WSJ Contest — Friday, October 29, 2021

Grid: 10 minutes; meta: it takes a (haunted) village  


Mike Shenk’s Wall Street Journal contest crossword, “Trick or Treat” — Conrad’s review.

Happy Halloween, everyone! Mike gave us a spooky Halloween contest full of chills and thrills this week, where we’re looking for a Halloween costume choice. This puzzle proved to be one of the most challenging WSJ puzzles in recent memory.

I was hoping this photo I took at Chutters in Littleton, NH (home of the world’s longest candy counter) would be meta-relevant, but it’s not

There were no obvious themers, and Mike ruled out 49a (KIELBASAS, clued as “Polish sausages (which play no part in solving the contest)”). I set a world record for dead rabbit holes on this one, here’s a sampling:

  • 31a: ARES: (Roman name: MARS), leading to the Halloween-relevant MARS BAR, tying in nicely to STARS (“Milky Way ingredient”)
  • 47a: GARB (“Duds”): MILK DUDS
  • 51d SCAR (“Feature of Frankenstein’s monster”): Halloween-themed, and has BOLT as an alternate answer

I got lost in a warren of spooky rabbit holes, so I teamed up with some solving pals for an old fashioned group solve. My most promising theory proved to be correct: ambiguously-clued entries with alternate potential answers are a classic meta mechanism, and we had plenty here. There were many clues that had alternate answers that rhymed with TRICK or TREAT:

  • [5d: Writer or praiseful poetry]: ODIST (KEATS)
  • [17a: Down with the flu]: FEVERISH (SICK)
  • [19a: Rolling Stones Name]: JAGGER (MICK)
  • [26a: Place to park your butt]: CHAIR (SEAT)
  • [29a: “Don’t dilute it” at a bar]: NOICE (NEAT)
  • [36a: Drives with the foot]: BOOTS (KICKS)
  • [39a: Puts in the oven]: WARMS (HEATS)
  • [45a: Butcher shop buy]: LAMB (MEAT)
  • [54a: Bumpkins]: YOKELS (HICKS)
  • [56a: Shaving mishap]: SMALLCUT (NICK)

I also had the weaker potential themers FRAUDSTER/CHEAT, HAIL/SLEET, GETS/CLICKS, and ORE/TEETH in my notes (which lead to even more rabbit holes that added a lot of solving time to the clock). The theme entries were mostly symmetric, with obvious omissions. I spent a while on the missing symmetry, especially 27a (HILDA, clued as “Sabrina the Teenage Witch” aunt), which was symmetric with NOICE. Sabrina had two aunts, so that Halloween-themed clue had two equally valid answers (ZELDA was Sabrina’s other aunt).

I kept trying to spell words with the TRICK and/or TREAT rhymes. I reasoned that Mike would prefer to give us a TREAT instead of a TRICK, so I focused on TREATs. I noticed that there weren’t enough vowels to spell a word, but I had (unfortunately) missed ODIST/KEATS until a solving buddy pointed it out.

WSJ Contest – 10.29.21 – Solution

WSJ Contest – 10.29.21 – Solution

We had all of the ingredients, but were still missing the signal for step 2. My friend Austin focused on ICK/EAT rhyming themers (SICK or SEAT, MICK or MEAT), and we had it. Here they are in TRICK-rhyming grid order:


There are five rhyming pairs that start with the same letter, and the first letter of the grid entry for the TREAT rhymes spells our contest solution CLOWN.

This was an impressive tough meta by Mike. All of the potential ambiguity was resolved by the matched TRICK/TREAT rhymes, ending with a 100% click. We’ll end with my favorite clown-themed song: Rodeo Clowns, written by Jack Johnson, but made famous (to Gen-Xers of a certain age, anyway) by G. Love and Special Sauce.




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23 Responses to WSJ Contest — Friday, October 29, 2021

  1. jefe says:

    Fraudster = Cheat was my in to the meta, so I was surprised to see it unused in the end!

    • Bob J says:

      Right there with you about FRAUDSTER. I had FRAUDSTER = CHEAT, or better yet, FRAUDSTER = SLICK to pair with HAIL = SLEET, which really messed me up for a while. Only when I accepted that plurals were OK to use but homophones were not did this all fit together.

  2. Katie M. says:

    Argh. I got everything but the last step. If I had only written them down in a stack like you show here, maybe I would’ve seen CLOWN. Oh well.

