Matt Gaffney’s Wall Street Journal contest crossword, “Reverse Engineering”—Laura’s review
With a title like that, you just know that there’s going to be something about reading things backwards. Hey, listeners, let’s see if we can forward-engineer this meta gimmick! For starters, we have some goofy themer entries:
[17a: Result of a casual restaurant’s staff dealing with many rude diners?]: CAFE ANNOYED
[25a: The enthusiasm of a soft mineral?]: GYPSUM VERVE
[39a: Moralistic tale of an Italian island?]: SARDINIA PARABLE
[48a: Note about one of the Gallagher brothers?]: NOEL MESSAGE. That would be Noel Gallagher, of the 90s Britpop band Oasis.
[61a: Black bird seen by a Russian river?]: URAL GRACKLE
Interesting — right there at the top of the grid is [1a: Bent out of shape]: RILED — which also means annoyed. And if I “reverse engineer” RILED I get DELI – R … hmmm, a DELI is a kind of “casual restaurant.” I wonder if I looked for other synonyms for the second words in the goofy themers, could I find other synonyms for the first words? Or maybe words that could also go with those clues?
We have, in themer order:
ANNOYED –> RILED –> DELI – R
VERVE –> ECLAT –> TALC – E
PARABLE –> FABLE –> ELBA – F
MESSAGE –> EMAIL –> LIAM – E (Liam Gallagher is Noel’s brother)
GRACKLE –> RAVEN –> NEVA – R
And there’s the “five-letter palindrome” that we were challenged to find: REFER — which is what the second words in the first set of themers do to other words in the grid that, when reverse-engineered, REFER to the first words in the first set.
I solve a whole lot of Matt’s puzzles — I’m a MGWCC addict, and I’ve now been covering the WSJ contest for a few months. I’ve noticed that the “refer to other entries in the grid that the clues could connect to, and then do something with them” gimmick is one he uses fairly often — so much so that that’s one of my immediate “extraction techniques” when I’m solving a Gaffney meta. What did you think? Slip inside the eye of your mind — don’t you know you might find a better place to play?
A short cut: I got the five-letter synonyms and just took the first letters (my go-to extraction technique) to get REFER and never saw the four-letter synonyms.
I did the same, and felt incomplete because I hadn’t reversed anything. When I learned that you could reverse the remaining letters and get a synonym for the first half, I saw the true genius of the puzzle.
Me three. After reaching the correct answer without noticing the reversals, I thought this was an oddly easy and oversimple meta. I should have known better!
And finally, tieing a bow around the whole thing, we have these 9-letter palindromes that help explain the strange clues:
CAFE ANNOYED => deliRILED
GYPSUM VERVE => talcECLAT
SARDINIA PARABLE => elbaFABLE
NOEL MESSAGE => liamEMAIL
URAL GRACKLE => nevaRAVEN
What a fabulous puzzle!
Right — the full idea is that you make a two-word palindromic phrase that can also satisfy the theme clue, and the middle letters of the palindromes spell REFER.
Missed the third step. The answer can be correctly derived from only the first one. But this puzzle is a work of art & wonderment. Can’t understand rating thus far of 3.67. ⭐️ ⭐️ ⭐️⭐️⭐️
So this is a triple-AHA meta:
First AHA, to find REFER, the meta solution – !
Second AHA to notice DELI and the other reversals – !!
Third AHA to see the palindrome – !!!
I got the first two but missed the elegant third. Interesting that the greatest satisfaction comes after the meta solution (REFER) has been found.
I’d never have come close, but admirable how it all ties together. Looks like another Google puzzle, no doubt. I wouldn’t have known the path from NOEL to LIAM, and I still don’t see how to connect URL and NEVA after double checking them both in RHUD. To be honest, I didn’t actually know a GRACKLE is a RAVEN (unless it’s the other way around), and that’s 3 of 5 right there. Oh, well.
I could easily see that the long entries mattered, since they make no sense. I didn’t see anything they had in common, and from the title I tried reading them backward with no new insight. Gave up.
Oh, obviously ELBA is not a synonym for Sardinia either, but then I never do understand these things.
The point isn’t that each word in the key palindromes are synonyms with the words in the theme answers. It’s that the palindromes can satisfy the theme clues.
[Moralistic tale of an Italian island?] can be a clue for SARDINIA PARABLE and ELBA FABLE. Sardinia and Elba are both Italian islands; PARABLE and FABLE are both moralistic tales.
[Black bird seen by a Russian river?] can be a clue for URAL GRACKLE and NEVA RAVEN. The Ural and Neva are both Russian rivers; GRACKLE and RAVEN are both black birds.
Also I’m not sure why RHUD is an okay resource for you to look up information to help you solve the meta but Google is bad.
Thanks. I see that they’re kind of close, and fine if that’s how it works. A deli and cafe are different, too.
But no, I don’t think it’s ok to use the dictionary to look up answers. I was using it after the answers were posted here to see if I could make sense of them or even if they worked at all. I’d be happy to use Google for that purpose as well. I mean, come on: would you rather I just scoffed at a puzzle because “I know better”?
Well, you were going to scoff, regardless.
I could have stared at this meta for a week and I’d have been no closer to figuring out how it worked.
Using “Elba” was a nod to the famous palindrome; nice touch. To think of this puzzle, Matt was certainly a man with a plan, and more than able.
I was wondering if there were another step to this, in that REFER (which I was fairly certain was the correct answer) could employ the same gimmick with MEDULLA (with ALLUDE being synonymous with REFER). Just a (very odd) coincidence?
AmyF: Nice catch – WOW!!!!
Matt: Did you know? This gets even better!
Hmm – how would “alludeMedulla” be clued?
ALLUDE MEDULLA is a good find. RECAP / PACER stood out to me, too. And I noticed a few other thematic elements that could be construed as hint or misdirection:
– A backwards ELBA inside SARDINIA PARABLE (this was my cue to look for synonyms of the theme answers)
– A backwards KCAR inside URAL GRACKLE (which turned out to be something of a red herring)
I don’t enjoy the contests anymore. I know that’s not a popular opinion but I’ll own it. When the puzzle is a slog, and the meta is obscure – it’s just not fun anymore.