MGWCC #558

crossword 2:44  
meta DNF 3 days 


hello and welcome to episode #558 of matt gaffney’s weekly crossword contest, “Last in Translation”. i don’t remember the last time i fell flat on my face on a week 2 puzzle, but here we are: i have no idea what the theme is or how the meta works. so there’s that. the instructions tell us we’re looking for a food that’s four letters long in English. what are the theme answers? well, there appear to be five long across answers:

  • {Item in the school supplies section} PENCIL CASE.
  • {Going wild} RUNNING AMOK.
  • {2018 movie with the line “I don’t know where she gets her stubbornness”} ON THE BASIS OF SEX. this is the ruth bader ginsburg biopic.
  • {1985 drama that was Madonna’s big-screen debut} VISION QUEST. i have heard of this term as a rite of passage in some native american cultures, but not this film. apparently madonna “plays” a lounge singer, which is to say, she just sings a couple of songs during the film. she would eventually graduate to more diverse acting roles, but i guess this was a natural fit for her first film.
  • {Item on a receptionist’s desk} MESSAGE PAD.

so, what’s the theme? i have nothing, but it’s not quite noon yet, so let’s see if we can figure it out together. the title certainly suggests looking at the ends of these theme answers and also foreign languages. so maybe CASE is hinting at the old crosswordese standby ETUI, a french word for case. but this idea doesn’t seem to extend to the other theme answers. AMOK is an interesting word in its own right, derived from malay via portuguese, but that doesn’t seem to be the theme. while we’re here, though, i noticed that PAD could be followed by the name of a language (THAI) to get a food, which would seem to relate to both title and instructions, but this doesn’t go anywhere either.

perhaps there is a non-foreign-language-related way to “translate” these final words (CASE, AMOK, SEX, QUEST, PAD). i thought perhaps change a letter (you can get GUEST from QUEST, for example)… but there’s nothing you can do with AMOK.

okay, here’s something. if you change the last letter of PENCIL to R, then you can get the word CIRCA in PENCIRCASE. changing the G of RUNNING AMOK to a J gives NINJA. that’s interesting, right? CIRCA (from latin) and NINJA (from japanese) are both common english loanwords. unfortunately, the pattern stops there.

how about going at it from the other direction? the instructions say we’re looking for a 4-letter answer, but i have what appear to be five theme entries. this suggests that either the central one is acting as a reveal answer of some sort, or perhaps that we’re going to extract a five-letter word in some other language that refers to a food that’s only four letters in english. right now i’m leaning towards the latter, because if ON THE BASIS OF SEX is some kind of instruction, i don’t know how to follow it.

so let’s just try to think of foods that are four letters in english, but in another language, known by a 5-letter word that’s sufficiently commonly known to americans that it might be used as a clue. TOFU, for example, fits the first requirement but not the second; i think we’re going to need a european language because we’re going to extract one letter (in our usual roman alphabet) from each theme answer. what about ARROZ -> RICE? that would suggest doing something in spanish. oh hey. hey! i just solved it.

changing the last letter of each theme answer can produce a common (at least by crossword standards) spanish word. as an elegant confirmation step, the english translation of each one is found elsewhere in the grid:

  • CASE -> CASA, which means HOME, clued at 59a as{Dwelling}. i actually thought it was house, but this is close enough. (and i don’t actually know spanish, so maybe it also means home.)
  • AMOK -> AMOR, which means LOVE {Profound fondness}.
  • SEX -> SER, which means TO BE {“You’ve got ___ kidding!”}.
  • QUEST -> QUESO, which means CHEESE {Mac’s partner}.
  • PAD -> PAZ, which means PEACE {One meaning of “aloha”}.

taking the new last letters indeed spells out ARROZ, so RICE is the correct answer.

whew, that was hard. it definitely felt like a week 4 to me; i could not make any headway in the forward direction, and had to resort to guess-and-backsolve from the instructions. on the other hand, my very first second instinct ended up being correct, and i just didn’t think about spanish words. for this to be week 2 difficulty, i think “spanish” should probably have been in the instructions or title.

having said that, this is a very cool meta, and i’m not going to complain about a month with two hard-enough-to-be-week-4 metas! i like the hard ones.

well, it was a close call, but i’ve extended my streak of not being stumped on a week 2. how about you?

