MGWCC #498

crossword 3:43 
meta 30 min 


hello and welcome to episode #498 of matt gaffney’s weekly crossword contest, “Only for So Long”. for this week 3 puzzle, we were looking for a six-letter word. okay. what are the theme answers? it’s not exactly obvious, but even the act of looking for the theme answers tipped me off to something funny going on—this is an asymmetric grid. very asymmetric, as it turns out, although it doesn’t necessarily look all that asymmetric. (the center of the grid looks quite symmetric, and the top and bottom are okay, but the sides are where everything gets messed up.)

in addition, the longest answers in the grid are all one word long. that’s unusual, just because most words aren’t that long. but here you have INVOLUNTARILY, ULTRASONOGRAPHY, NARCOTERRORISM, and QUARANTINED. those are very long words that don’t appear to have anything in common other than being very long.

so: long, one-word answers; asymmetric grid; and the title, “only for so long”. all this is coming together to suggest that we look at the entries in the grid that are the only answers of a particular length. it turns out that there are six of them, each of them one word long. in descending order by length:

  • {Interior shots} ULTRASONOGRAPHY is the only 15 in the grid.
  • {Major problem in Mexico} NARCOTERRORISM, 14.
  • {Without wanting to} INVOLUNTARILY, 13.
  • {Kept away from others} QUARANTINED, 11.
  • {Like some world champions in boxing} UNDISPUTED, 10.
  • and {Determined} EARNEST, is, surprisingly, the only 7.

reading off the first letters of these answers gives UNIQUE, which is quite an appropriate answer. and i have to admit i had a chuckle when i went to submit it:

it’s right there in all caps! he really wants you to get this one right. ;)

i liked this meta—it’s a good reason to use an asymmetric grid. a 15×15 grid with standard crossword symmetry could have at most two answers of unique length (the across and down answers passing through the exact center of the grid are the only ones without a symmetric partner). even with left-right symmetry, you’d be constrained such that only odd lengths could be unique, so to spell out UNIQUE (or any other six-letter answer), you’d need a 15, 13, 11, 9, 7, and 5—and it would be awfully tough to have only one 5. making all the theme answers single words to emphasize their length was an elegant touch.

bits and bobs:

  • {Geller, on “Friends”} COX. SCHWIMMER didn’t fit, but that would have been the only 9.
  • {Wine denigrated in “Sideways”} MERLOT. totally agree.
  • {Uncertain state} QUANDARY. i love this word, and i can’t really explain why. it looks like what it means,
    somehow, even though the etymology is uncertain. “quando” is the latin for “when”, but QUANDARY is more of a “how”/”what”.
  • {Sac-like cavity in a gland} ACINUS. this one was unfamiliar.

that’s all i’ve got this week. how’d you all do on this one?

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21 Responses to MGWCC #498

  1. Matt Gaffney says:

    Thanks, Joon — 151 right answers this week.

    ULTRASONOGRAPHY was the only common, interesting 15-letter U-word I could find that didn’t start with UN- or UNDER-.

    • John says:

      Matt – was the oddly-solitary TUNEUP just a result of the theme constraints? It seemed at first that it just had to do something with the meta and waylaid me for some time before i finally hit on the right track.

    • Bob says:

      Matt, what about ULTRAFASTIDIOUS (clued in the NYT exactly one year ago as [Like neat freaks])?

  2. ASB says:

    I got stuck on the fact that all 3 long across answers were 6 syllables long. Then, there are 17 six letter answers in the grid. This made think we were looking for the 18th and they would somehow matchup. Never even close.

      • LuckyGuest says:

        I was on that too, except most of the syllable-counting sites I went to count NARCOTERRORISM as having 5 syllables (apparently “ism” is one syllable), and I figured Matt wouldn’t do something so debatable. I also wanted to use the 16-letter “Chancellorsville” from the clues, trying to force “CLIQUE” as my answer (as in an exclusive group consisting of long words).

        • Matthew G. says:

          I remember getting very righteous when I was younger over what was or was not a syllable. To me, “fire” and “mile” are both obviously two-syllable words–but few dictionaries or grammarians seem to agree. I mean, unless you have a thick-drawl accent, it’s not “fahr” and “mahl”–it’s “fie-er” and “my-el.” Same with “ism”–it’s “is-em.” I’ve never understood the one-syllable designation.

  3. Margaret says:

    I saw the asymmetry right away, wrote down the long answers… and then stared at it. Never got past thinking that the title somehow meant that I needed to substitute “only” for “so long” somehow. Fail. Oh well.

  4. Jesse says:

    I was way off. I thought that the asymmetrical grid had to be “QUARANTINED” somehow, either in certain regions or without certain letters. I missed the obvious answer.

  5. Abide says:

    I was so close. I had 5 of the 6, but written in the wrong order. Then got lost in a rabbit hole of the various six-letter entries.

    • Bill Katz says:

      I thought that somehow two 6 letter words would make a 12 to fill in along with the 15,14,13,11,and 10. It was only after putting those next to each other and realizing I needed an E to finish UNIQUE that I found the lone 7.

  6. pgw says:

    I didn’t notice the descending-length-order thing and was a little surprised that this seemed to be a random anagram rather than being in grid order or something. Not that it bothered me – I really don’t mind anagrams – just something Matt seems to usually try to avoid. And now I see that he did. So I’m upping this from five stars to *really* five stars.

  7. Jim Schooler says:

    Like Joon, I was amused when I submitted my entry. I even checked past MGWCCs to see if “unique” was all caps, and sure enough it was.

  8. BarbaraK says:

    I’m so disgusted with myself. I actually made a spreadsheet with all the grid words. And I sorted it by length. Many times. And sill I never saw what was right in front of me.

    Lovely and elegant puzzle.

  9. David Glasser says:

    Bah, I started down this path and stopped when I didn’t see a length 12 answer.

  10. Jim S. says:

    Broken record from me… can’t seem to make the leap to anything clue- or grid-related when it comes to metas. I saw the non-symmetry but said “hmm, that must just be so that he could fit those particular words in” and I tried to figure out what the heck narcoterrorism had in common with ultrasonography, undisputed, etc. I took the title to be a reference to time – ultrasonography could be related to the 9 1/2 month / 40 week pregnancy period, because ultrasounds are very (most?) frequently associated with babies. Quarantines would also often be time-bound, but what time period? False start. This clue/grid thing is a stubborn hurdle that I have to find a way to clear.

    • Dan Seidman says:

      A quarantine was originally forty days — that’s where the word comes from.

      • Paul Coulter says:

        Yeah, I was down this rabbit hole most of the weekend. The two 40s made me keep searching for other number pairs. Then I finally hit on the right approach of counting unique lengths. As David did above, I saw there was no 12. I thought twelve was the answer and submitted. Unfortunately, upon double checking, there’s no 9, either (though one of the single-worded clues, Speechify, is, while none of them are 12s.)

  11. PJ Ward says:

    {Wine denigrated in “Sideways”} MERLOT. totally agree.

    I loved when the movie denigrated Merlot. Some really outstanding wines were suddenly more affordable.

  12. Craig says:

    Once I started thinking of length, I thought something had to match the title length (13), but INVOLUNTARILY didn’t make sense by itself, so it was then that I started to look at the other lengths.

  13. Toby says:

    I thought it might have to do with all the unusually long and wordy down clues. I took the six longest, and the first letters of their answers anagrammed to PLURAL. Oh well, there’s always next week…

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