MGWCC #560

crossword 4:42  
meta 2 days 


hello and welcome to episode #560 of matt gaffney’s weekly crossword contest, “Let’s Go Back to Your Place”. for this week 4 puzzle, the instructions tell us we’re looking for a two-syllable adjective. what are the theme answers?

  • {Hanes brand of shapewear} BARELY THERE.
  • {Small-scale work} NANOENGINEERING.
  • {Official flyer} STATE BIRD. i checked, so you don’t have to: all of the state birds can, in fact, fly. the roadrunner (new mexico) rarely flies but can do so over short distances; the nene (hawaii) spends most of its time on the ground but can fly; and the wild turkey (several states) is a very capable flyer—unlike its domesticated counterpart, as god is my witness.
  • {Pearl Harbor planner} ADMIRAL YAMAMOTO.
  • {Champions on 1/30/2000} ST. LOUIS RAMS.

first things first: with the “back” in the title, i pretty much immediately saw that each theme answer contained, in reverse, a hidden word or name:


not only that, each of the hidden words is from a canonically ordered list: ACPT champions, chemical elements, greek letters, months, and planets. given “place” in the title also, it makes sense to look at the ordinal place of each one within its list:

  • TYLER hinman was the 12th distinct person to win the ACPT
  • NEON is the 10th element in the periodic table
  • BETA is the 2nd greek letter
  • MAY is the 5th month
  • MARS is the 4th planet out from the sun

i then did the next obvious thing, which is to look at the letters in those numbered squares in the grids. these spell out ESPHS, which … is not a two-syllable adjective. but! if you reorder them by grid position instead of in the same order as their corresponding theme answers, you get PSHSE, which … is still not a two-syllable adjective.

this is where i had gotten after about 5 minutes of thinking about the meta. it took an embarrassingly long time for me to have the next aha, which is that TYLER is also the name of a u.s. president—john tyler, the 10th president. (oops.) okay, so it’s 10, 10, 2, 5, 4. but that didn’t solve the problem that i didn’t know what to do with these numbers, so i put the puzzle aside for a couple of days.

when i picked it back up again, the right thing to do occurred me right away: take the corresponding letters not from the numbered squares in the grid, but from the nth letter of the same theme answer, like so:

  • the 10th letter of BARELY THERE is R (and there’s no 12th letter, so i guess we do want john tyler and not tyler hinman).
  • the 10th letter of NANOENGINEERING is E.
  • the second letter of STATE BIRD is T.
  • the fifth letter of ADMIRAL YAMAMOTO is R.
  • the fourth letter of ST. LOUIS RAMS is O.

those letters spell out RETRO, which is both a two-syllable adjective and a very apt answer for a meta mechanism involving words hidden in reverse. very good.

why was the extraction mechanism so difficult to see? matt called it a “week 2.5”, but to me it felt like a normal week 4, and judging by the leaderboard, i wasn’t alone. given a set of answers and a corresponding set of numbers, taking the nth letter of each answer is a totally routine technique in a mystery hunt-style puzzle; it’s called indexing. but i don’t think i’ve seen it before in a crossword meta (or if i have, it’s been a very long time), because typically if you can get a number out of each theme answer, it’s easier to hide the letters in the rest of the grid than it is to limit yourself to theme answers that have the double constraint of both leading to a number and also containing the right letter in the right place. the more i think about it, the more miraculous it seems to me that this meta works at all, though of course matt made it easier on himself by broadening the scope of hidden words to “anything from any canonical ordered list” instead of, say, all items from the same list. still, there can’t be all *that* many theme answers to choose from that produce the right letters, and having them fit symmetrically into a grid in the correct order to produce a thematically relevant answer is pretty terrific.

that’s all i’ve got. it’s been a strange month of MGWCC as far as difficulty gradient, but i’ve enjoyed all of the individual puzzles. how about you?

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37 Responses to MGWCC #560

  1. Brian says:

    Ughhhhh, saw the backwards words, spent two days not knowing what to do with them. Pretty nifty mechanism.

  2. paul coulter says:

    This was one of my favorites – Given the constraints that Joon pointed out, I think Matt pulled it off brilliantly. I almost didn’t get it. I was stuck for days with the idea that the theme answers would go back to their place of origin. AMOR being ROMA backwards would have been the one for MARS (the god, not the planet.) Fortunately, I couldn’t make any of the other reversible words in the fill (there were a lot, though I’m not sure if it was an unusually high number) into anything associated with Tyler, etc. Finally, I got BACK on track with a REVERSAL in my approach and TURNED this thing AROUND.

