MGWCC #580

crossword 2:59 
meta 3 days 


hello and welcome to episode #580 of matt gaffney’s weekly crossword contest, “Why Can’t We?”. the instructions this week are to name a two-word phrase. what are the theme answers? the four long across answers have parenthetical numbers in their clues, so that seems like a good bet:

  • {It’s a four-hour drive from Albuquerque, New Mexico (2,8)} EL PASO, TEXAS.
  • {Hackneyed prison movie line (1,5,7)} “WHAT ARE YOU IN FOR?”.
  • {Disagree (9,3)} DON’T SEE EYE TO EYE.
  • {Act poorly, perhaps (4,6)} MISS ONE’S CUE.

okay, so what do we do with these? the first thing that i noticed was that the parenthetical numbers are a permutation (reordering) of the numbers 1 through 9. so it seems we are going to have a nine-letter, two-word phrase, and we will get either two or three letters from each theme answer (three in the case of WHAT ARE YOU IN FOR) and put them in the indicated places to read off the answer.

the second thing i noticed was that many of the words in the theme answers are homophones of letters. on my first reading, i thought it was one from each theme answer: EL (L), YOU (U), EYE (I), and CUE (Q). putting those in the indicated order gives ULIQUQULI, which is, alas, not a two-word phrase no matter where you put the word break.

it didn’t take me long to notice the other letter homophones, though. there’s actually EL, ARE YOU, SEE EYE EYE, and CUE. but unfortunately, these don’t correspond with the number of parenthetical digits, so it’s hard to know what to do with them. but given the “why” (Y) in the puzzle title, i thought it couldn’t be a coincidence. i thought about letter sound-alikes in parts of words, like O in PASO or X and S in TEXAS, but that idea didn’t go anywhere either. i was a little concerned since it was only week 2, but i had to admit that i was just stuck. so i put it down and looked at it occasionally a few times over the weekend.

the third time i looked at this puzzle, i took a more big-picture approach, and wondered why, if there were only four theme answers, matt had used a 78-word grid with some cruddy fill in places—especially the upper right, where a corner totally unconstrained by theme had stacked abbrs REQ, ICU, and NRA. i figured the Q must be thematically forced, probably related somehow to the CUE of MISS ONE’S CUE. this turned out to be a correct thought, but it still wasn’t clear how they were connected. i thought perhaps 13d QUAY (pronounced like the letter K) might somehow give us a K corresponding to the Q of MISS ONE’S CUE. but that idea didn’t last long. i also wondered if FOR (4) and TO (2) in the theme answers were relevant, but i thought that if they were, ONE’S in MISS ONE’S CUE would be highly inelegant.

the fourth time i returned to the puzzle, though, everything became clear. REQ is a three-letter word whose third letter is Q; MISS ONE’S CUE is a three-word phrase whose third word sounds like Q. its symmetric partner, LED, is a three-letter word whose first letter is L; it matches with EL PASO TEXAS, a three-word phrase whose first word sounds like L.

more interestingly, WHAT ARE YOU IN FOR is a five-word phrase whose second and third words sound like R U; it goes with 1a BRUIN, a five-letter word whose second and third letters are RU. and DON’T SEE EYE TO EYE corresponds to _CI_I, which matches SCIFI symmetrically placed at 65a. this is quite an ingenious connection, and as an extra elegant touch, the four “extra” theme answers are the across answers in the four corners of the grid.

what’s left, then? well, we take the other letters from those four extra themers, and put them into the order indicated by the parenthetical numbers. doing this gives BE FRIENDS, which is a two-word phrase—and one that completes the question in the puzzle’s title. (BEFRIENDS is also a word in its own right, but matt asked for a two-word phrase, so i submitted a two-word phrase.) i guess WHY CAN’T WE BE FRIENDS would correspond to an answer such as YERBA, which isn’t in the grid (but that would’ve been a neat easter egg!).

i thought this meta was awesome—but in no way was it a week 2. i think if the four extra theme answers had *ed clues, it could have been a week 2, but i much prefer it presented the way it was presented, and slotted in as a week 4 or so. what do you think?

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37 Responses to MGWCC #580

  1. pgw says:

    5 stars. I also thought it played like a week 3.5-4, and the leaderboard agrees. (Also, I totally forgot about the parenthetical numbers and just anagrammed the extra letters, which made it seem a tad less elegant but not really any harder.)

