WSJ Contest — Friday, November 30, 2018

7:15 grid, 20 meta (Laura) 


Marie Kelly Mike Shenk’s Wall Street Journal contest crossword, “Dropouts”—Laura’s review

Every Friday, around midday, my metasolving group checks in regarding the week’s metas: who did the WSJ, what we’re thinking the MGWCC looks like given the difficulty rating, if there’s a Fireball contest, the MMMM, etc. This past Friday, some of us had already gotten the WSJ in preparation for a Week 5 MGWCC (which certainly measured 5 metaweeks on the Gaffney Scale, and it’s a real treat if you haven’t braved it yet). Reports sounded favorable, so I took a solving break at work, then screenshotted and printed the grid (my usual method of attack).

WSJ Contest - 11.130.18 - Solution

WSJ Contest – 11.130.18 – Solution

  • [16a: Egg roll dip (NH)]: HOT MUSTARD
  • [20a: Sweet loaves on Christmas tables (PA)]: PANETTONES
  • [22a: Blanket (CT)]: LAYER
  • [33a: Lover of love (NY)]: AMORIST
  • [40a: Disinterested (LA)]: NEUTRAL
  • [51a: Outlandish (NJ)]: WEIRD
  • [55a: Where to see Picasso’s “Weeping Woman” (IN)]: TATE MODERN
  • [60a: Data protector (NJ)]: ENCRYPTION

I stared and stared at the themers, trying to find something that related them to each other or to the parenthetical state abbreviations. But I wasn’t getting anywhere. So I asked for a lifeline. Still nothing. Okay, maybe try the shorter themers? The title is “Dropouts” and we’re looking for an eight-letter word; there are eight themers, so one would assume we’re getting one letter of that word from each. Drop a letter to make a new word? Something related to the states indicated in the parentheses? Okay: LAYE, LAYR, LAER, LYER, AYER — I see nothing. WEIR, WEID, WERD, WIRD, EIRD — nope. NEUTRAL > NEURAL > LAUREN? — nope! Try reversing them? WERD > DREW. Yes, I was told, that is correct. But what does that have to do with New Jersey? Can I reverse anything else? LAER > REAL? Nope. What else, my interlocutor patiently asked, could you possibly do with a string of letters to make a word? C’mon Laura! And then —

NOTE: The following screenshot contains a few rather colorful examples of profanity and our more sensitive listeners may wish to exercise discretion.

If you’ve been reading Fiend for a while, you know that those of us who blog metas don’t always get them, and we’re not ashamed of posting a DNF. Even when I get a meta, sometimes I’ll miss some subtlety that commenters helpfully (and most gleefully) point out. So I’m offering this self-own to all of you as a way to say: These puzzles can be frustrating and tough, even when other people find them easy; they can take time, and patience, and sometimes you feel so resentful — towards the puzzle or other solvers or those bloggers who seem to always know the answer — when you feel like you should be able to get something but you … just … can’t. In my case, here is a photo that recreates (I’m writing this blog post at home) what I was looking at in my office while I was trying to get this meta:

HOT MUSTARD, you fool!

The word I was looking for — the name of the institution where I have worked as a librarian for the past fifteen years — was staring me in the face, not three inches from the puzzle entry. [Get to the meta solution already, Laura! Stop talking about yourself!]

Each entry has one letter that’s a dropout; anagram the remaining letters to get an institution of higher education located in the parenthetical state:


And there we have our eight-letter word: SORORITY. I only vaguely remembered that DREW was a university in New Jersey; also note that PENN STATE is Mike Shenk’s alma mater and TULANE just appeared in a Gaffney WSJ contest puzzle a few weeks ago. Also note, with some irony, that members of a SORORITY are somewhat less likely to become DROPOUTS than women college students who do not participate in their institutions’ Greek systems.

This was, for me, a HOT MUSTARD of a puzzle; I shall henceforth offer the Hot Mustard Prize for Most Colossal Brainfart on a Metapuzzle with compassion and camaraderie to all those who stumble flailingly into the foggy night of lateral reasoning.

This entry was posted in Contests and tagged . Bookmark the permalink.

11 Responses to WSJ Contest — Friday, November 30, 2018

  1. Eric Conrad says:


    I wish there was an ORCA award for best meta crossword write-up, because this would be a lock.



  2. Joella Hultgren says:

    There are no sororities at Notre Dame and Drew. There are sororities at the other six schools.
    So the sorority connection was NOT consistent.

    • JohnH says:

      Unless things have changed an awful lot since I went, there are no sororities (or fraternities, actually) at Princeton either. But I don’t think it’d be necessary for the device to work.

      It’s a nice construction, and I see from the WSJ site that solvers far outnumbered others, but I didn’t have a clue. I’m still not sure what prompted people to match the theme entries to colleges and universities. All “dropouts” made me think of was dropping letters, but that wasn’t enough. (For the record, I’m used to the phrase “high-school dropout” but don’t usually apply “dropout” to those who fail to complete college.)

      Instead, I kept trying to link the letters in the state abbreviations to something that could be added to, deleted from, or switched with letters in the theme entries. And then I looked for anything at all to drop to make a word. Maybe I would have come closer without the state abbreviations. (Not that I could have told you where Marist College is, assuming I’d remember Marist College.)

      This should have catered to my cryptic solving habit, with “drop” as a deletion signal and “out” as an anagram signal, but the combo never occurred to me. Oh, well.

  3. Laura, this is the BEST. I am experiencing all of those feelings right now about the MGWCC – Resentful! Impatient! Frustrated! I HAVE EVERYTHING I NEED!! WHY CAN’T I GET IT?? And I AM A PENN STATER (Mike Shenk – We Are!) and I got Yale first on the WSJ! I did get this one very quickly but it’s just a perfect example of what you are saying, Laura. Solving these things is a capricious thing. Our brains all work so differently. The screen shots are just so hilarious.

  4. Thurman8er says:

    I am bookmarking this entry and referring to it every time I feel stupid while trying to solve a meta. Which describes the second half of every month.

  5. Bill Katz says:

    After I started extracting schools I knew my alma mater would NOT be included. It would take a Sunday-sized grid to hide “Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute” :-)

  6. Burak says:

    Amazing writeup.

    This was a meta that I solved even before I finished the grid. I looked at the title and said “hah, this might have something to do with colleges” and because I anagram my friend’s names as a hobby (weirdo!) I saw Dartmouth ~10 minutes into solving the grid, without even looking for the answer. For the rest I had to use Google though. (I had never heard of PANETTONES before so that took me quite a while even though I knew the answer was going to be “sorority”)

    I thought this was a very good meta. The title has multiple meanings, and the answer has to do a lot with the grid. Maybe the state abbreviations were giving away too much, but I won’t complain. I had fun solving it.

  7. Silverskiesdean says:

    I am proud to say I got this one pretty quickly. I bought all of Matt Gaffney’s books and am going through them progressively i.e. first one star, then two stars etc. I’m trying to learn not to spend too much time on one thought and making it worse by finding things that aren’t really there and by doing that spending too much time on that one thought, but rather proceeding to the next idea. This may also explain why I never married and am 64 y/o presently. Too many rabbit holes. However, the point of this is that just like Laura, I feel that I had help from my family because the first anagram I unraveled was Drew, maybe because my sister attended Drew as well. Then I realized I have two sisters, the other one went to Princeton. From there it was a cakewalk. If I had a brother, I’m sure he would have gone to Dartmouth.

Comments are closed.