MGWCC #565

crossword 4:11  
meta dnf 3 days 


hello and welcome to episode #565 of matt gaffney’s weekly crossword contest, “Early Education”. this week, we have a guest puzzle from jeff chen, and the instructions tell us that This week’s contest answer is how an easy Week 5 meta might make you feel. easy week 5, you say? not to toot my own, but i’m currently riding a two-week streak of being unable to finish “week 2”. could be worse, i suppose—this is four consecutive “week 2” puzzles, none of which were week 2-easy.

well, anyway, on to this puzzle. what are the theme answers? there are six medium-to-long across answers:

  • {They might be read at bedtime} STORYBOOKS.
  • {Maker of Mrs. Potato Head} PLAYSKOOL.
  • {Tale involving the Marquis of Carabas} PUSS N BOOTS. okay, so i have a question about this. i thought this was called PUSS IN BOOTS. the original fairy tale is in italian, and there was later a french version, but at any rate the subsequent english versions do seem to be called PUSS IN BOOTS. there are various things called PUSS N BOOTS, like norah jones’s band. but i don’t know whether the clue and answer here match.
  • {Sticky stuff in an egg} SILLY PUTTY.
  • {Places to buy blocks} TOY STORES.
  • {Droopy-eyed stuffie} POUND PUPPY.

(there are also two long downs, APOTHEOSIS and BELLY LAUGH, but i did not think those were necessarily thematic.) what to make of these theme answers? well, the first things that jumped out at me is that there are a lot of double letters, and a lot of similar words: BOOKS/BOOTS, PUSS/PUTTY/PUPPY, STORY/STORES. not having any idea what to do with either of those, and not having any further insights into the meta, i decided to look at the week 2 version. it’s mostly the same, with a few differences. one is that the six theme clues are *ed (and it turns out my instinct was right about which six were theme answers). there are a few differences in the clues, though:

  • {Maker of Mrs. Potato Head} instead becomes {*Maker of Talking ABC Elmo} for PLAYSKOOL. interesting. i guess it’s easier? i’m not sure if the change is significant.
  • {Tale involving the Marquis of Carabas} is {*Fairy tale starring a cunning feline} for PUSS N BOOTS. this certainly is an easier clue.

a few other clues are different, but the most notable change is in the grid: in the lower right corner, where {Chop veggies, e.g.} PREP meets {Ooze} SEEP, the week 2 version has {Early education, for short} PRE-K crossing {Ferret out} SEEK. well, that’s interesting! i take it, then, that PRE-K is supposed to be a hint.

oh, i think i understand now. what if we look at only the letters in those theme answers that precede K in the alphabet? there aren’t that many of them, since there are so many O/P/S/T’s:

  • STORYBOOKS has only the B.
  • PLAYSKOOL has only the A.
  • PUSS N BOOTS has only the B.
  • SILLY PUTTY has only the I.
  • TOY STORES has only the E.
  • and POUND PUPPY has only the D.

ok, so the answer is BABIED. that’s very nice, both as an answer to the meta instructions and as an appropriate phrase for a meta mechanism based on “pre-K”. neither the double letters nor the very similar words that i noticed had anything to do directly with the actual theme, although certainly the second and arguably the first were byproducts of the theme constraint. so i’m very glad i decided to take a look at the week 2 version, because i was not going to get this otherwise.

honestly, i’m not sure i would have gotten it if i had only looked at the week 2 version, since the thing that caught my eye was that there was a different letter in the grid between the week 2 and week 5 versions. i guess i still should have noticed the entry in the corner of the puzzle with the same clue as the puzzle title, and i certainly spent some time last week thinking (fruitlessly) about the phrase pre-K as a possible meta mechanism. still, this feels like a week 3 to me without some kind of explicit indicator that PRE-K is the key idea.

lovely puzzle, though. how’d you all like this one?

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

42 Responses to MGWCC #565

  1. David R says:

    I solved it the same way. I thought Pre-K had to do with the answer but wasn’t sure until I looked at the Week 5 grid. I redoubled my efforts and focused on that entry and came to the meta solution. I can’t imagine what would be the hint to get to the meta if you only did the Week 5 puzzle but I’m sure some did.

