Matt Gaffney’s Wall Street Journal contest crossword, “Pardon My English” — Conrad’s review
This week we’re told, The answer to this week’s contest crossword is a two-word phrase. Sometimes the meta gods smile upon you, and you lock into the meta frequency almost immediately. Sometimes the opposite happens, and you spend days exploring dead rabbit holes. Fortunately: the gods were kind to me this week.
There are four long symmetric themers:
- [17a: Russell Crowe delivery to Joaquin]: DEATHBLOW
- [11d: Road with no outlet]: BLINDALLEY
- [28d: Peak of artistic achievement]: MASTERWORK
- [64a: Mark Twain or Elena Ferrante, e.g. ]: PSEUDONYM
“Pardon My French” is the obvious alternative to the title, so I began looking for a French Connection. When it comes to parsing or speaking French: my hovercraft is full of eels. That, plus the parenthetically-numbered clues gave me pause. But fortunately for me: C’est simple comme bonjour !
11d (BLINDALLEY) stood out to me: I wondered if Matt was using the classic meta mechanism of writing clues that could be applied elsewhere. Despite struggling to pass junior high school French: I happened to remember a bit of French trivia: cul de sac literally means “bottom of the bag” (not relevant here), and also happens to be another definition of a “road with no outlet” (very relevant here). I spotted DEATHBLOW next, leading to coup de grace. PSEUDONYM fell next (nom de plume). MASTERWORK was tougher for me, so I Googled “masterwork in French“. That lead to chef d’oeuvre, which…. kind of matches the other three themers (which had a “this de that” pattern), but not exactly.
It’s one thing to find alternate answers that fit meta clues; I needed to find the mechanism that locked them in (and would hopefully lead to the answer). I noted some odd fill as I completed the grid, and spotted 19a (GRICE). That seemed to point to Coup de GRACE (swapping the “I” for GRACE’s “A”), I quickly saw 68a (CORP, swapping an “R” with COUP’s “U”), and I was off to the races:
- DEATHBLOW (2/6) -> COUP de GRACE -> CO(R)P/GR(I)CE
- BLINDALLEY (3/7) -> CUL de SAC -> C(E)L/S(E)C
- MASTERWORK (4/1) -> ???? -> ????
- PSEUDONYM (8/5) -> NOM de PLUME -> NO(N)/PLUM(B)
I couldn’t spot any grid entries that worked with chef d’oeuvre, so I was pretty sure I had that one wrong. I decided to see if I could solve 75% of the meta by applying the numbers, and it fell together quickly: DEATHBLOW/COUP de GRACE (2/6), used CORP’s “R” as the 2nd letter and GRICE’s “I” as the 6th: continuing that process for the three entries revealed ?RE?BIEN.
The answer was clearly “tres bien,” so I backsolved the rest by scanning for T’s and S’s in the grid that would work for MASTERWORK (4/1): I saw FORTE, leading me to TOUR de FORCE, with the matching grid entries (S)OUR/FOR(T)E. That supplied the missing fourth and first letter, locking in TRES BIEN, our meta solution.
Let me know if and how you made the French connection in the comments. In the meantime, here’s Sunday Girl by Blondie. This is the French-language version, sung by Debbie Harry.
I got most of the way there, but got stuck on CHEF D’OEUVRE. ended up submitting TRES BIEN just because, after getting step 1, what the hell else could it have been?
One of the few times I will actually criticize the Gaff, by the way; I was split between CHEF D’ OEUVRE (and it’s clued as 4,1 which sidesteps the D’ versus De problem) and PIECE DE RESISTANCE. But if you google “masterwork french” you get both of those but not TOUR DE FORCE. Eh, it’s a f***in’ crossword puzzle. And Matt has given me a lot of fun puzzles over the years, so don’t get me wrong. But I’m a little pissed over this one. (I’ll get over it and gladly solve his puzzle next week.)
I Googled PIECE DE RESISTANCE (that’s what I had for masterwork as well) and that’s how I got TOUR DE FORCE. Fun puzzle!
the parenthetical numbers have nothing to do with D’ or De so that presumably could’ve been fine either way
Had coup de grace, cul de sac, and nom de plume easily. applied the 1,2,3,4,5,6,7,8 procedure and to get *re* bien. What else could it be than TRES BIEN? Started with chef d’oeuvre, and that didn’t work. tour de force wasn’t really anywhere near the top choices for Master Work.
I also went the piece de resistance route and worked backwards when it didn’t fit from _RE_BIEN. Tour de Force is a common enough term that I’m not made I didn’t think of it at first. Or second… Or third…
C’est la vie!
Similar path… Backsolved to find TOUR DE FORCE.
Huh, I’m surprised by the PIECE DE RESISTANCE / TOUR DE FORCE issue. “Tour de Force” outgoogles “Piece de Resistance” 30-to-1.
Matt, the problem is that we all googled “French for masterwork,” and that points to chef d’oeuvre. The other two phrases don’t show up immediately. It doesn’t matter which one googles better, because we’re not googling those phrases. So it just depends on where your brain goes first: to piece de resistance or tour de force. Mine went to piece first also.
That said, still loved the meta, and still totally solvable without working out the last themer.
i googled “masterwork synonym” and m-w gave me both piece de resistance and tour de force and since there was no entry even close to “resistance” that made it easy
Il pleut dans mons coeur
comme s’il pleut dans la ville
quelle est c’est langueur
qui pénètre mon coeur?
From High School French some 1000 years ago
Formidable, Ciels d’argent. Here is the beginning of the poem by Paul Verlaine, grace à Google.
Il pleure dans mon cœur
Comme il pleut sur la ville;
Quelle est cette langueur
Qui pénètre mon cœur?
I got tres bien, but since it said pardon my English converted that back to Very Good for my answer. I guess I took one step too far.
Good reason to take the extra step. I stopped at tres bien, and never thought about translating to English.
I agree. I expected that I would find a French phrase in the format of this de that, and then translate it back into a two-word English phrase. I would hope that “very good” would have been accepted.
Regardless, I was on the right track, but got stuck on chef d’oeuvre not being in the grid, and stopped going down that path, and never finished. I personally think this is a weakness in the puzzle. It should have been a clearly obvious French phrase. But I only get about 25% anyway, so I can’t nit pick about this one.
I’ll take it as a moral victory. Like many I thought Tour de Force was the most difficult answer. I originally was thinking chef d,ouvre until I saw the de pattern. Then I thought piece de resistance but couldn’t find that in the grid. Finally forte helped me find Tour de Force.
I did the English restoration too, but submitted TRES BIEN as well just to be sure.
As is often the case, forgot about the WSJ meta puzzle. Not convinced I would have solved it, but can’t resist sharing this (because I am compulsive):
All of the French alternatives were ….de …
Take the first and second word, find them altered in the grid, write the changes letters down.
The themers look like a windmill, which goes clockwise. If you do that, it is perfectly laid before you. Brilliant.