MGWCC #694

crossword 4:41 
meta DNF 


hello and welcome to episode #694 of matt gaffney’s weekly crossword contest, “CIRCLE Dances”. for this week 3 puzzle, the instructions tell us that the the answer is a five-letter word. okay. what are the theme answers? there are five circles in the grid, which need to be filled with 0, 1, 2, 3, or 4 letters to make the crossings work. in order from top to bottom:

  • {Taurus, Virgo, or Capricorn} is an EART[ ]H SIGN, crossing {Part of a school yr.} SE[ ]M. certainly having an empty square in a solved crossword is unusual.
  • {Use two or more names on a discussion board to make it look like your viewpoint is more popular than it really is} SOC[K]-PUPPET, crossing {“___ Country” (phrase on Montana’s state quarter)} BIG S[K]Y. this one is totally normal, with a K going in the circled square.
  • {Healthful} SALUBR[IO]US crosses {Historic Swiss city that becomes an animal if you change its first letter to an L} S[IO]N at the IO rebus square. SION is fairly obscure, hence the extra detail in the clue. i didn’t know it was a swiss city, but i’ve heard of the priory of SION from things like the da vinci code. (okay, that turns out to be named after a different sion. huh.)
  • {Highly pessimistic talk} [DOO]M AND GLOOM crosses {Pet unlikely to get ticks} IN[DOO]R CAT at the [DOO]. you know what kind of pet is even less likely to get ticks? a goldfish, for one.
  • {It comes with a doubling cube} BACKG[AMMO]N SET crosses {Behemoth that was often woolly} M[AMMO]TH at the [AMMO].

that took a little while to unravel, since each one works a little differently, but after i got the first three, the pattern clicked into place and it wasn’t hard to guess what was happening in the last two. but now what? we have five circles, each with a different number of letters from 0 to 4, in increasing order as you go from top to bottom in the grid. the letters themselves don’t seem to spell anything: nothing, K, IO, DOO, and AMMO. nor is there anything you can replace those letters with to make the across answers into anything else resembling a word. you can with some of the downs, but IN_RCAT is not very flexible.

what about the title? i don’t really know. dances could suggest either thinking about names of dances, or just about movement and dance partners and that kind of thing. for example, switching partners around so that EART[ ]H SIGN crossed, say, S[IO]N instead of SE[ ]M.

on that note: why SEM? it’s a pretty junky abbreviation, and SE[ ]T crossing TIC would be an improvement there. i suspect there’s some meta constraint on that answer that would force it to be SE[ ]M; of course, the empty square by itself does not constrain the answer at all, in contrast to the way BACKG[AMMO]N SET and M[AMMO]TH are among the very few possible answers that include the string AMMO.

the crossing answer, EART[ ]H SIGN, is similarly unconstrained, but it definitely did not escape my notice that the empty square comes within EARTH, and the grid also contains both SHAPED and OBLATE (!), the latter clued in its non-geometric sense as {Person who has dedicated their life to serving God}. but the EARTH is, of course, SHAPED like an OBLATE spheroid, and a spheroid is circle-adjacent. not only that, but BACKGAMMON pieces are SHAPED like discs, and DISCO STU is in the grid too. hmm.

speaking of circles, why is CIRCLE in the title in all caps? i wish i knew. it suggests that CIRCLE is functioning as a crossword answer rather than in its semantic sense. i don’t necessarily want that to be true, since it would render my EARTH/SHAPED/OBLATE observation irrelevant and i don’t have much else to go on. but maybe i should give it up anyway, since obviously SALUBR[IO]US doesn’t have a shape, and neither does [DOO]M (unless you mean tolkien’s mount DOOM, which is inspired by the shape of stromboli).

one thought is to treat the circles like O’s, which is the letter they resemble. MOTH and SON are words, which is interesting; INORCAT is very much not, which is less interesting. BIG SOY is the powerful and insidious edamame lobby, i assume.

okay, so that didn’t work. but it is interesting that the letters that go in the circles include a lot of O’s. however, i don’t know at all what to do with that.

should we look at the letters around the circle, rather than the letters inside? the four letters surrounding the first circle are ETHM, which can spell THEM (or METH). but the others aren’t as interesting.

well, i dunno. going to have to call this one a failure—i don’t even have a hail mary guess. i suppose i will try CONGA since it’s a five-letter dance. i’ll be curious to know what was happening here, since i have very little idea.

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42 Responses to MGWCC #694

  1. BHamren says:

    I only got this at the last minute after a HUGE shove from Dr. Tom

    Anagram Circle to get CLERIC which could be an answer for OBLATE
    Anagram Circlek to get Clicker which could be an answer for REMOTE
    Anagram Circleio to get Licorice which could be an answer for BLOWPOP
    Anagram Circledoo to get Crocodile which could be an answer for IBIS
    Anagram Circleammo to get Commercial which could be an answer for TIMEOUT

    Put together you get ORBIT

    • Oneacross says:

      Wow, nice. How is crocodile a possible answer for ibis?