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41 Responses to MGWCC #558

  1. David Glasser says:


    I think I agree that for week 2, Spanish should have been clued. But that works.

  2. dbardolph says:

    Agreed – way hard for a Week 2, but really good. I spent some unprofitable time chasing foreign language words in the grid (OVA, CHERI, MIO) or the clues (ALOHA) before spotting the QUEST/QUESO/CHEESE connection. A very satisfying click when the pieces fell in place.

  3. Wayne says:

    I don’t think I’d’ve gotten this one if QUEST didn’t morph to a food. That felt too right, so when the started changing to Spanish non-food words, I was willing to let the single-word-theme go, in favor of the single language.

    Didn’t notice that the English words appeared in the grid until after submitting RICE. But I should’ve thought to look, since that definitely made the “click” more satisfying.

  4. Matt Gaffney says:

    Nice save, Joon. 240 correct answers, so this was clearly a Week 3 in difficulty. Believe it or not my concern was that this one would be too *easy* for a Week 2. I thought “Last in Translation” then QUEST–>QUESO and CHEESE in the grid and off to the races. But it played way tougher than that.

    Anyway, we’ll do a real Week 2 next week and then back to the plan with a Week 4 after that.

    • RPardoe says:

      That was true for me…but there is a reason why.

      Since moving to Houston, I have been inundated with offers of “Do you want queso on that?” for many foodstuffs.

      Houstonians seem to love their queso (I, ahem, don’t) and it helped me this week.

    • Meg says:

      In hindsight, one reason this was so hard for me was sound. I wondered if Matt tried on purpose to choose words that sound so different when you change the last letter. QUEST to QUESO — no phonetic help there! I’m not complaining. It was a fine meta. Perhaps I just like metas that involve sound….

    • joon says:

      i’ve been thinking about this a bit more since i posted this, and at any rate i didn’t have time after solving at the 11th hour to get any of this into the post, but one reason the meta played hard to me is that the fill is very clean. it’s so clean that even though i considered that there might be 10 theme answers instead of just the obvious 5, i dismissed it because i figured if there were, we’d see more junk in the fill.

      it’s really a very impressive grid. in the SE corner in particular there’s thematic LOVE and PEACE sandwiching the end of MESSAGE PAD, and nary a crud glue entry to be found holding it all together.

  5. Matthew G. says:

    Wow. This was the hardest Week 2 in a long time. Matt could have run this as a Week 4 and that would have seemed like a fine fit for the resistance it gave me. I do fail to get Week 2s now and then, but even then I usually get the initial insights. Not this time!

    My biggest red herring was this: because the longest grid entry was ON THE BASIS OF SEX, I thought the answer was going to have something to do with grammatical gender. Then, I noticed what appeared to be an unusually high number of words ending in “–ess” in the Across clues. Aha, I thought — “-ess” can make a word feminine, which fits both ON THE BASIS OF SEX, a grammar theme, and the “last” in the title because “–ess” is a suffix. And then I noticed the clue for ON THE BASIS OF SEX itself ended in “-ess,” so I was sure I had found the way into the meta. And yes, I realize that the “–ess” ending is not used as a feminine ending each time it appears (though it does in the first, “princess”), but I figured that was to disguise it better.

    I tend to agree with joon that some sort of nudge toward Spanish was needed to make this a first-half-of-the-month meta.

  6. sharkicicles says:

    Whoa, I considered this maybe a Week 2.5 at the hardest, and I’m not usually good enough at metas to solve most Week 4s.

  7. Myelbow says:

    I eventually figured this one out, with QUEST/QUESO giving me my way in. But I agree that this was an unusually challenging Week 2 meta. I think the fact that it was presented as a Week 2 puzzle was kind of what made it so tricky… I was looking for a more straightforward mechanism than what we actually got. Still: a solid puzzle that totally played fair with the solver.

