MGWCC #587

crossword 5:39 
meta 3 days 


hello and welcome to episode #587 of matt gaffney’s weekly crossword contest, “Reverse Engineering”. this week, matt challenges us to name a nine-letter word. okay, what are the theme answers?

it’s far from clear, but i had a few early observations: first, this is a 17×17 grid. there aren’t many long answers (some 10s, some 9s), but they didn’t seem to have anything in common. my first hunch was that there were 9 theme answers, not necessarily long, and that we’d extract a letter from each one. actually, i guess that was my second hunch, because my first was that there would be things hidden in reverse in long answers (based on the title), and, well, there weren’t.

second, the only clue that seemed thematic to me on the first pass was {Dash dash dash, dot dash dash, dot, decoded}, an insane way to clue the common word OWE. i didn’t know what was going on there, but i figured there had to be a meta-related reason for a clue so contrived.

the last thing i found on my first pass was the most promising, because it was connected to the title: {DDE, vis-à-vis RMN} is the clue for PREZ, but i thought this had to be related to {Show for which Julia Louis-Dreyfus has won six Emmys} VEEP, and indeed it could be a clue for VEEP if you switched DDE with RMN in the clue. this seemed promising, and my next thought was that there might somehow be nine such pairs. but after looking at it for a while longer, i didn’t find any more.

coming back to it a couple days later, and talking it over with andy, we actually did find eight more. to be more precise, first andy found one more: {“What,” say} clues PRONOUN, but {“Say what?”} would be a good alternate clue for COME AGAIN, actually clued at 10d as {Clerk’s parting words}. this confirmed that i had the right mechanism to begin with, and then it was just a matter of hunting more of them down. eventually we got six of them, and i noticed that the first letters of the alternate answers, in top-to-bottom order in the grid, spelled out BACKOV. this strongly suggested the 9-letter answer BACKSOLVE, and we (fittingly) backsolved the remaining three theme answers.

here’s the full list:

  • {Dish polish} is GLAZE, but {Polish dish} could clue 1a {Stew made with cabbage and kielbasa} BIGOS, a stew i’ve never heard of, but at least “kielbasa” was in there to steer you towards “polish”. note that the capitalization and pronunciation of “polish” changes in the modified clue.
  • {Music of India} is RAGA, but {India of music} would be ARIE, clued at 4d as {Auto racer Luyendyk}.
  • we’ve already mentioned {“What”, say} and COME AGAIN.
  • {Example for children} is ROLE MODEL, but {Children, for example} could clue 34a KIN. here, there is a necessary punctuation change in addition to the word swap.
  • {“Oliver!” director} is CAROL REED (fact i recently learned: this is a man’s name!) of the 1968 film, but {Director Oliver} could clue 44a STONE. again, the punctuation changes.
  • {Make discontinued} is CANCEL, but {Discontinued make} is 68a OLDSMOBILE.
  • {Single journey} is a ONE-WAY TRIP, but apparently 77a LIGHTS is a {Journey single}, i.e. a song released as a single by the band journey. this was the second-to-last one we figured out.
  • we’ve already mentioned the VEEP clue.
  • hey, remember that insane morse code clue for OWE? it turns out that if you switch the first dash and the last dot, and move the commas around, you can get {Dot, dash dash dot, dash dash dash, decoded} which spells EGO, which is in the grid at 84d. this was the last one we figured out, partly because it’s bonkers and partly because we were stuck a little while thinking 86a ETNA was the answer that was going to give us the E. i can’t decide if this theme answer is pure garbage or whether i actually like it. on the one hand, it’s basically impossible to forward-solve, because moving the commas around in morse code introduces an arbitrary amount of wiggle room; morse code is basically undecipherable without knowing where the breaks between letters are. on the other hand, it’s actually kind of fitting that you pretty much have to backsolve this one. i also haven’t quite figured out another way to reverse-clue EGO. maybe {Conscious self}, switched to {Self-conscious} which might clue something like SHY? or there is probably something good involving latin for “I”.

everything else about this meta was terrific. really clever mechanism, fun to suss out, with lots of aha moments. there were some fill entries that made me wince a bit (a handful of unknown proper names, the uncommon spelling LAO TZE, a couple too many suffixes, adverb RIFELY that i’ve never seen used) but overall the fill was decent enough for a 17×17 puzzle with 18 (!!) theme answers. great work, matt!

after last week’s failure, i’m happy to be back on the leaderboard with a streak of 1 (one) weeks and counting. how about you?