    My only criticism is it’s fairly guessable. The title strongly points at backwards words, and Matt’s answers often reflect the technique. Assuming we needed to extract one letter from each of five themers, my Hail Mary guess was going to be RETRO. The only other five letter, two syllable adjectives connoting a turn or regression I came up with were RESET and GYRAL. The former’s usually a verb and the latter’s a stretch, even for word nerds like me.

  3. I think what made this a Week 4 for me was that, even after seeing four of the five reversed words somewhat quickly, I just didn’t think of any of them belonging to a canonical set for three days. They all seemed random — which Tyler? Does the Neon refer to the old Dodge car? Plus I thought the fourth one was pointing to MAMA, which didn’t help. Once I finally associated each of them with a number (and getting MAY), it was a short jump to RETRO from there.

    But I agree, it’s really impressive how Matt found that set.

    • paul coulter says:

      I had AYLA (from Clan of the Cave Bear) in my original list. And NEO from The Matrix instead of NEON.

      • DBraun91 says:

        Yep. Once I couldn’t do anything with that group I just moved away. I wrote it off as a coincidence that those words were there. There is no such thing as a coincidence in the metaverse.

        • Small Wave Dave says:

          I was stuck on NEO and AYLA too.
          And those, plus TYLER and MARS, had me convinced (for two days!) that we were looking for real or fictional characters, and that “Place” = Dwelling.
          So, TYLER -> White House
          AYLA -> Cave
          NEO -> hmm, the Matrix?
          MARS -> double hmm, Roman Pantheon, Mt. Olympus?

          Luckily, I was eventually able to free my mind from the quicksand and think of numbered lists.

          Fantastic construction, as joon explained.

  4. DBraun91 says:

    Didn’t get this one. I got those backwards words but really needed a nudge on the numbers and indexing. I think a simple parenthetical number after each theme clue {Small-scale work (10)} would have helped just enough to push me to the next step without really taking away too much of the challenge. Otherwise I liked it.

    • Yeah but with those parenthetical numbers in the clues, it’d be too much of a shortcut. You could just take the nth letter in each entry without noticing the reversed words at all.

      • Matthew G. says:

        A compromise might have been asterisks. As your comment above indicates, Evan, it’s easy to see the hidden reversals as random or arbitrary–especially short words with common letters such as MAY and BETA–and thus to doubt their meta-relevance. Asterisks might have confirmed that we needed to focus on the long acrosses, and made this a Week 2 or 3. But then, Matt wound up with Week 4 numbers, which worked out just fine, since he ran it in the fourth week!

  5. Joe says:

    A lot of rabbitholes… LEGO being in the same puzzle as NANOENGINEERING, MAHAN’s book inspired Admiral Yamamoto, etc. etc.

  6. Daniel says:

    I’m so disappointed in myself for not getting that last step. Had the backward words, had the place they were in their respective categories, but just couldn’t find the letter to correspond. Oh well.


    I did submit RETRO, but at first I derived a different answer from the puzzle (and sat on it for a few days). Consider:

    “Let’s go back…” made me look at palindromes — A-B-A — and the first four themes have them:

    admiralyAMAmoto (this has three possible palindromes, also MAM or OTO)

    For the final theme answer STLOUISRAMS, there is no palindrome. So… “let’s go back.” The St. Louis Rams were originally from Los Angeles, then they moved to St. Louis, and recently they went back to LA again. Another 3-part palindrome (LA-StL-LA). And if we “go back” with this last theme entry, we do have a 3-letter palindrome now, to complete the set:


    The five palindromes are:

    AMA (one of 3 possibilities)

    The central letter from these five give us R-A-A-M-L which can be anagrammed to … wait for it … L.A. RAM. Huh. But that’s not the answer. The only single word I could anagram those letters to was a 2-syllable adjective: MALAR, which means “relating to the cheek.”

    It seemed kind of an obscure word and it lacked the final “click” I was hoping for, but then I thought “Let’s go back to your place” is something you say to a good friend or significant other. How do you greet good friends in many cultures?

    Three kisses – right cheek, left cheek, and right cheek again. Another three-part palindrome (R-L-R) that provided the “that’s so meta” moment.

