MGWCC #543

crossword 4:31  
meta DNF 3 days 


hello and welcome to episode #543 of matt gaffney’s weekly crossword contest, “Three by Fives”. for this week 4 puzzle, matt challenges us to find a five-letter word with three consonants and two vowels. okay. what are the theme answers? well, there are five *ed across clues (four long and one short):

  • {*Missives that technology made widespread in the 2000s} PHONE TEXTS. i’m not sure i’ve ever seen these called phone texts; they’re either text messages or just texts.
  • {*1956 musical comedy starring Sinatra and Crosby} HIGH SOCIETY.
  • {*This sitcom’s titular character is a teacher in Nova Scotia} MR. D. this is a canadian show i’ve never heard of.
  • {*Function performed by a floppy disk, USB drives, etc.} DATA STORAGE.
  • {*Game with slingshots and exploding crates} ANGRY BIRDS.

okay, so it’s tuesday morning and i haven’t gotten anywhere with this meta. not that i’ve necessarily been thinking about it all weekend (i’ve been a little preoccupied with puzzle boat 5), but still.

the *ed entries don’t seem to have anything to do with the title or instructions. i mean, i guess PHONE and ANGRY are 5-letter words with three consonants and two vowels. there are a lot of 5-letter entries in the grid, some of them with that particular consonant/vowel breakdown, but i don’t know what’s going on with those either.

the one thing that struck me as unusual was the clue for SOLIDS: {Magma contains many of them}. that is a very, very strange way to clue this word, especially since one generally thinks of magma as being molten, not solid at all. (okay, i just looked it up, and it actually refers to a different definition of magma than the one we’re all familiar with.) and of course magma is a five-letter word with three consonants and two vowels. but i don’t know what else to do with it.

oh, actually, wait, now i do. the other striking clue i noticed was {Thespian DeLuise} DOM. why not just say “actor”? because actor is a five-letter word with three consonants and two vowels, and it seems likely that matt couldn’t use that word because that clue/answer pair wasn’t part of the theme. it turns out there are precisely five words in the clues that fit the instructions, all of them appearing at the start of the clue:

  • i already mentioned {Magma contains many of them} SOLIDS.
  • {Cubic measurement, frequently} YARD.
  • {Tenet of Bahaism} PEACE.
  • {Samos letter} PSI, which is itself a consonant.
  • {David ___ Stiers of “M*A*S*H”} OGDEN. this clue also contained three asterisks, so perhaps i should’ve known it was a theme clue all along. ;)

notice that in all five of these words, the consonants form a three-letter palindrome: MGM, CBC, TNT, SMS, and DVD. not only that, SMS is the protocol used for PHONE TEXTS. aha! now we’re onto something. in fact, each of these palindromic trigrams is a common TLA that can be associated with one of the *ed clues:

  • PHONE TEXTS use SMS (samos -> PSI)
  • HIGH SOCIETY was, i assume, an MGM musical (magma -> SOLIDS)
  • MR. D is aired on the CBC (cubic -> YARD)
  • DVD is a DATA STORAGE medium (david -> OGDEN)
  • the exploding crates in ANGRY BIRDS probably contain TNT (tenet -> PEACE)

taking the first letters of the corresponding grid entries gives PSYOP (“psychological operations”), which is indeed a five-letter word with three consonants and two vowels. kind of funny that it is derived from psyche which, in the original greek, starts with Ψ.

this is a very creative meta. where did the idea for this come from? it’s a strange one because it would have been impossible if the instructions had not indicated that we were looking for words fitting very specific criteria.

the weird use of “magma” was certainly my way into this meta, but it’s worth thinking about whether there is a more natural-looking way to write a clue for an entry beginning with S that starts with “magma”. the best i can do is that apparently a major portion of almost all magma is SILICA, although it’s hard to know the composition of molten rock with any certainty.

anyway, tough meta, and i’m really glad i got it at the 11th hour. how’d you all fare on this one?

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51 Responses to MGWCC #543

  1. pgw says:

    I found the TLAs first and then stumbled onto the 5 letter words. DVD was a tough one, but with the rest in place it was backsolvable.

    My initial reaction to this one was that it’s fairly clunky – when I submitted, I was pretty sure I had the right answer but the “click” didn’t feel great. Psyop is a weird, nonstandard word (almost never encountered in the singular) that also bears no relation to anything else in the puzzle. The all-consonant palindromic TLA you can back-generate from it, PSP, is sorta thematic (you can play Angry Birds on it, and if you have the tech skills you can actually watch/do all the other theme entries on it also!), but in a way that likewise feels pretty arbitrary. And DVD is a tough pull from “data storage,” though once you have the rest you can backsolve it by scouring the clues.