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27 Responses to MGWCC #587

  1. Matt Gaffney says:

    Thanks, Joon — 142 right answers this week.

  2. Seth says:

    Woooow. Though I normally kind of hate metas based on clues (I solve on an app where you can only see one clue at a time, so it’s really hard to see any connections between clues), I’m really impressed with this one. I’m bummed I didn’t figure it out.

  3. Will Nediger says:

    I went down a rabbit hole immediately because UAE is right next to BIERE, which was clued as something like [Vin alternative], and EAU could also be clued as [Vin alternative]. But I only found one other such pair – ORE is [Stuff in a smeltery], as is LIME (EMIL in reverse) – and then I didn’t have time the rest of the weekend to come back to it. So I submitted BACKSOLVE as a Hail Mary just based on the title, and got extremely lucky!

    • Garrett says:

      I counted nine entries that made good words when reversed, and that was my rabbit hole.

    • ajk says:

      Hand raised for this one. :)

      • Toast says:

        Uch, so much time spent in that particular rabbit hole. I counted ten easy reversibles: REEL, RAGA, TAO, EMIL, DON, ETA, ETNA, LAG, GON, and UAE. I didn’t see UAE at first, which made me sure that reversing my 9 entries was the way, er, forward. RAGA backwards is AGAR, which could be clued by SLIME, a transdeletion of MIELES (except it’s not really slime, more like jelly) or maybe GOO. Or no wait, CAROL REED anagrams into ROD + CEREAL, where CEREAL clues OAT. Who’s ROD? Steiger? Sterling? Must .. stop ..

        It really helped to find EAU, which was such an obvious red herring with BIERE that it … kind of reminded me of the existence of red herrings.

        Fun puzzle. Yelled at it when I got it. I didn’t know India Arie was spelled that way, but I liked her song “video” back in 2001.

  4. Lance says:

    Fascinated that the bonkers clue for OWE was your last find–that was my breaking-in point! I wanted to reverse *something*, and *something* had to happen with that clue, so I thought, “Well, what if I reverse it?”. (I never did get LIGHTS as “Journey single”, though–I totally know the song, but never thought about its title. I figured that maybe “Lieto” was a “giant networking computer”?) Took me days to get there though–I’d even noticed that “What, say” would be a better phrase as “Say what?”, but didn’t make the connection to COME AGAIN. (Really nice misdirect on its cluing as a thing a clerk says!)

    Pretty impressed by this overall. The fill might have suffered in a few places (“rifely”? really?), but the idea of reversing clues, and fitting nine of them into the grid, is really nice.

    • Justin says:

      Same here, I noted the reverse morse code… but never got anywhere else. I imagine the former is a puzzle hunt habit.

    • Matthew G. says:

      The first one that leapt out at me was “Dish polish,” because that’s just such a weird term. Not how you’d clue GLAZE given a choice, I think. And I had already paused over the unfamiliar BIGOS earlier in the solve, so I was attuned to it. I think this was my fastest Week 5 metasolve ever (in a month where I missed Week 2, because of course I did).

      Last one I got was LIGHTS — like you, I know the song very well but didn’t know its title was just … “Lights.”

  5. Peter F says:

    I think the morse code clue is great actually – instead of switching first and last words, you just reverse the entire clue. Leaving the commas in place, you get the same EGO. Loved this one.

    • joon says:

      do you know, i only realized after reading this comment that all of the other clues work the same way—you can reverse them word-by-word to get the alternate clue. of course, those clues are all short enough that this mechanism is indistinguishable from the one in my head, which was “switch two words in place”, but my interpretation makes less sense with regards to the puzzle title.

      • pgw says:

        I started with the same “switch the first and last words” idea, but eventually realized it was just read it backwards, word by word, which means the commas don’t have to move at all. I did find it a tad inelegant that many of the others relied on punctuation changes whereas this one kind of relies on preserving punctuation, but it didn’t bother me much. As you said, it was fitting that the last few steps had to be backsolved.