    Even though RETRO is a better answer, I think MALAR should be an acceptable alternative answer too. Any thoughts on this?

    • Austin says:

      “Even though RETRO is a better answer, I think MALAR should be an acceptable alternative answer too.”

      heavens, no. that was quite convoluted and relied on too many things not in the grid.

    • Norm H says:

      The Rams originated in Cleveland, but most recently they did indeed “go back” to Los Angeles. I enjoyed reading about your alternate path — very fun. My own path went nowhere.

    • ddjohansson says:

      Are you actually serious with this nonsense?

      • paul coulter says:

        This path strikes me as actually quite clever. But as a valid contender for an alternate answer? You must have realized when you held off from submitting malar that Matt would never offer us anything so tenuous. Had this been the real solution, no one but you and maybe Jangler would have got it. Then Matt would have had howls of protest to rival those he earned with the infamous shaman puzzle.

  8. Matt Gaffney says:

    I didn’t realize the last step would be so tricky, but with 157 correct answers it did turn out to be a Week 4. Indeed a weird month on the difficulty levels — I nailed 2 of them that were not easy to nail and that I was unsure of, then whiffed on the other 2 when I was confident I had them right.

  9. Reuben says:

    So close – got to the numbers, but wasn’t sure what to do with 10/10/2/5/4. Would never have thought to count that many numbers into the theme answers :/

  10. Mary Ellen Price says:

    I don’t understand the logic in selecting those particular hidden words in step one. There are plenty of other reversed hidden words in there, such as EON in NANO ENGINEERING, and BET in STATE BIRD. The hidden word MAY didn’t even combine letters from both ADMIRAL and YAMAMOTO. Isn’t there some unwritten crossword puzzle rule about doing that? If not, there are even more hidden reversed words to choose from, such as ERA in BARELY, and RIM in ADMIRAL. The hidden words that were used don’t relate in any way to the clue, or to the answer, or to each other, so that doesn’t narrow down the possibilities. I have to say, I’m glad TYLER referred to the President instead of the 12th ACTP champ, no disrespect to Tyler Hinman intended.

    • pgw says:

      The logic is that they are recognizable as members of ordered sets. Some are easier to find than others … and you’re right that MAY doesn’t break across words, which you generally expect with this kind of mechanism … but it’s adjacent to the word break and once you’ve started to find some of the others are realized “okay Matt is concealing short, pretty-well-hidden members of ordered sets in these phrases” then MAY emerges and there are no other candidates. It’s not simple, but hey, it’s a puzzle – it’s not supposed to be.

      • Mary Ellen Price says:

        Thanks. I’ll be on the look-out for ordered sets in the future. Always learning.

      • David Harris says:

        I had the same qualm as Mary Ellen. I had seen MARS and BETA fairly quickly, but as they didn’t seem to have anything in common, and there was no word bridged across ADMIRALYAMAMOTO, this seemed to be a dead end. I probably would have stuck with it a bit longer had I noticed Tyler at the same time, admittedly, but I think the lack of a connection there is a fair criticism. That they are all part of unrelated ordered sets is accurate, but also definitely a real intuitive leap. I think we much more often see hidden words that share some sort of grouping or connection *with each other*, but here the connection is that they have *other* connections, so it feels like an extra level of meta-abstraction than normal. I would guess that that’s more likely what made this play as a Week 4, rather than the indexing step. Which works out, as it actually was a Week 4!

  11. John Lampkin says:

    A red herring was that REPAID reverses to DIAPER, something that Matt has learned a thing or two about, or perhaps not.

  12. BarbaraK says:

    Among the many dead ends I chased, I found exactly four grid entries that are a place:

    7 SCH(ool)
    22 ARCADE
    23 NOR(way)
    39 ERITREA

    I wondered if Matt or one of his test solvers saw that, and if that was the reason for the two-syllable qualifier.

    • Matt Gaffney says:

      No the reason I specified “two-syllable” instead of “five-letter” was to slightly mask that STATE BIRD was theme

  13. john says:

    The reversed words were tiny in comparison to the field of letters they were in. Those kinds of “reverse words” are red herrings in countless puzzles. that “MAY” meant something among ADMIRALYAMAMOTO seems a huge reach (MAMA is longer). Because of the title i did look for reversed words but couldn’t get beyond the fact there was nothing of significance that isn’t usually there. Ah, well.