  8. PatXC says:

    Loved this one, even if I did solve it partially by reverse engineering. It was clear from the start that the solution involved the last letter of words, but how many and what length? I discounted the long answers because there are 5 of them. I had craw -> crab, mill -> milk, peace -> peach and maybe a few others, but those didn’t pan out. Then I saw that quest could be quest. Following that idea I came up with A R L (French sel) O R (Spanish par). No word I knew in any language. The only word that might fit was arroz, but how? It was then that I saw the English words. Love to be home. Peace.

    • Matthew G. says:

      I was also tripped up by the clue {One meaning of “aloha”} for PEACE, because the other prominent meaning of “aloha,” LOVE, was just a couple squares away in the grid. In a meta about translation, it took me a while to accept that this was theme-irrelevant.

  9. paul coulter says:

    I agree it was substantially harder than a typical Week 2, but more like a 3 than a 4. I found the technique after several stumbles. Then QUESO/CHEESE emerged, CASA/HOME followed, though I wanted it to be HOUSE. But I stupidly had AMOR as Latin, so I thought the peace one was PAX not PAZ. I also thought SEX would turn into SEC or SEL for a French component, then I wasted a lot of time trying to make a fill word mean dry or salt. I assumed we were doing a mix of languages, and I should’ve known Matt would be more elegant than that. Then I finally got on the right track with SER, changed the PAX into PAZ, and had the answer. Great job as usual, Matt.

  10. Norm H says:

    Very hard for a Week 2. At one point, I translated PAD into French and got tampon. This is one letter away from TARPON, so that kept me busy for a while.

    Eventually it was PAD over PEACE that got my attention. At first I changed it to PAX (Latin) before realizing that all translations were in Spanish.

  11. Sarah T says:

    I feel better to have a very clever and resourceful expert almost stumped on a Week 2 puzzle I couldn’t make a guess on.

  12. David Harris says:

    I’ll echo that I almost got stumped on this one, and since it was Week 2, I thought there must be something obvious I was missing. Finally made the same connection that so many did with QUEST -> QUESO, reinforced by CASE -> CASA. I wasn’t sure about SER, it seemed a bet lesser-known, but by then ARROZ had come into view—and spotting the English translations in the grid locked everything down in time to submit confidently.

    The funny thing about the difficulty of this one is that the mechanism feels fairly Week 2—just a couple letter changes and then we’re all set, with extra confirmation for the click available. The first step of spotting the connection had enough elusiveness to feel like a Week 3, but if it were a Week 4 then I expect we’d have had a bit more work to do even once we got on the right track. And even with that elusiveness, the title *is* pretty on-point, and the prompt helped push us towards actual foreign languages, both of which helped a lot. If anything, it all just presented too many possibilities to chase down rather than too few, which again makes it feel more Week 2.5 than 4.

    Overall, very cool meta idea, and with enough going on to give a very satisfying click once you got there. Super impressed that Joon managed to just guess the food and work backwards from it, though, yowza.

    • joon says:

      i, too, am amazed that that actually worked. i was thinking about asian food (as i often do), and after TOFU i went directly to RICE. once i started thinking about foreign words for RICE, the aha came right away.

  13. Mutman says:

    I know enough Spanish that made this a Week 2 difficulty for me. Casa got me started.

    But if your Spanish is limited, I can see this playing way harder than that!

    Me gusta la meta!

  14. Will Nediger says:

    I noticed QUEST/QUESO fairly early on, but got distracted for a while by the fact that CASE is also one letter off from a foreign word for cheese (at least if you ignore the umlaut in the German KASE). Then I got distracted by the fact that PAD is one letter off from a Spanish food word (PAN).

  15. Gideon says:

    I started down a major rabbit hole: there are four translations mentioned in the clues, from four languages (latin – OVA, french, arabic, hawaaian). And in four themers the last word is recognized by Google translate as a valid word in one of those languages (eg amok is recognized as “your mother” in arabic). Luckily there wasn’t a fifth language so i escaped from that track in time.