    I have since softened my stance – this was a tough, intricate meta and there weren’t a lot of other options for theme material – but still, less than perfect. 4-ish stars?

  2. Cyrano says:

    Got it all. Got PSYOP. Said, “No way it is PSYOP because that has nothing to do with anything.” Proceeded to come up with something else.

    • Jim Quinlan says:

      I felt the same… one of those rare times I wasn’t 100% confident that the answer was right- found it yesterday but held off on submitting until the last minute. Still a pretty darn clever meta!

  3. Jeff says:

    Cool meta. Got stuck looking first at the 3×5 spaces in the grid and then the spaces where a three letter word intersected a five letter word. Oh well, get em next time.

    Wow, that puzzle boat thing looks cool! If anyone is looking for an extra team member…

  4. paul coulter says:

    This was a tough one for me, too. MRD was my entry point. There wasn’t much you could do with its letters, so it seemed associative. Sure enough, the Wikipedia article produced CBC, and I already had SMS in my notes for PHONETEXTS. From there, it was easy to produce the other TLA palindromes. Then, not too hard to find the relevant words in the clues. Odd they’re there for the second week in a row, but pleasing all the same. Matt, is there a reason you chose PSYOP for the answer, other than the letter pattern?

    • Matt Gaffney says:

      Yes: It’s another example of the theme idea — remove its two vowels and you get another palindromic, three-letter, all-consonants acronym, PSP.

      It’s a limited set — besides the six I used here, only CDC, CFC, BRB were usable (might be forgetting one, don’t have my notes in front of me). And there’s no way to make a 5-letter word by adding two vowels to any of those.

      • BarbaraK says:

        HGH – like in High Society. Not that that kept jumping off the page at me, insisting it must be important, or anything. :)

      • Well, a CODEC is a thing, but it’s tough to think of a way to fit that word at the beginning of a clue. Maybe with a fill-in-the-blank?

      • Also noticed LDL can form LADLE and SDS can form a few different 5-letter words (SIDES, SODAS, SEEDS), although it’d be tough to come up with SDS without either back-solving or noticing whichever S?D?S word in the clues, and those were the only alternatives I could find on a quick search. Really, the set you’ve come up with (from a very limited set) is good; my only hitch was thinking that MAGMA was an outlier since the other clue words have the initialism letters at the 1/3/5 positions where that one has them at 1/3/4.

      • pgw says:

        I went looking for others also. As Evan mentions below, codec is a thing. Could also pair BRB with Barbi. Barbara mentions HGH, which you could pair with the extremely archaic word ahigh … but, uh, no. LDL (with ladle as the 5 letter word) also works, with theme entry CHOLESTEROL. Also LCL (KNEE LIGAMENT, local). Others without a good 5 letter word: MSM (FAKE NEWS!); PCP (HALLUCINOGEN); WCW (PRO WRESTLING).

      • Jimmy says:

        BRB: BRIBE

  5. Matthew G. says:

    I liked this one a lot. Very satisfying when it came together.

    My entry point to the meta was the clue {This sitcom’s titular character . . .}, which reads more like a Jeopardy! clue than a crossword clue. The standard crossword phrasing would have been {Sitcom whose titular character . . .}. The avoidance of the five-letter word “whose” was notable, and sent me off on the right track.

    Over in the thread on this week’s WSJ contest, Matt preemptively posted that he expected criticism about inelegances in this MGWCC puzzle, but I only see one minor inelegance: the lack of an apparent thematic connection between the final answer of PSYOP and the rest of the title/grid/clues/theme. After I got to that answer, I hesitated a bit out of concern that there might be one additional step (perhaps something relating to the PSP, which is a handheld gaming device), but after going back through the grid and clues a few times I was satisfied that there was not. And it’s a minor inelegance because PSYOP fits the unusually specific meta instruction. So, only a half-star deduction and 4.5 stars from me.

    • Dan Seidman says:

      This clue drew my attention for a different word: why “titular” instead of “title”? Although I never noticed there were no other 3x5s beside the theme ones; I got it from noticing how unusual Samos was for its clue and hitting on SMS.

    • pgw says:

      I never even noticed that Matt managed to avoid 5-letter words everywhere else in the clues – that’s very cool. Explains the odd phrasing of the clue for 45-across, wherein “disk” is singular but “drives” is plural.