  2. Jim S says:

    After last month, I’m ready to hang up my meta pencil ;)

    Clueless on 4 of the 5. I’ll take the blame on this one, though – I completed the Week 5 grid, was stumped, then looked at the Week 2 grid to compare side by side (I didn’t solve it though). Noticed the asterisks and thought “not too helpful”. Checked clue by clue but must have spaced out by the time I got to the bottom corner because I didn’t even notice the “pre-k” change. Drat! Nice puzzle!

  3. Jon says:

    Felt like a week 3 to me too. I am curious on if anyone solved it by solely looking at the week-5 puzzle because I’m not sure how anyone is supposed to intuit the pre-K mechanism without the PRE-K fill hint.

  4. pgw says:

    I broke a long streak on this one. I figured I could wait until this morning to look at the “week 2” version, and tortured myself all weekend with the week 5. Never, ever would have gotten it that way. The “week 2” is gettable, but seems week 3 or 4ish to me, and I didn’t have enough time with it to get there.

    My meta last week (the solution to which also just posted this morning – joon, you should check it out if you have more time/appetite for metapuzzles) was also very hard. This week’s is easier.

    This puzzle is very nicely done; six phrases, all relating to the tastes of little kids, each containing only one letter that precedes K in the alphabet, together spelling out something thematic – that’s fantastic construction. (Though joon, you’re right – 32-across should have been clued as “Country band featuring Norah Jones whose name riffs on the title of a fairy tale” or something, ’cause there is no version of the tale whose title doesn’t have the I that I could find.)

    I got way lost in the following weeds:

    There are four across clues that begin with words that are one letter off from the first word of a theme entry:


    there are also 2 down clues that contain (but don’t begin with) words that are one letter off from the other two theme-entry-beginners:


    Now, having two of the words not begin the clue would obviously have been inelegant; likewise the fact that the clue for 10-across in the week 5 version has the word short, which is also one letter off from story … So deep down I knew this was not the mechanism, but it was one of those things where I thought I’d had a breakthrough and couldn’t ever get out of the trap.


    • Matt Gaffney says:

      I almost changed that during the editing process, but if you Google Image search “puss n boots book” you will see many versions that spell it that way on the cover. It’s far less common than the “in” spelling — maybe 15% of titles — but it can’t be called wrong.

    • David Harris says:

      Glad I’m not the only one who got hooked on the SILLY/SILKY connection.

  5. Matthew G. says:

    I’m extremely impressed that Jeff found six familiar, kid-related phrases that each have just one letter preceding “K” in the alphabet (even with the slight cheat on PUSS N BOOTS). That, plus the elegance of the resulting answer, make this a five-star meta for sure.

    I worked on the Week 5 version until Sunday, and then switched to the Week 2. Even then it took me another day to figure out the mechanism; I had spotted PRE-K but initially looked at letters preceding the Ks in the grid before realizing the actual trick. Very satisfying when found.

    I’m not quite sure what the entry point in the Week 5 version was supposed to be; were you just supposed to notice that another entry fitting the {Early education, for short} clue would be PRE-K instead of PREP? If so, that is hard even for a Week 5. Or was there another nudge as well?

    • Max W says:

      Agreed—I think this is an amazing meta. It’s one of those that I would have thought to be impossible to construct, let alone so neatly.

    • Ken Stern says:

      I believe that on the Week 5 version, that last Across entry was “Chop vegetables, e.g.” or some such – I thought you had to just intuit that “Early Education” = “Pre-K” and go from there to the right way to pull a letter out of the (unstarred) theme entries. To me, that’s fair but super hard – a week-5-difficulty two-level aha, to be sure. I’ll be interested to see who got it from just the Week 5.

  6. Margaret says:

    I must admit I am super discouraged this month. After only getting Week One, I almost didn’t even try this week because there was no way of getting three correct weeks out of five no matter how easy it was. But of course I did it anyway because Hey! I’m not doing it for the streak or anything else, I do the puzzles because they’re fun! But after spending hours looking at the two different puzzles and noticing the PREK and PREP thing right away, I never even came close.

    • Matt Gaffney says:

      This was a very weird month difficulty-level-wise. It sort of ruined Lucky March, which we might now call Unlucky March. I’m going to give this spreading-the-prizes-around idea another shot in April, though, so don’t throw in the towel just yet.

      • Margaret says:

        Thanks for the encouraging response, because, honestly? Last night I did tell my husband that I was going to throw in the towel!