  16. Joshua Kosman says:

    This was hard, and made harder by not one but two red herrings. My solving path:

    1) Changing a letter in the last word of VISION QUEST gives you a translated word for cheese. That part came early and easily.
    2) Changing a letter in the last word of PENCIL CASE also gives you a translated word for cheese (Käse in German, the language that Matt uses more than any other). That can’t be a coincidence.
    3) OK, in what other languages are the words for cheese a letter change away from AMOK, SEX and PAD?
    4) Answer, a day and a half later: Absolutely none.
    5) OK, in that case I have to throw out everything and start from scratch.
    6) Another day and a half later: Nope, there’s nothing in the world to do with VISION QUEST except turn it into QUESO.
    7) Sunday night: Oh. I see it now…

    So not only did queso + käse throw me off the scent, but so did the fact that I tumbled first onto the only one of the five components that was also a food, like the meta answer. That led me to believe that food was going to be more central to the entire meta process than it turned out to be.

    • James says:

      Another distraction related to VISIONQUEST: the “V” in 36-Down “OnTV” is the start of 50-Across “Vision Quest.” Tele-vision-quest. That got me wondering what Matt might have up his sleeve for a future grid.

  17. Richard K. says:

    This was a last-minute save for me too. I noticed QUEST/QUESO and CHEESE early on, but I was focused on finding other translated foods, so I abandoned what turned out to be the correct approach. My back-solve attempt involved “eggs,” with OVA appearing twice (once in KOVACS) and several entries starting with OO. Matt seemed to make special mention of that in the clue for OORT. Spent some time trying to make “ouzo” work. I finally woke up in the middle of the night and thought, “Hmm, CASE, CASH, CAST, CASA . . .” and that did it. Definitely a fun and satisfying meta to reach — eventually.

  18. HomeSkooled says:

    Well I am either an idiot or a genius.

    I found only two clues that were a “translation.” Symmetrically placed 13 Across – “Darling in Dijon,” yielding CHERRI and 65-Across – “One meaning of Aloha, yielding PEACE.

    The “last” of both the translations yields RI – CE, which I confidently submitted while remaining completely oblivious to the elegance and intricacy of the rest of the puzzle. I did wonder, “wow only 2 theme entries and short ones at that” but hey, it’s week 2! And come on, they’re symmetrical!!

    Great puzzle, and sorry I missed out on the solve (but happy for the win – even in week 2).

    • Astrokurtis says:

      I got stuff CJ after finding two more translations – OVA and QAEDA. Four, four letters, but five theme entries. So I started wondering if ON THE BASIS OF SEX had something to do with genders, and then I was lost out in left field, never to return.

    • slubduck says:

      I focused on CHERI/PEACE as well, translated every word in all 5 themers into both French and Hawaiian, (noting the abovementioned PAD-tampon-TARPON, also noting that QUEST in Hawaiian is “noi”… spent time wondering if every grid entry with an i in it needed to be relieved of that i and then re-translated to some other unknown language, etc.) but ended up solving a day later while randomly glancing around and seeing HOME-CASa. When Matt says he worried it was “too easy” i always laugh at how many unintended red herrings find their way into so many of his metas, …. or is it that they exist only in our minds? Puzzling minds neglect no opportunity to imagine connectedness.

  19. Big Cheese says:

    Definitely not a week 2 for me as Spanish not my strength whatsoever, so even noticing early the Quest/Queso and Case/Casa with Cheese & Home in the grid was not enough. Amor, I recognized, but more as a French translation and couldn’t make anything more out of AMOK. Never would have went there with SER or PAZ. So, I abandoned my first instinct. ARROZ also not a familiar Spanish word for me. Oh well. Glad I gave in on Saturday, as once I have to rely so much on Google, then the METAs are less enjoyable.

    Along with several other rabbit holes previously mentioned in post like (oohs & ooze pronounced the same but different meanings), I also then noticed the Al-Qaeda Clue verbiage “whose name translates to the base”. Connecting that to the Title and “Basis” of Sex, I went off many different paths of changing various letters (i.e. Oort to Fort) or similar words (campus, story lines/arcs, pad) with meanings related to Base or Foundation.

