MGWCC #522

crossword 3:01  
meta 5 minutes* 


hello and welcome to episode #522 of matt gaffney’s weekly crossword contest, “Theme and Variations”. for this week 1 puzzle of guest constructor month, we have joshua kosman, classical music critic for the san francisco chronicle and co-constructor of the cryptic crossword in the nation. i tried to do this puzzle without the instructions and, more or less, failed, though in retrospect, it was eminently gettable and i felt pretty dumb for not seeing it. what are the theme answers?

  • {Variation #1} COVERS WITH PAINT. this would seem to indicate COATS.
  • {Variation #2} SILKEN NECKWEAR. ASCOT.
  • {Variation #3} LITTORAL REGION, i.e. a COAST. that’s littorally the first time i’ve seen LITTORAL in a grid. it means relating to a shore or coast.
  • {Variation #4} HARD-SHELL SNACKS. okay, but you’re doing it wrong. soft-shell TACOS are much more sensible. that way, when you bite into part of it, the rest of it doesn’t immediately fall apart.

okay, so we have a theme and variations. what’s the theme? presumably some other arrangement of those five letters. i couldn’t think of anything, really. the best i could come up with was “costa”, as in costa rica or the surname of various soccer/tennis players i know, but that’s just spanish for “coast” so more or less a dupe. so i gave up my quixotic week 1 conceit and glanced at the instructions: This week’s contest answer is a frequently performed opera. immediate facepalm. not only should i have been more focused on classical music to begin with (considering both the puzzle’s title and its constructor), how many times have i entered puccini’s TOSCA into a grid? even the victorien sardou play on which the opera is based, LA TOSCA, is borderline 7-letter crosswordese in certain themeless grid patterns.

it would have really helped if i’d noticed the parenthetical comment at 20-across, {English translation of “Die Fledermaus” (which is not the answer to the meta)} THE BAT, because it would have tipped me off to the fact that we were looking for an opera. oh well. that’s what i get for solving too quickly.

this is a nice week 1 meta. i am normally not super-excited about themes where the long theme answers are, more or less, “clues” with arbitrary and stilted wording, but these felt fairly smooth. i love the word “littoral”, so that helps. the title is also perfect, playing on the musical notion of theme and variations by extending it to the crossword definition of theme, with the variations being anagrams. this puzzle, with its “hidden” theme, was kind of the crossword equivalent of the enigma variations, except much, much, much easier.

clues that caught my eye:

  • {“___ furtiva lagrima” (tenor aria from “L’elisir d’amore,” which is also not the answer to the meta)} UNA. actually, this one didn’t catch my eye, because otherwise i would have solved the meta. gosh, how did i miss both of these?
  • {Chameleon voiced by Johnny Depp} RANGO. boy, i haven’t thought about this movie in a long time. seeing this and {Canadian with all the answers} TREBEK in the grid reminded me of the time rango was a correct response on a 2011 episode of jeopardy. apparently ascot was also in a clue in that game!
  • {Novelist indirectly responsible for the title “Catch-22”} URIS. i think the story is that heller had originally called his novel catch-18, but it was changed because uris already had a novel called mila 18 and the publisher didn’t want them confused.
  • {Inapposite anagram of “honestly”} ON THE SLY. i have to say, ONTHESLY in the grid certainly looks like a one-word adverb.
  • {One of the two Best Picture Oscar-winners tied for shortest title} ARGO. i can’t think of the other right now. oh right, it’s GIGI (1958). well, that would have been a lot tougher.

that’s all i’ve got for week 1. thanks for the puzzle, joshua!

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13 Responses to MGWCC #522

  1. Matt Gaffney says:

    Thanks, Joon and Joshua. This was a fun one indeed, though it played tougher than I expected with just 493 right answers.

    Shout-out to the solver who submitted O CATS, which is incorrect but inspired.

    • pgw says:

      > Shout-out to the solver who submitted O CATS, which is incorrect but inspired.

      Ha! I thought of that as a joke (“Thinking … thinking … … O! Cats!!”)

      I think you oughta give it to ’em.

    • Matthew G. says:

      Perhaps that solver meant it as an homage to the final song of “Cats” (my four-year-old son’s current obsession):

      With cats, some say one rule is true:
      Don’t speak till you are spoken to.
      Myself, I do not hold with that;
      I say you should address a cat.
      But always keep in mind that he
      Resents familiarity.
      You bow, and taking off your hat,
      Address him in this form: O Cat.

      • Ephraim says:

        Works for other animals too.

        “Would it be of any use, now,” thought Alice, “to speak to this mouse? Everything is so out-of-the-way down here, that I should think it very likely it can talk: at any rate, there’s no harm in trying.” So she began: “O Mouse, do you know the way out of this pool? I am very tired of swimming about here, O Mouse!” (Alice thought this must be the right way of speaking to a mouse: she had never done such a thing before, but she remembered having seen, in her brother’s Latin Grammar, “A mouse – of a mouse – to a mouse – a mouse – O mouse!”)

  2. Daniel Barkalow says:

    Spent an embarrassingly long time looking at “dunno, CRAVAT, SHORE/BEACH, PEANUTS/PISTACHIOS” before I remembered that crosswords consider TACOS a snack.

    • Margaret says:

      The first list I wrote down was DAUBS TIE SHORE/BEACH TACOS. I was sure it was going to be a sound-alike phrase when you ran the words all together. Thank goodness for tacos or I never would have gotten it!

    • pgw says:

      I’m far less offended by the notion of tacos as a snack – sure, they are typically the focal point of a meal but a single taco can be a great snack – as I am the claim that tacos come in hard shells. Get that crap out of here, a taco is two soft corn tortillas laid flat and piled with seasoned meat, salsa, onions and cilantro, and a lime wedge on the side.

      [Editing to add that I now see, having only skimmed the post previously, that joon dealt with this problem above – though far less forcefully than it deserved.]

  3. Joshua Kosman says:

    Thanks, Joon, and extra-special thanks to Matt for putting his faith in me and giving me a slot in this prestigious parade of constructors. I’m very grateful for the chance.

    Incidentally, the roots of this meta go back nearly 30 years, to my first year at the Chronicle, when I got assigned to cover a production of “Tosca” at the Sacramento Opera. I entered it on the arts story budget as “Sacto Tosca,” and then, because it seemed like a necessity, added “Ascot Coats.” The editors hadn’t quite grasped everything there was to know about the new guy, but I think that gave them a helpful glimpse.

  4. Barbara Hartwell says:

    Never would have considered a taco to be a snack, hence I got stuck. Also thought Littoral Region was Camaroon so I was really lost!

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