      • Steve says:

        Hi Matt!
        March was my first month of subscribing, and I was wondering if I should just give up the whole meta puzzle thing… So glad it was considered a tough month! LOL

  7. sharkicicles says:

    I also went 1-for-5 this month, through no fault of the puzzles (I rarely get a week 4 or 5 anyway.)

    Very nice construction. I went down the rabbit hole of the only 2 Ks in the grid and what came before them (PEkoe, STORYBOOks, etc.)

    • pgw says:

      I had a similar thought – in the week 2 version there are 3 ks, so you could take the letters in the grid preceding them in both across and down directions, there would be 6 of them matching the 6 theme answers … but that doesn’t make anything, there’s no way to see how you’d get from the themers to those squares, and also how would that work for the week 5 version …

  8. Seth says:

    I feel encouraged that others also had so much trouble with all the supposed “Week 2” puzzles this month. Like others, I jumped quickly to the week 2 version, saw PRE-K right away, but didn’t think to use it like this. I wonder how one was supposed to solve the week 5 version. Just…intuit pre-k?!

    This is my first month of MGWCC, and I’m hoping I can do better in the future. I usually crush the WSJ metas, so maybe this was a fluke month. Or maybe these are always harder?

    • sharkicicles says:

      Definitely a fluke month. I’ve been a subscriber for a few years now and have never gone 1-4 or 1-5 until this month.

  9. Matt Gaffney says:

    224 correct answers, so a tough Week 3.

    This puzzle came about when Jeff e-mailed me an interesting meta idea that he’d come up with while working on the previous week’s meta, which was titled “Early Learning.” PRE-K had suggested itself to him, and then this very smart meta idea.

    Employing powers that I appear to have acquired this month, I immediately realized that this was an excellent Week 2 idea. Which it wasn’t (it’s an excellent Week 3 or 4 idea). Just want to make it clear that Jeff isn’t the one who mislabeled this a Week 2, it was me. Full credit for four Week 2’s that were not even close!

    Anyway, a very nice idea. It’s “simple but difficult” which is one of my favorite types of meta — just take the only pre-K letter in each entry and you’re done. Simple as that, but quite difficult! And the 10 letters before K in the alphabet are just the right amount — enough that you can see that there’s some pattern there, but not so obvious that the pattern jumps right out at you. Unless you’re JanglerNPL or Neville, each of whom got the Week 5 version in 13 minutes (less, actually, since the puzzle went out a couple of minutes late).

    Thanks, Jeff! Really dug this one.

  10. Eli says:

    I got super lucky in that I had PRE-K come into my head as a possible answer to last week’s “Early Education” meta (which I didn’t get). If I hadn’t already been in the mindspace to be looking for it, I almost certainly wouldn’t have solved this one (at least not the Week 5 version).

  11. Dan Seidman says:

    I had initially thought I would wait until Monday night to give up on the week 5 version, and I’m glad I didn’t — it took me more than a day to get the week 2 one. The week 2 version also justified the awkward fill in the bottom right (ROWR x OWIE). When it was all said and done I couldn’t help thinking that Matt had deviously planned this “week 2” mess just to set up this particular puzzle.

  12. LuckyGuest says:

    Excellent meta… now, if anyone out there wants to know ANY DAMN THING about every single toy, toy company (including buyouts/mergers), child’s book, children’s author, fairy tale, nursery rhyme, Toy Hall of Fame and/or Dr. Seuss’ real name, give me a call… ideally, before my head explodes and all I can do is click consonants.

  13. jefe says:

    After seeing nothing on the week 5 puzzle then solving the week 2 puzzle and getting the meta there, I looked back at the week 5 and saw nothing resembling a hint. PREP wasn’t a clue, so I was convinced that there was a totally different mechanism leading to a different answer (which would’ve been AMAZING). But really you just had to luck into the idea of taking the first letter alphabetically from each themer.

    • BrainBoggler says:

      I, too, was thinking there could be a chance that the Week 5 version actually had a different answer (something a little longer and involved, like “unchallenged” or “underwhelmed”).

  14. BrainBoggler says:

    Similar to other puzzlers, I solved this one by struggling with the Week 5 version up until the train ride to work this morning and then eyeballing the Week 2 version (didn’t fill out the grid) to find the difference(s) in the clues and grid (compared to my completed Week 5 grid). Fortunately, I saw the intended answer fairly quickly after that but then thought how funny it would have been to tie in some April Fool’s trickery by making Week 5’s answer be some message or directions that force you back to the Week 2 version anyway to get the true intended answer.

