MGWCC #716

crossword 3:44 
meta 3 days? 


hello and welcome to episode #716 of matt gaffney’s weekly crossword contest, “Taking Sides”. this week, we have a guest puzzle from Matthew Stock, with the instructions telling us that we are looking for an animal. what are the theme answers?

okay, so, that’s a difficult question to answer at first. the most immediately noticeable feature of the puzzle is that a huge number of the clues and answers refer to animals. but there are so many that it doesn’t really help.

the second and third things i noticed were that the grid has mirror symmetry and a pretty high word count (81) for a 15×15 puzzle. actually those were the third and second things, respectively; i noticed the word count was pretty high, and only when i actually counted the words and found 81 did i realize that it was mirror-symmetric, as standard crossword symmetry on a 15×15 grid would require an even word count. but there are a lot of short words and very few long answers; two 10s and two 8s and then everything else is 6 or under.

eventually i had the key realization, which came after another period of staring at the completed grid: there are pairs of answers on the left and right sides of the grid that are identical except for an L on the left edge of the grid being replaced with an R on the right:

  • {Jiffy ___} LUBE and {Public transit alternative} UBER.
  • {Tie (up) one’s cleats} LACE and {Laptop brand} ACER.
  • {Big dipper?} LADLE and {“The Woman” of “Sherlock Holmes”} ADLER.
  • {Precipice} LEDGE and {Tool in a shed} EDGER.
  • {“___ Is a Battlefield”} LOVE and {Through} OVER.

this is definitely the theme of the puzzle; each of these pairs is contained within a single row of the grid and it fits with the puzzle title. but what is the answer? that’s definitely harder. the leftover letters after removing the L/R are UBE, ACE, ADLE, EDGE, and OVE, and those don’t spell anything, nor do they form all or part of other grid entries. i thought perhaps the entry in the middle of each of these pairs might tell us something, but those entries (TIARA, SKEET, PHO, RUG, UNCLE) don’t spell anything with either their first or their middle letters.

the other thing is that ten theme answers is actually already kind of a lot; it’s not impossible that that’s all there is in the grid for theme material. this seems especially likely since the two long answers are tucked into the central section away from the pairs of theme answers on the wings. so it might be that we just need to think about what we’ve already found in a different way.

i’ve settled on LOBSTER as the answer i’m submitting, for three reasons:

  • it’s one of the many, many animals that is mentioned in the clues: 42d is {Like blue lobsters} RARE.
  • the word LOBSTER itself has L on the left and R on the right, just like this puzzle’s theme.
  • LOBSTERs are decapods; they have five limbs (four legs and one claw) on each side of their body. this puzzle has five L/R pairs in its theme. none of the other animals mentioned in the clues or answers is a decapod.

so i think LOBSTER has a lot going for it, and it’s probably the right answer, but i have to say there’s a little bit less of a click than i usually get, so i’m definitely well aware that i could be missing some more explicit confirmation step—like maybe i was supposed to extract OBSTE somewhere and realize that pointed to (L)OBSTE(R). of course, it’s also possible that it’s just flat-out wrong, but i’m going with it, so … fingers crossed?

i never know how much i am supposed to say about the fill in a puzzle where it feels like i may well be missing something, and maybe everything is more constrained than it looks. but i’ll say that i did not like {Volcanic flow components} LAVAS in the plural but i really, really liked {“Let’s just get on with it”} ENOUGH TALK. that’s a magnificent answer, and also a fitting way for me to bring this blog post to an end. let me know in the comments if i was indeed missing something!

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36 Responses to MGWCC #716

  1. Chris says:

    You have to wrap the L and R around the EMU in the middle, to get LEMUR.

  2. C. Y. Hollander says:

    The answer I submitted was LEMUR (EMU with the addition of the respective left and right sides, L and R), which was accepted. I don’t know whether other answers were accepted as well.

    This puzzle didn’t feel very tight. Most of its vaguely thematic material seemed immaterial. Even EMU, which was presumably central to the meta-puzzle, was not quite central to the crossword puzzle, but slightly off-center, which aptly symbolizes how the whole thing felt to me.

  3. Mutman says:

    I submitted LEMUR. Saw the L R thing. Then saw EMU smack in the middle. Only had 15 minutes, and figured it was probably right.

  4. I submitted LEMUR since it’s an L and R on the outsides of EMU at 44A, and that was accepted, but I think you have a case for LOBSTER for the reasons stated.