  6. Margaret says:

    The India.Arie thing jumped out at me but I couldn’t generalize from it to figure out the meta, now I wish I’d tried harder! Never give up, never surrender.

  7. Amanda says:

    Brilliant. You’ve outdone yourself, Matt!

  8. Hector says:

    I thought it was that ETNA is a “blowhard of a feature.”

  9. Dave says:

    OLDSMOBILE was my point of entry. I noticed that “Make discontinued” would be an acceptable clue for OLDSMOBILE, even without the reversal, on my first pass through the puzzle, and it was too clunky a way to clue CANCEL unless it was put there intentionally.

    I loved the Music of India/India of Music pairing.

  10. Clay says:

    Samsonite! I was waaaaaay off.

    Went on a pretty wild wild goose chase this week:

    Noticed that the following entries had fairly clear opposites (reverses?) embedded within them:

    BIGOS (big—>Small)
    COMEAGAIN (come–>Go)
    ONEWAYTRIP (oneway–>Round)
    PRONOUN (pro–>Anti/Amateur)
    ALLERGIC (all–>None/Some?)
    OLDSMOBILE (old–>New)
    LIGHTS (light–>Heavy/Dark)
    CISCO (cis–>Trans)

    Had a hard time finding a ninth entry that fit the bill, but the connection felt strong enough to start working through. So:

    1. Given the title, I expected the meta answer to come through some kind of ‘reversal’; that led me to order the opposite words from the bottom up.
    2. This got me to something like THNSA?RGS. And from that, the possibility of THESAURUS jumped right out. “Gotta be ‘thesaurus’. Got. To. be ‘thesaurus,'” I muttered under my breath.
    3. With some (very) wishful finagling (swapped out OLDSMOBILE–>old/new for OLDSMOBILE–>old/Existing???), added ZENDA–>zen/Unchill, went from COMEAGAIN–>come/go to OVERT–>overt/Unsaid), was able to wend my way to THESAURUS. By the time I got there, it was definitely more of an Aha…? moment, but I was so far to the dark side at that point that I couldn’t open my brain back up to other possibilities.

    The actual mechanism is (of course) much more elegant and makes perfect sense. Great stuff as always Matt!

  11. Alex B. says:

    If you have a slow cooker and you like cabbage I highly recommend making Bigos.

  12. Ben says:

    That’s an elegant puzzle with a great solution. It’s amazing how uncontrived so many of the paired clue reversals seem. I’m partial to “Dish polish” but it’s hard to argue with “Music of India.”

    I sadly couldn’t get past the fact that the one obvious hint (the weird Morse “decoding”) spelled out a word that was also a homonym for a letter (OWE). With the obscure BIGOS at 1-Across (mentally parsed as “Big O’s” because what the heck is BIGOS?), that seemed like two pushes toward doing something with the letter O, which looks kinda like a dot used in Morse code…

    Alas, that particular rabbit hole proved sufficiently serpentine to occupy the long weekend. I hope I’m not the only one who now has the entire Morse alphabet committed to memory.

    • David Glasser says:

      Every row has from 1 to 4 Is and Os. I brought a printout of this camping and spent a solid day convinced that decoding each row as Morse code was definitely the answer before getting my hands on a Morse table. (real answer is better)

  13. Garrett says:

    Funny — I noticed STONE adjacent to CAROLREED and put Oliver together with that but did not see where it could take me.

    One interesting thing I spotted is RIFELY having NO from ACCTNO right below its IF. If you reversed NO to ON and moved it up you get Ron Ely!

    That’s an incredibly devious meta.

  14. bwouns says:

    I found on Wikipedia a definition of LAG as Link Aggregate Group (Multiple computer network…) And left it at that. I was just stuck on the fact that Giant Networking Computer had to be part if the solution.

  15. TMart says:

    Wow, this is interesting. I got it right, but had to (yes) backsolve for two of the letters – and the mechanism worked with different clues for the A and the L, after I couldn’t seem to make ARIE and LIGHTS work. I reversed “Deduction pros” to “Pro’s deduction” as a clue for AMMO, with the thought that cops might deduct the cost of their equipment. And I reversed “Perfect places” to “places perfect” as a clue for LAG, as a lag shot in pool is used to perfectly place the cue ball. By then I knew which squares I was looking for, and while not exact, they seemed plausible enough.

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