  15. Katie M. says:

    I had stared at the week 5 many times, for hours, pursuing several of the same false leads mentioned here. Then I picked it up again. I must have been thinking about ABCs, for Early Education. The first three theme answers had B A B, in the next one the I stood out, so then I thought “EARLY alphabet letters”, and found E D. It was only afterwards that I realized those letters are all Pre – K in the alphabet. I had thought about Pre-K last week (which I missed) and this week. Whew!

  16. Thurman8er says:

    It has to be tough for Matt to predict the difficulty of some of the puzzles. I got ALL of the “Week 2” puzzles from this month, and I have never gotten a Week 5 before…and only one Week 4!

  17. Abide says:

    Save the superhuman Jangler, I have yet to see any rationale for deducing that “Chop veggies, for short” —> PREP would be an path to finding BABIED.

    Seems to me there should have been an asterisk for that clue, or better yet, re-clued as “Type of education, for short”, with a double-duty down clue leading you to SEEP (“Go through openings, perhaps”). That would have been a reasonable Week 5.

    • Jimmy says:

      What the hell are you talking about?

    • Mike says:

      I think the difference between the week 2 and week 5 versions was just the one letter making PRE-K. In other words, the week 2 version had an extra hint at the solution. In the week 5 version, PREP had no connection to the solution. Week 5 solvers were supposed to just see the distribution of letters (the paucity of early alphabet letters) on their own. Actually, even me, a week one solver, saw that there was something strange about the letter distribution in those words, I just couldn’t put my finger on it.

  18. Mutman says:

    I found this rather easy but only because I was convinced last week’s meta involved ‘PRE-K’. Once solved, I applied my pre-k thoughts and it came quickly.

    Quite an odd month – I agreee!

  19. ab says:

    I got hung up on ABCs last week for “Early Learning”, so I tried it again on the Week 5 version of this and ended up trying the first letter alphabetically in each word. When that spelled a good answer, I figured I was right, but that PRE-K thing would have clinched it better! I almost got derailed by BEHEADED and (C)RAYON and (C)ANDY, but I’ve been trying to not stray out of the apparent theme words until I really find something.

  20. lkeigwin says:

    My notes were full of rabbit holes.


    Then, “look at all those double letters”. Must be in there.

    Wait, PUSSINBOOTS is misspelled. Important!

    At one point I noticed LIP, HEAD, HAIR, and EAR sitting atop theme answers. Dead end.

    Alternate theme answers? How about…
    CHALAZAE (getting desperate)
    LEGO STORES (getting dumber)
    BEANIE BOO or WISHPET (give it up, will you?)

    Saw PREK. Knew it was key. Took ages before the aha moment.

    Very clever puzzle. Wonderful construction. I went 4 for 5 this month but struggled with all except Ivy League. Just dumb luck with that one.

  21. BarbaraK says:

    I also spent several days with the week 5 version. Noticed that there were tons of Ps and thought that might be important, so I looked for any that could be changed to another letter. Saw that PREP could become PREK and that would be a great way to change a week 2 puzzle to a week 5. So I looked at the Ks, looked for Js, and went down dozens more rabbit holes.

    Yesterday I gave up and looked at the week 2 and saw that PRE-K was indeed the difference, and a few minutes later saw the answer.

    I’m really mad at myself for not solving the week 5 when I was that close.

  22. Jason T says:

    Crazily enough, I managed to solve this one on the Week 5 level by an (I assume) unintended route. I was looking for another grid entry that might provide a clue, and when I thought about “APOTHEOSIS”, I realize that the meaning of “highest point” could be interpreted to mean “the earliest letter in the alphabet,” which would fit well with the weird letter patterns. So I tried it and was shocked that it worked. It did seem a bit arbitrary, but it seemed clear that “BABIED” must be the right answer. Of course, PRE-K is much more elegant and appropriate for the title. How serendipitous that I got there via APOTHEOSIS!

  23. Silverskiesdean says:

    I thought perhaps that a clue to week 5 was that the letter “I” in “Puss n boots” was left off was a clue since it came before “k” and would have ruined the meta. However, it may have just been left off for symmetry. Jeff, was it intentional?

Comments are closed.