      • pgw says:

        This also explains my least favorite clue in the puzzle, at 27-across, where the far superior reference to the Allman Brothers’ third album was unavailable thanks to “peach” being five letters.

        • Matt Gaffney says:

          Bingo — that was my original clue!

          • Richard K. says:

            Bingo! That was my answer. I found the TLA’s, but didn’t notice the key words in the clues, so I was stuck with nothing intelligible. But a slight change from SMS to LOL (a common phone text) and another from DVD to GIG (a unit of data storage), and the five central letters could anagram to BINGO. And there are certainly a lot of fives in Bingo. I knew it was wrong, but it was the best I could come up with.

      • Matthew G. says:

        There is one other five-character word in the clues: “2000s.” But numbers aren’t letters so I didn’t worry about it (too) much.

    • Matt Gaffney says:

      The inelegances in my view were:

      1) PSYOP is not listed in Merriam-Webster. This was a surprise to me since it’s in common usage but a number of solvers told me that it gave them pause, which isn’t good for a meta answer.

      2) There were two ways to attack the meta, by getting the TLA associations in the grid and then finding the them again in the five-letter clues, or by noticing the dearth of 5-letter words in the clues and then associating them with the meta. Maybe that’s not an inelegance in retrospect, but I guess my ideal would be one clear path to the meta and then anything else is a backsolve. But anecdotally it appears many solvers noticed the odd, clearly-avoiding-five-letter-words in the clues and got it that way. Not the end of the world I guess, but not the one-clear-path ideal.

      • Matthew G. says:

        Wow. It wouldn’t even occur to me that anyone might think of the specific three-letter acronyms based on the asterisked entries alone, before finding them concealed in the clues. Did anyone solve it that way?

        • pgw says:

          yes (see below)

        • Pomona47 says:

          I got 3 of the 5 TLAs, figured out the 5-letter words (Magma was the first), and then backsolved for the others. PHONETEXTS immediately evoked SMS, and when MGM and CBC followed I knew that couldn’t be coincidence.

        • Andy says:

          Count me among those who solved in exactly what I assume was Matt’s intended order. From each of the * clues I drew out a 3 letter palindromic initialism (DVD took the longest). Then, once I noticed/recalled magma and Samos in the clues, I was off to the races.

          It would have never occurred to me to start anywhere but the * clues, though I also didn’t notice that the 5 theme words in the clues were the only 5 letter words in the clues. That’s impressive.

      • pgw says:

        I don’t see (2) as an inelegance at all. I was intrigued to see that people had come at it from an entirely different direction – mine was the TLA associations, noticing SMS first and then figuring the obviously Canadian TV show was probably on CBC, then thinking “old movie … maybe MGM?”, then remembering “oh yeah, those exploding crates have TNT in them,” and then racking my brain for a while to figure out a means of data storage fitting the pattern. (First thing I found, btw, was the concept of “machine-readable medium,” but it didn’t seem like anyone ever really says MRM so I kept looking.) It never even occurred to me until this morning that these were the only five-letter words in the clues, and in retrospect that makes the puzzle more elegant, not less so.

        • Matthew G. says:

          Agreed. And conversely, I fail to see how it counts as “backsolving” to first notice that there are only five five-letter words in the clues and then notice that each contains a TLA that matches an asterisked entry. “Backsolving” is when you guess an answer and then go back and find ways to justify it. That doesn’t occur here.

          Seeing the insights in an order not intended by the author is not the same as backsolving. A shout-out is due to those who guessed the TLAs first, though; that is impressive, and if that had been the only way to attack this one I think it would have been Week 5 material.

  6. Gideon says:

    Strong meta but compromised by the weak click. I got it early on but would’ve suffered before submitting if i hadn’t been lucky to have a buddy already on the board (Austin B) to confirm with.

  7. Thomas says:

    HI, DOG. Did you know there are 3 consonants and 2 vowels that appear in the starred answers 3 times each? That was the only thing I ever found in this one.