      • Eckless says:

        It’s more that the answer “CROCODILE” could also answer the clue for “IBIS” (“Animal found in the Nile”). Although I’d also suggest facetiously that CROCODILE could also answer 38D (“Pet unlikely to get ticks”), but fortunately the answer to that clue (“INDOOR CAT”) also starts with I.

  2. pgw says:

    I similarly had no idea until Monday evening, when I somehow stumbled on it. It’s anagrams (“dances”) of CIRCLE + [letters inside circle]:


    So the answer was ORBIT.

  3. Mutman says:

    Grrrr. I actually had that idea and came up with CLERIC and CLICKER. Got lazy and stopped when I did not see LICORICE. I should have used and anagram solver to get the rest and then hopefully made the next step.

    Well at least for once, I was on the right track, but simply got derailed.

    Good meta though.

  4. cyco says:

    Damn, definitely wouldn’t have ever thought of that anagram mechanism — very clever.

    I was stuck on a few of the theme entries seemingly being related to circular things:

    – The first (empty) one could be seen as a zero. And as joon said, EARTH could be related to OBLATE / sphere.
    – CIRCLE K is a gas station/convenience store
    – IO is a moon
    – AMMO could refer to a “round”

    Couldn’t find anything even remotely plausible for DOO, so it fell apart from there. The rest were a stretch anyway, but I maintain that a K in a circle having nothing to do with a Circle K is a pretty nasty misdirect!

    • pgw says:

      This was more or less where I was stuck all weekend.

    • Paul Manaster says:

      I was similarly stuck. Noticed that a round of ammo (or more specifically “round ammo”) could be BB’s, and there they are, part of ten across…but that’s where that rabbit hole ended.

  5. Hector says:

    Got it in the last hour. Really nice, if difficult, puzzle. Thanks, Matt!

    A rabbit hole: DANCES anagrams (as “dance” suggests) to DECANS, which were ancient Egyptian astrological signs marking hour-like intervals as the stars pass through the heavens, and so they’re also known, from the Greek for “hour”, as horas, and of course HORAS are circle dances.

    You learn stuff even when you’re flailing on these — or probably even more in those cases.

    Edit: your (ack!) –> you’re

  6. stmv says:

    I really appreciate joon’s DNF posts. Of course they’re more fun when joon DNFs and I get the meta and can be a smartypants and post my solution, but they are also a good salve to my pride when (as here) I also had a DNF, and joon’s narrative of the things he tried is close to matching the things I tried. There is some bravery in publicly recounting a DNF like this.

    Like joon, I wondered why CIRCLE was in all-caps, and did not notice that “dances” is a cryptic indicator of anagramming. I seem to have a blind spot for cryptic-type indicators like this that sometimes hurts my meta efforts.

  7. Steve Thurman says:

    Never in a billion years.

    I kept coming back to the circle shape and capitalized letters.

    K=1000. IO = 1 followed by a zero. DOO = 500 followed by two zeroes. AMMO = 2000 followed by three zeroes with a stupid useless A in front that invalidates the whole idea.

    Or how about Circle K? IO as a circle-shaped moon? AMMO as a circle-shaped BB. DOO as…something stupid that invalidates the whole idea.

    My streak was short anyway so c’est la vie.

  8. docison says:

    Went down every single rabbit hole mentioned above before finally getting a nudge and a (decidedly non-solo) solve. One other one as I tried to make sense of the “DOO” circle… Circle Dances –> Square Dances. DOO is a frame for DO-“SI-D”O. “Side” was in the grid. Great, there’s an E. Unfortunately – DO-SI-DO is the only thing I know about square dancing – another dead end.

  9. Norm H says:

    I never got any farther than Joon did, but that is a stunner of a meta. Congrats to all who figured it out.

  10. Matt Gaffney says:

    Thanks, Joon — 149 right answers this week, of which 51 were solo solves.

    • oldjudge says:

      I’m surprised that the number of solo solves is that high. I think this is an amazing puzzle, in my opinion one of Matt’s finest.

      • Wayne says:

        A cynic would suggest that the default on the submission form should be changed. (But there aren’t any cynics around.)

    • Mark says:

      Curious how this lined up with your expectations for this puzzle Matt? Played like a week 5 to me but I’m just coming back to these after a year away.

      • Matt Gaffney says:

        Played tougher than I expected. I thought it was a real Week 3 until Consigliere tested and said yeah, no. His guess was 208. Putting CIRCLE in all caps to emphasize the letters in the word was his suggestion.