  2. Thomas says:

    I got the final answer, but I still don’t understand why WHAT ARE YOU IN FOR isn’t _ R U N _.

    • pgw says:

      If you pronounce the letter N and the word “in” the same you have an unusual accent

      • Thomas says:

        Unusual? It’s just the pin-pen merger, which is fairly common. And yes, I have to work very hard to hear or say them differently.

        I think it is at least somewhat common for the same people who would use R for are or U for you in writing to also use N for in. (But Prince never did it in a song title, so maybe I’m wrong.)

        • joon says:

          i don’t know about “unusual”, but i think “non-standard” is accurate. my hunch is that the pin/pen merger is pretty common in parts of the midwest, but you won’t see it listed as a standard pronunciation in a dictionary.

          • pgw says:

            Okay, fair, it’s reasonably common – but even if you *speak* with the pin/pen merger, you wouldn’t see the words PIN and PEN written on a page and call them homophones, would you? Like, at some level even if you pronounce the two words the same and have no problem with that, you recognize that you’re pronouncing one of the words “wrong,” or at least in a manner that is different from how most other English speakers pronounce it … right?

            • pgw says:

              So on further reflection I see that if you have the merger, you’d view the words as homophones – just as I, a Californian, view marry, merry and Mary as homophones even though they’re not to a New Yorker. But I can certainly hear the difference when I’m in New York. Are the pin/pen folks in this thread saying they can’t actually hear a difference even when a non-pin/pen person is talking?

      • MeanMrMustard says:

        Okay apparently I am stupid or have an “unusual accent”… so tell me how you wise ones pronounce “N” if not “in”? “en”? What’s the difference?

  3. Matt Gaffney says:

    Thanks, Joon — 195 right answers, so a tough Week 3 or an easy Week 4, not a Week 2.

    It was difficult for me to gauge how hard it was to see the idea — kept going back and forth between “it jumps right out” and “it’s not complex, but it’s very tough to spot.”

    Wish I’d thought of YERBA.

  4. jefe says:

    Seems awfully complex for a week 2. I was going to guess Be Friends from the title alone as a Hail Mary, but I got caught up in a task at work and didn’t submit. Dang it.

  5. Joe Eckman says:

    Excellent! What a ton of fun to figure out, too! I’ve taken about a 3 year hiatus from xword puzzles, and this reminded me why I love them so much. I forgot about the whole “submitting an answer” step this week, so hopefully I’ll solve next week as well. Thanks Matt!!!!

  6. David Harris says:

    After needing some nudge-nudge hinting to get it last minute, I hadn’t appreciated some of the elegance of the theme—in particular, that the hidden grid entries were symmetrical, and that they had the homophoned letters in the same positions as the themer words. Also that the phrase completes the title, which I had been assuming was *just* a hint towards homophoning the letters. Seeing the big picture of it now, it all does fit together really impressively.

    In addition to the number herring (why doesn’t ELPASOTEXAS have a 3 somewhere?!)), and assuming the combo of CUE and YOU was too convenient, towards the end I started fixating on third homophones for the themers—YOU/U/EWE, EYE/I/AYE, CUE/Q/QUEUE, SEE/C/SEA—and looking for alternate answers in the grid for those extra words. Definitely needed the guidance to close off dead ends and focus on the right parts, with SCIFI then being my Eureka moment. QUAY wasn’t cutting it.

  7. Alex Bourzutschky says:

    When I first saw the title I thought of an 8-word Beatles song title instead. I noticed the strangeness of the C I I and SCI-FI reasonably early but didn’t look around the grid enough to find the rest until much later. Another helpful nudge might have been if the center entry or the two long down entries hinted at corners.

  8. David R says:

    I think we spend too much time on discussing difficulty of the meta and of whether it belongs in a certain week. It seems to be a point of distraction and detraction of the general excellence of the meta. It may make for a nice change of pace for Matt to simply release the metas and we have no idea of what level of difficulty it will be. If you really want a feel for how tough it is, a quick scan at the leadership board by Friday night will let you know.

    • Gwinns says:

      Agree– I loved this meta, thought it was different and very elegant, 5 stars easy. I’d hate for it to get marked down just because it played harder than Matt anticipated. It’s not the puzzle’s fault that we might have certain expectations at certain weeks of each month.

    • Matt Gaffney says:

      On about 10% of metas it’s pretty tough to gauge. Sometimes Consigliere, Supertester and myself will each guess the correct # of entries and the range between the three is something nuts like 150 or 200 solvers.