  8. kristin g says:

    This was a great one – a Week 4 should be difficult, and it was! A few of the rabbit holes I encountered:

    1. The entry III for 15 across leaves a “III” by a “5” visually in the grid (the title is “Three by Fives”).
    2. An anagram of “angry” intersects the “angry” in the theme answer, ANGRY BIRDS (The crossing entry is MEG RYAN). And it is five letters. I thought surely that mattered, but couldn’t find much to corroborate it.
    3. Three people in the grid played the SAME role: Lindsay Lohan, Alicia Silverstone, and Madonna all played Karen onstage in Mamet’s Speed the Plow. (KAREN = three consonants and two vowels – I thought I was onto something!)
    4. There seemed to be lots of names in the down answers. Weirdly enough, Dom DeLuise and David Ogden-Stiers were both voices in Toonstruck.
    5. HITS SEND crosses with PHONE TEXTS! Nice red herring there. One could also say SEND, as a verb, is synonymous with TEXT – TEXT it to me, SEND it to me.
    6. Speaking of the phone texts, there are lots of words associated with smartphones here. ICONS, DATA STORAGE, PHONE TEXTS, HITS SEND, SLIDE (right?), CASE, etc.
    7. DIRTY, a five-letter word in the lower left, is the opposing entry of SEEDY in the upper right. Nothing to corroborate this either.

    I’m just posting all these wayward items in the hopes I’m not the only one! I like a challenging puzzle, and this was it. It brought me to the brink of AHA several times. Pretty amazing that all of that is in there.

  9. HomeSkooled says:

    I got too hung up on the 5 and 3 letter words in the grid. After last week (which I also missed), I did look to the clues this time. I thought I was on to something when I had to get way down the list before even coming to a 5 letter word. But then I came upon several others and didn’t focus on the vowel – consonant ratio, so that went nowhere. I also noted the weirdly worded clues for DOM and MRD, but just couldn’t get there.

    MRD gave me fits all along. I’ve never heard of it and it would sink every theory I could come up on the theme entries. I also thought that III at the top center would come into play, so I spent plenty of time thinking about that.

    Nice puzzle though, and congrats to everyone who got it.

  10. Myelbow says:

    I don’t think I’ve been as completely stumped by a meta since I started solving them as I was by this one. I knew something seemed weird about the way several of the clues were phrased, especially that SOLIDS clue, but I didn’t get any farther than that. Still, after reading this writeup, I can’t deny that the trail of breadcrumbs leading to the solution was there all along. Congratulations to all the solvers who found it!

  11. David says:

    I had this one on Friday, but didn’t think I was right. I’m not sure PSYOP is an actual word, and doesn’t seem relevant in any way. I never came up with anything else so I submitted it.

    I think the meta is cool; I just wish the answer clicked better.

  12. MarkR says:

    Just got in under the wire today. I was fairly confident submitting PSYOP as the answer, after finding there is a PSP version of Angry Birds. That seemed to tie it all together.

    • Matt Gaffney says:

      Yeah, I’m curious why this didn’t click for more solvers. There are quite a number so there must be a good reason(s). Believe it or not I was excited to find PSYOP among the 10 or so usable words (the 6 I used, plus as Evan noted above, SODAS/SIDES, LADLE, and CODEC) since a meta is PSYOP-like and it distills to another example of the theme idea, which is a common meta-answer clicking mechanism. So I’m curious to know if solvers for whom this didn’t click 1) didn’t notice that PSYOP –> PSP, 2) Saw it but didn’t think PSP was enough of a thing, 3) Didn’t think PSYOP was a legit word (it’s not in M-W, which surprised me) or some combination thereof, or something else?

      • BrainBoggler says:

        I unfortunately overlooked the first letters of each of the intended grid entries to get PSYOP (which was already unfamiliar anyway) and instead more closely inspected the full entries to see that OGDEN was the only 5-letter/3-consonant/2-vowel word (albeit, proper noun) among them. I had myself convinced I was overthinking and just needed to stop there. Such a shame to get that far with it and wind up overshooting. Congrats to all who properly recognized where to stop.

      • Gwinns says:

        For me, it was mainly 3 with a dash of 2. I got PSYOP and noticed PSP, and I knew PSP was a thing, but not a common-enough thing to make up for the not-a-thing of PSYOP.
        What really threw me was, I Googled SOPPY and the first result was a dictionary definition of Soppy. Then I googled PSYOP and no definition–I got a big page of hits referring to PSYOPS– plural– and always referring to it as an abbreviation.
        So, in my head, I was torn between a non-word that seemed to fit the logic of the puzzle, and an actual word that had nothing to do with anything and which I arrived at by random anagram.
        I ultimately got it right, but if I were on the panel I’d vote to accept SOPPY, if anyone submitted it.

        • Matt Gaffney says:

          Interesting and helpful, thanks much. I did count the two SOPPY entries submitted as correct without consulting the panel since I felt that the ambiguity inherent in PSYOP not being in M-W was enough on its own.

