MGWCC #643

crossword 2:33 
meta 10-15 min 


hello and welcome to episode #643 of matt gaffney’s weekly crossword contest, “Listen Till the End”. for this week 4 puzzle, the instructions tell us that we are looking for a 10-letter word I hope you’ve heard of. what are the theme answers? well, there are four longish across answers in the grid, and one of them has an explicitly relevant parenthetical note in the clue:

  • {Noted strait (watch the pronunciation on this one)} GIBRALTAR.
  • {“Do the Right Thing” co-star} OSSIE DAVIS. he’s a regular in crossword grids, but usually only his first name.
  • {Texas city} SAN ANTONIO.
  • {Regular soldiers, as opposed to officers} THE TROOPS.

the hint about pronunciation, combined with both “heard” in the instructions and “listen” in the title, certainly suggests a phonetic mechanism. but how does it work?

well, my first thought was naturally the pronunciation of GIBRALTAR, specifically the end of it (based on the title). this could be ALTAR or ALTER, so i went looking for anything in the grid or clues that might suggest either of those two words, but i didn’t find anything promising.

my next thought: some of these theme clues seem deliberately ambiguous—especially {Noted strait} and {Texas city}, which don’t do anything to pin the answer among a very large list of possibilities. could this be one of those puzzles where we’re supposed to think of other answers that might satisfy those clues?

yes, yes it could. since i couldn’t plausibly go looking for the name of any strait in the world, or any texas city, i thought about OSSIE DAVIS and do the right thing; his wife and frequent co-star RUBY DEE is also in that film. and wouldn’t you know it, but {Flour and lard, say} ROUX and {Queen or drone, say} BEE are both in the grid. no DEE, though—this could be why the title directs our attention to the “end”.

taking another look, both of those clues for ROUX and BEE are weird. normally the “comma say” at the end of a clue is basically synonymous with “for example” or “e.g.”—although a little more flexible, in that it can clue any part of speech, whereas “for example” and “e.g.” really ought to be used only for nouns. as such, a clue in the form {X and Y, say} typically clues a plural noun, rather than ROUX as we have here. however, the fact that both of them ended with “, say” caused me to go looking for other clues in that form. wouldn’t you know it—there are eight of them in the puzzle:

  • {Mini or Pro, say} MAC.
  • {Queen or drone, say} BEE.
  • {Macpherson or King, say} ELLE.
  • {Pour or sprinkle, say} RAIN.
  • {Ramada or Clarion, say} INN.
  • {Flour and lard, say} ROUX.
  • {Hail Mary or screen, say} PASS.
  • {Jennings or Watanabe, say} KEN.

these eight answers can be paired together phonetically to form the first two syllables of a three-syllable alternate answer to each of the four theme clues:

  • {Noted strait (watch the pronunciation on this one)} is michigan’s straits of MACKINAC, which is pronounced like “mackinaw” (hence the warning in the clue). this is MAC + INN + AW.
  • {“Do the Right Thing” co-star} is RUBY DEE, as we’ve discussed already: ROUX + BEE + DEE.
  • {Texas city} is EL PASO = ELLE + PASS + O.
  • {Regular soldiers, as opposed to officers} are the RANK AND FILE, somewhat dubiously rendered as RAIN + KEN + FILE. i would’ve strongly preferred RANG to RAIN here, as i think RAIN has both the wrong vowel sound (long A instead of short A) and the wrong final consonant sound (N instead of NG).

the four missing ending syllables are AW + DEE + O + FILE, which phonetically combine to form AUDIOPHILE, an apt ten-letter word (that i have, indeed, heard of!).

there are some things i liked very much about this meta. the mechanism, while it relies on a somewhat familiar alternative-answers-to-theme-clues idea, feels quite fresh, phonetically combining syllables from all over the grid. subverting the “, say” convention of crossword cluing in service of a phonetic meta is nothing short of genius. i do wish the theme answers and clues had been somewhat tighter than they were—{Noted strait} is particularly inelegant in that regard, and i wish more of them had been chosen from somewhat limited answer spaces like the OSSIE DAVIS / RUBY DEE pair.

more than that, though, i’m both bothered and genuinely surprised at the choice of RAIN. does matt pronounce this word differently from me? or pronounce RANK differently? i am simply baffled. i have to think that RANG wouldn’t have been appreciably harder than RAIN to jam into the grid somewhere, clued along the lines of {Sounded from a steeple, say} or {Played a clip from a song, say} or even something saucy like {Went off in one’s pants, say}. i think that would have improved the meta quite a bit. i’ve done puzzles where you have to play fast and loose with pronunciation to get one thing to sound like another, and i don’t mind that if it’s clear that’s what we’re supposed to be doing, but here, every other syllable was an exact phonetic match, so RAIN stuck out like a wet thumb.