  3. Barry says:

    Wow! Above my pay grade.

  4. sharkicicles says:

    file this one in the “never in a million years” bin.

  5. Alex says:

    Didn’t solve it. Did notice this:

    Men in Clues
    1. 1A Painter Vermeer
    2. 19A Rolling Stones name
    3. 35A Schoolteacher caught by the British
    4. 43A Father of Phobos
    5. 61A Fourth book of the Book of Mormon
    6. 1D Billionaire Bezos
    7. 7D Queens stadium dedicatee
    8. 12D Painter who taught at the Bauhaus
    9. 18D Ormandy with a baton
    10. 21D Country singers Akins and Miller 32D Quarterback Pennington
    11. 48D “Don’t Matter” singer
    12. 51 Feature of Frankenstein’s monster

    Women in Clues (five witches and Rita Moreno)
    1. 26A She was one of the witches in “The Witches of Eastwick”
    2. 27D “Sabrina the Teenage Witch” aunt
    3. 42D Oscar winner for “West Side Story”

    Predominantly male things (armed conflict and professional men’s sports)
    1. 35A Schoolteacher caught by British [American Revolution]
    2. 46D Site of an 1836 siege [Texas Revolution]
    3. 2D MLB league
    4. 54D NFL units

    Predominantly female things
    1. Zip
    2. Zero
    3. Zilch
    4. Nothing
    5. Nada

  6. Dave Bromsey says:

    Just so hard. So we had to come up with synonyms of entry words? Are you kidding me? Makes me not want to ever do these again!

    • Bob Huckvale says:

      I’m with on this one. I’m glad I didn’t spend more than 15 seconds after solving the grid trying to solve the meta.

    • EP says:

      Completely agree with you Dave, something like this does make you question whether you want to continue to spin your mental wheels dealing with them anymore. I’ve suggested this before, but why oh why can’t WSJ put a difficulty estimate on the ones they publish, like Matt’s MGWCC difficulty level that is directly related to the week number? It would really help a lot.

    • David says:

      This is a standard meta mechanism. I hate it too, fwiw.

  7. JohnH says:

    I had to read the post more than twice to follow it, but I understand now. Wow, neither half of each rhyming pair appears, but it’s the rhyme that should sound the alert. I can only defer to those who thought along these lines. Good for you!

  8. Barney says:

    Interesting. Ten (now 11) comments and no ratings.

  9. Jeff Jardine says:

    I had fraudster/cheat too, but also NOTES/BEATS. And missed odist/Keats. Didn’t have a prayer on this one.

  10. Thomas says:

    I had no idea on this one. Seeing it now, I think the -ICK entries needed starred clues. Yes, they were in normal theme positions, but the meta is entirely about seeing words that are nowhere in the grid. I needed more than “not KIELBASAS.”

  11. Dan Seidman says:

    SMALL CUT jumped out at me as weird, and something that might really be something else. I thought of NICK, and since it rhymed with TRICK, that got me on my way.

  12. Tom says:

    I just read this explanation and didn’t understand a single word of it so I’m guessing that my chances of solving it were pretty small.

  13. Tom B says:

    I know everyone was a little taken aback by this, and I’ll admit I needed a STRONG nudge, but in retrospect how many of us saw “Rolling Stone name”, entered JAGGER and though “Gosh I though that would be MICK” or shaving mishap, entered SMALLCUT and thought “man, I’d have said NICK”. Similarly, “Butcher shop buy” = LAMB, kind of like saying “I’m going to the bakery to get some finely ground wheat mixed with water, sugar and yeast”, LAMB was so specific.

    I like the hard ones (on occasion) because they demand that I think outside the box, and I am getting better at that (not good but better). So put me solidly in the LIKE column.

    Oh, and for a rating I’m giving it 4.5.

  14. Mark D says:

    I thought the clue for 49a “Polish sausages (which play no part in solving the contest)” – was the TRICK. And Milky Way was the TREAT. But that was as far as I got.

  15. Iggy says:

    I wouldn’t say the alternates rhymed with trick and treat (e.g. kicks and Keats), but were matching pairs that each contained “ick” and “eat.” I didn’t get this one and I have a small nit with the plurals, but I congratulate those of you who did.

  16. Derryl says:

    I am a masochist so I continue to run head first into each week’s brick wall in the hopes I get a little better at this and, hopefully, improve my abstract thinking.

Comments are closed.