    Looking forward to getting back on track next week.

    • James says:

      I completely agree about the use of Google. It’s become almost a necessary evil when solving some of the grids, but having to lean on it for the meta can indicate a lack of elegance. I recall a WSJ meta from a couple years ago involving baseball caps. It was certainly clever but it would take a rare bird, indeed, to have solved that meta without an Internet search engine.
      I have a suggestion. Matt recently added a button on the submissions page to indicate if the solution was a solo solve or you had any help. I’d like to add another button to indicate if you managed to solve the grid and meta without doing an Internet search tool.

      • I’d like to reject this proposed button. There’s nothing wrong with using Google to help you solve a meta as long as the info you need isn’t buried deep in some obscure website that you’d have no reason to find (well, there’s nothing wrong with solving in a group either, but there’s at least a decent reason to differentiate solo and group solvers when handing out year-end prizes).

        • James says:

          I suppose it is a misguided motive behind my proposal — in a word, what I would call a meta’s “elegance.” I tend to prefer those puzzles which don’t require researching time zones and capitals and vice presidents and best movie nominees, but instead are entirely self-contained. I don’t know how many remember the CADILLAC ELDORADO meta from a few years ago. It was capitol-B Brilliant. I can barely imagine the challenge of concocting at least one of these beasties every week. I can barely attempt to solve them. I am not expecting to see Google-free puzzles very often, and I recognize it as selfish to expect them, but I laud them whenever they appear.

          • Matthew G. says:

            I’m with Evan on this one. It just isn’t a flaw for a meta to require Googling, nor is it a virtue for a meta to not require Googling. There are excellent metas of both types.

            I appreciate that you personally are not pushing the common misconception that it is cheating to use Google to solve a meta. But the button you propose would inevitably lead some people to adopt that misconception, and for that reason it would be a bad idea.

  20. Julian L says:

    I found all of the letter changes except for SER, and decided that we were supposed to turn that into SEL, making the answer meta-answer SALT, which seemed absolutely confirmed by the title (anagramming LAST). Had a mix of languages too (I thought of PAX in Latin instead of PAZ). Can I appeal to the jury?

    • Matt Gaffney says:

      Interesting, but TO BE is in the grid along with the other four translations, and suddenly switching to French when the other four are in Spanish is too arbitrary. SER isn’t the most commonly-known word by English-speakers, but it’s seen a lot in crosswords so I thought that put it over the top in terms of fairness.

      • Julian L says:

        It was the combination of things that threw me:

        1) All the other words were nouns
        2) That I had PAX instead of PAZ, which meant that not all were Spanish, and
        3) The title

        Perhaps alarm bells should have gone off given that 3 of the words I had were Spanish, but there really was enough of a click for me that I submitted it without a second thought. Obviously the actual answer is up to your usual standards of elegance, but it was a very nasty red herring for me (and I almost never bite on those).

        • paul coulter says:

          AMOR comes to Spanish straight from Latin, making the case for PAX and SEL as examples of a mix rather than outliers a bit stronger. SALT as an anagram of LAST is a clever feature I didn’t notice when I was trying to use SEL, but I do think the presence of TOBE in the grid, along with the other translations, makes ARROZ/RICE the only answer.

  21. Magoo says:

    Wow! What was this doing in week 2? I’m left assuming that a number of Spanish words (or Spanish speaking in general) is far more prevalent in the US than in other English-speaking countries, like mine, because of Mexico’s proximity. I didn’t know ARROZ, QUESO, or SER, so I was really struggling. The fact that both PAD and AMOK are Thai dishes seemed impossible to ignore, and CASE (houses in Italian), QU’EST (that is in French) and SEX (six in Latin) all translate into English too, though not as far as I knew into foods. So I never got close, despite suspecting translations of the last word of each themer. More annoyingly, RICE would have been my Hail Mary, but I never sent it in.

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