        • Jason T says:

          Many thanks to Consigliere. The all-caps CIRCLE was crucial to nudging me in the direction of treating the word as a collection of letters to do something with. I doubt I would have got there without it. Still a fiendishly clever meta.

        • Richard K says:

          Yes, this hint really helped me start thinking about structure rather than definition. I found “cleric” and “clicker” pretty quickly, but then got lazy and went to an anagram solver site for the rest. Hope that still counts as a solo solve.

  11. Seth says:

    Nooooo Matt I meant to submit ORBIT as a hail mary answer at 11:59 am and completely forgot to submit please accept this plea as a submission and count it kthanksbye.

    • Mutman says:

      I forgot to put my mega-millions numbers in and they would have won! Think I’ll get paid by the lottery commission when I plead my case??

      They’ll tell me, “Next time, set the alarm on your phone!”

      • Seth says:

        I mean, honor system’s gotta count for something right?

        • Mutman says:

          The honor system and $5 will get you a PSL at Starbucks :)

        • C. Y. Hollander says:

          If the honor system counted for something, I imagine that Hail Mary’s would never be counted at all, as they have nothing to do with solving the puzzle. It’s just that there’s no easy way to distinguish between someone who cracks the code and someone who guesses what answer was encoded, unless they tell you.

  12. David G says:

    Jeez, Matt. This one is clever has hell.

    The increasing number of letters in each rebus square had me thinking it was going to be some kind of sequence starting with (nothing) and ending with CIRCLE, and the missing 5-Letter entry would give us the meta answer.

    This took me down a rabbit hole, and ended with me trying to graph the locations of the circles in the grid into the Fibonacci spiral.

    Big fat DNF for me

  13. David Harris says:

    I’ll add another rabbit hole—AMMO + M could anagram to MAMBO, a dance made from the circle. Even with anagramming on the brain, needed a last-minute hint to anagram CIRCLE.

    To Joon—I assume SET/TIC was nixed by SET also appearing in the final themer.

    • joon says:

      ah yeah, that would certainly explain it. if i’d noticed that, maybe i would’ve given myself a chance to think about how the meta might work if indeed it really was only about the letters in the circles.

  14. Mikie says:

    Wow. Whoever said never in a billion years, um, yeah, me too. Clever to the point of fiendish.

  15. Kevin Bryant says:

    No *wonder* it wasn’t in here.

    Wifey pointed out that there’s always an even number, so, pause, 1, 2, 3, 4 wouldn’t work, anyway. Horas was also a potential hail Mary for us, too.

  16. Garrett says:

    Wow, that’s a hard one.

  17. Joe says:

    I don’t think I would have figured this one out without a nudge from a Muggle who suggested reading the title cryptically. The place I got stuck was recognizing IO as a moon and then having Van Morrison’s MoonDANCE lodged in my brain for the next two days.

  18. Tom Bassett/MajordomoTom says:

    Not a cryptic person, so “dances” didn’t click anything for me.

    Just went around and around, almost threw in “reels” as a wild guess.

    But decided to not submit.

  19. Bob says:

    This makes me wonder how many of the solves were Hail Marys. That might be one more field to add to the form.

    • jefe says:

      When I submit a Hail Mary, I put in the comments box a number of question marks. This week, it was WALTZ/?????
      I don’t think I’ve ever had a successful Hail Mary.

  20. BCK says:

    The two symmetrically-placed entries MIA and PDA both included “hands” in their clues and “No-hands Hamm” seemed a bit contrived. Therefore, I got to do a deep dive into the “Hokey Pokey” circle dance. “You put your right hand in… you put your right hand out…

    Props to Matt for a unique and challenging puzzle.

  21. Bob says:

    I did learn a few things from this one. I googled the term “circle dance” which then made me ponder “line dance” and “square dance.” Now we have math geometry involved. Where was this meta headed?? We already had “OBLATE” which I only ever used as a math term.
    Very clever. Almost doable. The links between a couple of the anagrams were maybe a little tenuous (commercial and timeout?)
    But original and now I live in fear of week four.

    • Hector says:

      COMMERCIAL and TIMEOUT are not great synonyms, but COMMERCIAL is a perfectly good answer for the clue, “Play stopper in the NBA or NHL” (which is the mechanism).

  22. Big Cheese says:

    Cool mechanism. I get the connection of CIRCLE now with anagram, but what about the word Dances? Not sure I see a connection to mechanism or answer.

    • Seth says:

      “Dances” could be a cryptic clue for “anagrams,” since the letters in CIRCLE kind of “dance” around into new positions. Also, an orbit could be seen as a kind of “dance” of a planet or moon or something. Really clever title actually.

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