  9. Karen says:

    I got the answer but didn’t fully understand the mechanism. I looked for an entry with CII and found SCIFI, and saw that when you remove them (because you “don’t”) you get SF which is also a valid answer to the clue. Of course the others don’t work that way. REQ misses its Q to have two letters left, but I removed RU from RUSSO before noticing it is also in BRUIN (and ECRU but we needed three letters left over). That and removing an L from LED felt completely arbitrary, but from the title of the puzzle, I knew the phrase must be right. I missed the correspondence between number and position of words/letters, as well as the symmetry of the answers. The fill seemed smooth to me and I enjoyed the puzzle, and of course I came here to find out what I was missing in the meta. Thanks Matt and joon!

  10. Jack Sullivan says:

    I saw some extra letters (ex in Texas and es in ones). Then it was a number progression (one, to, for) looking for eight, or maybe three. Only after reprinting and starting over did I see CII in SCI-FI which LED to the answer. The key was the symmetrical placement of the four answers.

    Great one, Matt.

  11. I noticed that the words in the 4 corners contained the letters sounded out in the theme answers, and that the remaining letters spelled out the meta answer when ordered by the parenthetical numbers, but it seemed a little arbitrary to me — I completely missed the step where the number of words in the theme answer matched the number of letters in the grid entries and that the sounded out letters matched the positions of their respective grid entries.

  12. Garrett says:

    Says Joon. “i thought this meta was awesome—but in no way was it a week 2. i think if the four extra theme answers had *ed clues, it could have been a week 2, but i much prefer it presented the way it was presented, and slotted in as a week 4 or so. what do you think?”

    I also thought it was awesome when I finally understood it. I started out a lot like Karen, and could not make anything work. I also could not suss-out anything but L in the first themer, and figured there was something I did not understand.

    This morning it finally clicked with BRUIN, then I understood SCIFI, and next came REQ. I wrote the required letters out and realized I needed E and D and then the first themer finally made sense too. Actually, that should have made sense a lot sooner.

    I liked it that the four corners were used for the four other words we needed.

    • Jim Schooler says:

      I got your text yesterday morning but still couldn’t make heads or tails of this thing. After carefully reading through joon’s explanation it made perfect sense. I agree that even though it was a meta out-of-order in difficulty, nothing should take away from the elegance of it. 5 Stars from me.

  13. Mary Flaminio says:

    Just me, but I can hardly understand the directions to solve it, never mind get there. Out of pay grade. Still “at sea”.

  14. Jon says:

    Did anyone elses’s grid have differently shaded squares in the 4 themers in their puz’s? For me, I had oddly blue shaded squares of “pasotexa” in ELPASOTEXAS, “hatar” in WHATAREYOUINFOR, “eto” in DONTSEEEYETOEYE, & “onescu” in MISSONESCUE.

    • ~Marcia~ R says:

      Yes, I also noticed this. I was using Crosswords. I then opened the puzzle in Puzzazz. Those colored squares were not there. I decided it meant nothing.

      • I’m really curious how this happened. Do either you have screenshots of this? The .puz file format doesn’t even support different shading, and there’s nothing I can see in either the .pdf or .jpz that I can see either.

        • sharkicicles says:

          IIRC it’s a feature of SAI Crosswords that when it detects a multi-number enumeration (i.e. (1,2,3)) in the clue text it attempts to automatically shade them in for convenience. So (1,2,3) would be shaded LMMDDD as light/medium/dark blue.

          Disclosure: former SAI employee, haven’t looked at the source code in a few years.

  15. slubduck says:

    So close, saw the letters and the connection to the corner entries but could not figure how the numbers fit in. And at the bottom of my puzzle sits a scribble that went nowhere: BINREEDSF …… you have to follow through, even when it’s not making sense.

  16. lkeigwin says:

    I got sidetracked by MISSONESCUE (4,6). Letters below (4,6)…I and R…gave me MISSION RESCUE. Talk about a rabbit hole!

    I kept whining to my wife this was not a week2. She laughed and said I wasn’t as smart as almost 200 other solvers. Which was her way of motivating me.

    With 30 minutes to spare I saw BRUIN and SCIFI…and decided ELPASOTEXAS was just an L and not an L and O, WHATAREYOUINFOR was just R and U, not RUN, and everything fell in line.

    Finally I was free to work on the backlog of 3 days puzzles.

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