chance MG would subject us to something this flimsy.”

    • joon says:

      as for nat turner… if only he were a little more famous. like, maybe 10x as famous. i’m not sure i’ve ever seen even bryce harper in a crossword, now that i think about it. has that been done? (and is that a clown question?)

      if turner wins an mvp, as many are predicting he will, we could start seeing TREA in the grid on a near-daily basis.

  23. Pete Muller says:


    I’m waiting for Erik Agard to take another picture with a stuffed ORCA because this puzzle is equal to Francis Heaney’s masterpiece.

  24. slubduck says:

    Never got much of a hold on it, but while brainstorming on what “Ring” could mean I did …. Phone, Bells, Circus, Finger, Boxing …… and immediately i wondered if a boxing phrase could somehow pop out of the puzzle, such as “Rumble in the Jungle” the promotional name for Ali vs. Foreman in Zaire in ’74 ……. and despite that kind of promising whimsy I promptly let the thought go while beginning to hum and sing Bungle in the Jungle, and kept driving. I only explored the phone keypad letter substitution and never went anywhere beyond that. I’ll remind myself when stuck in a rut to simply brainstorm and follow those threads beyond where they seem worthwhile ……

  25. LuckyGuest says:

    Currently at 4.89 stars after 32 ratings. I can’t imagine anyone not giving it 5 stars.. I don’t get it. It’s like in baseball; no-one — not Ruth, not Mays (the best ever, imo), not Aaron, not Koufax — ever got 100% of the vote for their Hall of Fame vote. And no one ever will, because… well, I don’t know. I don’t get it.

  26. e.a. says:

    the greatest

  27. Dele says:

    I am blown away by this.


  28. Magoo says:

    I’m intrigued by the reactions. In British advanced cryptics, this sort of grid manipulation is a standard practice (though with fewer constraints given the possibility of unchecked letters, so I am not denying the stunningly impressive grid construction here). Familiarity with this sort of thing made this solve considerably easier for me than this month’s Week 3 (failed) or Week 4 (Hail Mary, got lucky). Lovely puzzle.

  29. Alan Matson says:

    Totally whiffed….which meant I knew it was a 5-star haymaker. Last puzzle to treat me this badly (didn’t spot the path AT ALL) was the Monopoly puzzle.

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