(i am totally unbothered by the elision of the D in RANK AND FILE. i don’t pronounce it at all when i’m saying that phrase. i’m not sure i would pronounce the vowel sound in AND exactly like the vowel in KEN, either, but it’s an unstressed syllable in the context of RANK AND FILE. so it’s a schwa anyway and basically impossible to really make a distinction.)

that’s all i’ve got this week. what’d you think of this one?

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12 Responses to MGWCC #643

  1. Matt Gaffney says:

    Thanks, Joon — 155 correct entries this week.

    I went back-and-forth for a while on RAIN vs. RANG before settling on RAIN. I can’t tell if there’s a real “g” sound in there or not. I pronounce “rank” the same way as a standalone word and as part of “rank and file” so I ultimately settled on RAIN.

  2. Joshua Kosman says:

    I thought exactly what you did, Joon: 75% genius + RAIN/RANG wtf that left me scratching my head for a good 10 minutes after I got what surely had to be the intended answer.

  3. David Harris says:

    Oddly enough, I had just dug up this puzzle from a couple years ago, because the NYT reminded me of it last week, and that helped one of my puzzle group see what was happening this week.

    I still needed her to give me hints to figure it out, but—what a funky string of coincidental theme timings!

  4. Charles Stevens says:

    I could tell something was going on with the ALLOK (?!) / KEN crossing when ALLOT/TEN (or even ALLOW/WEN) would have been cleaner. Took me a long time to get on the right track, but the non-specificity of the “Texas city” clue plus spotting ELLE PASS got me there.

    You don’t want to know the number of times I googled “Gibraltar pronunciation” or something similar. And including GIBE and ALTA in the grid was a great red herring.

  5. Garrett says:

    I was never able to put it all together. I saw the 8 ,say things and knew that was significant, but did even think about combining pairs of them — alas.

    Here are some of the odd things I noticed this weekend…

    In the clue [Ramada or Clarion, say], Ramada is an exact anagram of ARMADA in the grid, and CAROLINA in the grid anagrams into Clarion with an A left over.

    GIBRALTAR contains ALTA from elsewhere in the grid.

    If you divide-up GIBRALTAR into syllables GI – BRAL – TAR and listen to the ends it sounds like Guitar or maybe Jitter.

    the beginning of SANANTONIO morphs into SATAN from the southwest if you change the first N to a T

    THETROOPS sounds like ThetROUXps

    The clue [Mini or Pro, say] yields MAC in the north, and oddly ~around the west is the fill PRO

    Break-up SANANTONIO into syllables SAN – AN – TO – NIO and listen to the ends and it sounds like Sanyo.

  6. cyco says:

    Ah, I found the 8 “say” clues but didn’t put the full meta together. Also went down a bit of a rabbit hole with PHONETIC in the grid. The NATO phonetic alphabet seemed promising at first – “Mini or Pro, say” could easily refer to GOLF.

    • Mutman says:

      I’m with you cyco — I did same. I spent more time than I should have on the NATO alphabet, since I saw DELTA in there and INDIA in the clues.

      I was focused on the final syllable (per the title) and thought gibralTAR + MAC giving TARMAC would be a mechanism for the rest. But alas! It was not.

    • BarbaraK says:

      And the end of GIBRALTAR would be Alfa Romeo – watch the pronunciation because Romeo in the car name is different from the NATO Romeo

  7. Dan Seidman says:

    Also led astray by words intended to deceive (the references to the NATO alphabet discussed above). Matt used to prohibit that — not sure why he stopped. Maybe it was too easy that way.

    Eventually I got it, kind of the hard way as I never noticed the “, say” indicators. The first thing I figured out was Ruby Dee, although I thought it had something to do with the letter D. Same with BEE, ELLE and EWE in the grid. But at last I saw through the fog. This was an especially clever one.

    • C. Y. Hollander says:

      I don’t believe PHONETIC was a Word Intended to Deceive. If anything, it was a nod towards the nature of the theme. Sure, if you looked hard enough, you could find some things you could connect to the NATO phonetic alphabet, but no more than can be accounted for by chance, IMO. Were they deliberate red herrings, they could have been made a lot more compelling.

  8. Adam Doctoroff says:

    Agree this was a really clever one, and the pronunciation issue Joon highlighted didn’t give me a moment’s pause (partially because I had already cracked the code, and partially because I admired the audacity of making “rank and file” work in the first place!). Particularly appreciate how this puzzle combined several different components of meta-solving into a new form.

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