  14. MarkR says:

    Lots of proper names referenced — Joseph Haydn, Archie Manning, Mathieu Flamini, Ron Paul, Albert Mahan, Ernie Davis, Shinzo Abe, Manny Ramirez, Admiral Yamamoto, Charles Mason, Samuel Colt, Bianca Lawson…Wow.

    I figured they had to have some significance, and spent too much time on that. I did see a few of the reversed words, but thought it was just coincidental. Anyway, I whiffed on this one. Better luck next time.

  15. Alexander Bourzutschky says:

    Indexing is quite common to puzzle-hunt type puzzles so I immediately looked for that instead of the grid letters. I was a bit sad that they weren’t indexed in reverse but otherwise I was quite happy with the meta.

    It wasn’t as easy for me as I make it sound, however–I saw Tyler and neon somewhat quickly, but I found “beta” to be a weak word and “mars” even weaker because I had it locked in my mind that it was the 3rd person verb rather than the planet. In hindsight that was extremely silly of me, but at least I got it in the end.

    I was distracted for a couple days on the following odd pattern:
    -When you look up Hanesbrands on Wikipedia, the only other 11-letter brand listed is SHEER ENERGY; and
    -When you look up what happened on Jan. 30, 2000 you find that it was also the day ANDRE AGASSI won the Australian open, and that also has the same number of letters as ST LOUIS RAMS; and
    -When you look up who planned the attack on Pearl Harbor, you find that one of the main other men involved was RYUNOSUKE KUSAKA, the same number of letters as ADMIRAL YAMAMOTO (and incidentally ISOROKU YAMAMOTO, which I’d penciled in to the grid early on)

    Given these, I tried to find good alternate answers with the right number of letters for the last two, and came up with MICROTECHNOLOGY and BALD EAGLE. Sadly this didn’t amount to anything. I eventually gave it up because of the plural “Champions” in the clue for 57-A. That would have been too careless a clue for ANDRE AGASSI.

    • ant says:

      “I was a bit sad that they weren’t indexed in reverse”
      And count the letters from right to left?
      Holy parc, Mattman! That would have been insanely devious!

  16. pgw says:

    > typically if you can get a number out of each theme answer, it’s easier to hide
    > the letters in the rest of the grid than it is to limit yourself to theme answers
    > that have the double constraint of both leading to a number and also containing
    > the right letter in the right place. the more i think about it, the more miraculous
    > it seems to me that this meta works at all

    Totally agree. I solved this one fairly quickly – the indexing thing just luckily struck me as a thing to try – but then I kept trying to imagine how in the hell Matt went about trying to come up with these phrases, and managed to find five that are all totally in-the-language/culture things, and also go in the correct order for grid symmetry. It seems like it must have been … hard.

    • Matt Gaffney says:

      It was lucky. It was 11:30 on Saturday night and I finally abandoned the idea I’d been working on to no avail during the week (couldn’t really work on it over the weekend since I was traveling to and from an aunt’s funeral 5 hours away). I couldn’t postpone again since I’d already delayed the puzzle until 3:00 PM sunday, so instead of trying to knock it out of the park I said, let’s just do a Week 2 or 3 meta that’s not embarrassingly bad and I’ll apologize and tell people I owe them a Week 4 in March. But then this idea just sort of popped onto the page at midnight and the theme entries agreed to work (NANOENGINEERING in particular I was glad existed) and then the grid wrote itself, as sometimes happens. The only brief disappointment was that there’s no ?DOLLARBILL???? phrase but ADMIRAL YAMAMOTO worked there so all good. And then lo and behold, it played tougher than I’d anticipated — definitely a Week 4 instead of the 2.5 I’d predicted. So somehow it all worked out in the end.

      I’ve said before that meta solvers have “aha moments” and meta-writers have “I can’t believe that worked” moments, and writing this puzzle was certainly that.

  17. Jim S. says:

    This is the devious thing about Matt’s metas… we’ll never see this again. I tried the letters of the alphabet and the letters at the clue numbers, but not the letters in each theme answer. Next time we have ordered sets like this, I’ll try the letters of the alphabet, the letters at the clue numbers, AND the letters in each theme answer… but, alas, he’ll have found some other way to hide the letters from us.

    Very fair meta and fairly obvious in retrospect, but even though I had all 5 hidden words and their places in their ordered sets, I never even considered looking where I needed to look.

  18. Richard K says:

    I whiffed on this meta, but enjoyed joon’s classic WKRP reference in the commentary on turkeys.

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