      • Brian Kell says:

        I found the TLAs from the theme entries, then found the corresponding words in the clues, then noticed those were the only five-letter words in the clues. That confirmed that I was on the right track (and explained all the weird clues I had noticed earlier). Then I found PSYOP, but I wasn’t sure if that was a word (I knew only PSYOPS), so I checked M-W and didn’t find it there. The use of Y as a vowel, though certainly correct, seemed possibly objectionable too. I didn’t get any semantic click for PSYOP from the title or mechanics of the puzzle. So I spent some time looking for something else. Eventually I noticed that PSYOP fits the pattern of the other five-letter words and that PSP is a thing. I still thought that PSYOP was a strange choice until I tried to come up with some alternatives, at which point I realized how strong the constraints were on those words—that’s really what convinced me that PSYOP was OK.

      • john says:

        Never heard the term PSYOP. It reminds me of a long-ago meta where the answer was something i’d never heard of and so i solved it to the “put the first letters of each word together and..” point and stalled, thinking GALBA was pure gibberish. However i was unhappy for that one because i got that far, i never got that far on this one. It didn’t occur to me that the starred clues would be a secondary step in the puzzle. I was determined to make sense of the meta starting there, and obviously failed.

      • J L says:

        Mostly (3) for me — I’d consider it an abbreviation more than a word, and it’s much more familiar (to me) in the plural.

  13. Scout says:

    PSYOP is not a word I had heard of so I needed a nudge on the last step to get it. But what an amazing journey to get to that last step! Try writing 79 clues with only 5 five-letter words. Oh, and those words need to break down into TLAs. Then they need to correspond with five themed words in the grid. Now go back to the five letter words and make the answer for each one spell something that fits with the theme and break down into a TLA. I’m in awe of talent it took to construct this puzzle. Thanks, Matt!

    • mkmf says:

      Scout – you nicely laid out truly awesome construction hurdles. I want to add one more special touch.

      The starting letters of the answers to the 5-letter clues, in order of their clues, is S Y P P O. So if someone (who me?) happened to find that there were only five 5-letter words in all the clues and looked at the starting letters, the true answer was unlikely to pop-out: PSYOP is so unusual, and SOPPY just didn’t make sense. So Matt’s choice of an quite uncommon answer prevented us from just anagramming the letters, and missing the rest of the fun!

      • Matthew G. says:

        It was partly this line of thinking — that Matt must have gone with PSYOP to prevent someone from skipping a step and just anagramming the initial letters of the entries whose clues contained five-letter words — that eventually made me comfortable accepting that PSYOP was the final answer. PSYOP is unfamiliar enough to not jump out at you, but it’s legit: the Wikipedia entry for psychological operations has PSYOP (in the singular, contra a comment above) bolded as a common abbreviation.

        Viewed as a way to deter guessing, the choice of answers is more elegant. Hence my view that this one is getting considerably underrated.

  14. Diana says:

    Could have submitted PSYOP Saturday morn, but I didn’t like it. I ended up submitting nothing. If I had thought of PSP (and I should have since there are two such systems in this household that cost me a pretty penny), I might have felt it was worth a shot as it fit in with the kind of techno theme.
    Tough meta. Kudos to all solvers.

  15. I also found the TLA’s first although I was stuck on the last two and was able to backsolve once I knew the process. I was brain dead from the WSJ (and wasn’t able to start either puzzle until Sunday afternoon) so put the MGWCC down. There is nothing like that moment when I just glanced at it and saw “Magma” and that MGM jumped out at me like a lightning bolt. Those aha solve moments are the best. I was familiar with the word psyop so was confident in the answer. Incredible meta from start to finish, Matt.

  16. Garrett says:

    Normally. you have to account for the five starred Clues first before you try looking around other parts of the grid. But that MRD thing in the middle just did not seem to hang with anything so I started looking around.

    Three by five could be 3 square x 5 square areas, like the corners. Each corner has this feature. I could derive nothing from that. Then I noticed there were four 8-stack entries that crossed the five starred fill. Maybe 3 by 5 really means 8?

    I fell asleep last night reading the clues…

  17. Silverskiesdean says:

    I am very familiar with the term “PSYOPS” since I was in military service in the 70s, and PSYOPS was bandied about a lot, but I always heard it as above, i.e. in the plural. So just to let you know, the term has been around for a while.

  18. Brian says:

    I found the set of 5-letter words in the clues and stared at them intermittently for a few days, but never broke out the consonants to get the TLAs. Always one more step, there is…

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