MGWCC #708

crossword 3:01 
meta 5ish 


hello and welcome to episode #708 of matt gaffney’s weekly crossword contest, “Word for Word”. for this week 4 puzzle, the instructions tell us that we’re looking for a synonym for “excellent”.. what are the theme answers?

well, good question. there are some long across entries (PASTA PRIMAVERA and CHARACTERISTIC), but it turns out that only one of those is thematic. the key is the title, which suggests substituting a single word for another word. with that in mind, we notice that there are nine one-word clues, each of which has a one-word answer:

  • {Truism} DICTUM.
  • {Cap} HAT.
  • {Essential} NECESSARY.
  • {Representative} CHARACTERISTIC. this was a difficult one for me, since i think of both of these words mainly as nouns, but here they are synonymous as adjectives.
  • {Mug} CUP.
  • {Wealthy} OPULENT.
  • {Ares} MARS.
  • {Twister} TORNADO.
  • {Safety} REFUGE.

several of these jumped out at me as being unusual during the solve: that’s definitely not a normal clue for MARS (you’d expect to see something like {Roman equivalent of Ares} if you’re going to clue MARS as the god), and both cap/HAT and mug/CUP are examples of a specific example used to clue a general category of things. that generally doesn’t happen without more words in the clue like “for one” or “, say”. so i felt fairly confident that these were important.

next key insight: in all nine cases, the clue and answer are of the same length. not only that, they share exactly one letter in common in the same position: for example, truism and DICTUM both have an M as their sixth letter. circling those shared letters in the grid and reading them off from top to bottom spells MASTERFUL, which is a one-word synonym of “excellent”—albeit with no letter shared in the same place. but that’s okay, we don’t have to extract any more letters, because MASTERFUL is the answer.

i thought this meta was, indeed, excellent. the technique of comparing words of the same length to see if there is a letter in the same position is one i first encountered in a mystery hunt—in fact, i still remember that it was specifically the civilization meta-meta from the 2011 hunt, but here is a (perhaps) exhaustive list of mystery hunt puzzles that have used this extraction technique. however, i don’t remember seeing it used before in a meta crossword, and it was surprising and delightful to see it pop up here. the execution was just about ideal: there were definitely enough theme answers that it was not sheer coincidence, and inclusion of both very short and very long answers was nicely balanced.

it’s a slightly weird-looking grid built around those two 14s, but the fill was smooth, especially impressively so around the area where NECESSARY and CHARACTERISTIC were stacked on each other. for the most part, matt did have the freedom to pick either of the pair of synonyms and try it in the grid to see which worked better, and he used that freedom to good effect. really lovely construction all around. i also really enjoyed the grid entry {“That’s tempting…”} I SHOULDN’T, which i’m sure i’ve never seen in a crossword before.

that’s all from me this week. happy new year and i can’t wait to see what devilish deviousness awaits us in week 5 of december (and week 53 of 2021!).

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11 Responses to MGWCC #708

  1. BHamren says:

    I did not get it. The first thing I wrote on my printout was the 9 one word clues next to their answers since the title seemed to point that way. However I did not notice that they were the same length or that exactly one letter matched in both. I was hoping to get it to have my first perfect month since there was an easy month some years back.
    Kudos to those that got it.

  2. C. Y. Hollander says:

    Interesting to note that OFFSET/DEFRAY could have been used instead of SAFETY/REFUGE to yield the F.

  3. Mark says:

    Nice touch that the word “excellent” is nine letters as is the word “masterful”, therefore tying a nice bow on the overall mechanic. Well done!

  4. Mutman says:

    I enjoyed this meta, especially since I don’t get late-monthers all that often.

    I got the first couple steps in a decent amount of time, but the final ‘common letter’ step took me a while.

    I knew that with nine one-word clues, the answer would be nine letters. So I am happy that the 9-letter synonyms that Microsoft provides for ‘excellent’ — admirable and brilliant — were not the meta answer.

    Happy New Year to Matt and all the meta solvers!

  5. Maggie W. says:

    Got it in the end, but considering the push toward synonyms, I spent way too long on the observation that a synonym for 1A “Truism” is MAXIM, and a synonym for 7A “Cap” is MAXIMUM. Good puzzle!

  6. Reid says:

    I got red herring’ed all over the place on this one. The title led me to believe we would look for other words in the grid that are almost synonyms with the one word clue answers.

    First idea was words that you could change one letter to get a synonym, and boy were there options!

    Characteristic made me think Trait, which is ATARI if you change one letter
    What’s a type of hat? Fedora, which is AFFORD if you change one letter
    A dictum could also be a Proverb, which is OVERPAR if you change one letter.

    I couldn’t find any others, so I finally had to move on, even though this was so promising.

    Hmm, maybe find words in the grid that can be synonyms if we add a letter instead of changing one? And look, CEYLON + C is Cyclone, a synonym for TORNADO!

    While there were clearly no other good options for the other 8 words, there’s no way I could get myself out of those two holes.

  7. Matt Gaffney says:

    Thanks, Joon — 319 right answers this week.

  8. Jim S says:

    Any thoughts as to why the year 2026 is written in Roman numerals while the other 5-6 dates are digits? For the longest tine, that seemed significant – either the dates in the clues were meta-related, or the Roman numeral date was significant, maybe matched with the IV in “TOTOIV”. Can’t figure out if this was intentional and, if so, why?

    Excellent meta, nonetheless – just finding one word synonyms of the same length seems challenging enough to me, much less restricting them to only one common letter and having that set of letters spell another word? Yowzers!

  9. Seth says:

    Great meta! Matt, when you construct stuff like this, do you write code to search for word pairs that work? Or do you do it all in your brain?

  10. Matt Gaffney says:

    Found all of these just from intuition and lists. I don’t write code but I have a couple of people I can ask when it’s required and I probably should’ve done that here.

  11. John says:

    Like joon, i found this brilliant. I did not answer in time but solo-solved it a few hours late, so got to experience the AHA! This time of year, when i am “off”, i seem to have less time than normal. :v)

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