    That said, thank you to Matthew for the guest puzzle!

    • C. Y. Hollander says:

      For what it’s worth, I considered “lobster” and rejected it for the following reasons:
      1. Aside from the L and R, nothing I could find singles it out or even points to it among the many animals mentioned in the clues or grid. By contrast, EMU stands out for being the only animal in the grid that spans the axis of symmetry (and for good measure is close enough to vertically central to catch the eye).

      2. I don’t see a way to make sense of the word “Taking” in the title, for the answer “lobster”. EMU, by contrast, can be parsed as LEMUR with left and right sides taken from it.

      On the other hand, I will admit that a) I didn’t consider the decapod aspect that Joon points out, and b) the click of the solution was not resounding in any case.

  5. Mark says:

    It’s LEMUR but I would really like to know why it couldn’t be LOBSTER (maybe both answers were accepted?). Just because EMU is in the grid doesn’t make it the right answer unless I’m missing something…none of the other themers create a standalone animal (or word even) when the L and R are removed. I feel like I’m either missing a significant click or this puzzle doesn’t have one. Rooting for the former.

    • C. Y. Hollander says:

      This is my interpretation of the puzzle:
      1. Many of the words on the left side on the grid’s left side begin with L and have corresponding entries on the right side that end with R.
      2. In theory, then, a word that spanned both sides of the puzzle, might both begin with an L (since its left side is in the left half of the grid) and end with an R (since its right side is in the right half of the grid).
      3. In practice, no such words appear. However, the prompt as well as the many animals in grid and clues suggest animals as somehow relevant to the theme. EMU thus stands out the only animal spanning the left and right halves of the grid. Imagining the L and R added to either side of it yields another animal, and EMU itself can accordingly be thought of as LEMUR with its “sides” “taken”.

      This interpretation doesn’t really work with “lobster”, whose only distinction among “l-r” animals is appearing in the clues, which is rather a minor distinction, in this particular puzzle. In particular, I don’t see a good way to interpret “taking [sides]” in reference to “lobster”. All things considered, therefore, between LEMUR and “lobster”, I would adjudge LEMUR the more coherent solution to this puzzle. I nonetheless agree with you about missing a more significant click.

  6. Seth says:

    Yeah I said LEMUR too, and I was confident I was right, but this meta is VERY loose. I think LOBSTER (and honestly, maybe any other L*R animal — LIGER! LABRADOR RETRIEVER!) should be accepted.

    • pgw says:

      I agree it was very loose, but there was one thing that made it a tiny bit tighter for me. I scanned the across entries and EMU was the only one I found that yields a word of any kind when you put it between an L and an R. So there was that. Still I wasn’t 100% sure until I appeared on the leaderboard.

  7. Dave says:

    I submitted LEMUR but my first thought was LIGER, since it incorporates a pair of words. Ultimately, the EMU in the middle convinced me that LEMUR was the better choice.

  8. sps says:

    I reasoned it had to be LEMUR, as it was the monkey in the middle.

  9. Ky-mike says:

    I submitted LIGER, which is a cross between a lion and tiger. There was no compelling (to me) reason for any specific animal other than one whose name started with L and ended with R.

  10. Dave says:

    I also came up with Lemur. I think it would have really clicked if the path there had been more clear. Solid beginning, solid end, but something not quite connecting in the middle. I thought of that meme with the misaligned bridge.

    One direction that looked promising for a minute: (P)ACE could fit “6D. Feet per second, perhaps” and (M)OVE could sort of fit “29D. Let’s just get on with it.” But I couldn’t make any of the other leftover letters do that, and it was hard to imagine putting a vowel on any of them.

  11. Paul Manaster says:

    For a while I was stuck on the idea that the “sides” we had to choose were animal vs. bird. The grid is shaped like a bird, and several of the clues start with either “Animal” or “Bird”. (A couple of indications that I was on the wrong track were 5-d, clued as a “Mammal”, and 28-d, a bird that was clued as an animal [which of course it is]). Anyhow, when I finally saw the L/R mechanism in the grid and arrived at lemur, it did sort of work with my earlier idea: An animal that, when you take its sides, becomes a bird. It wasn’t a resounding click, but it helped.

    • mkmf says:

      Oooh, Paul. I think you are onto something. I like the birds vs animals idea and your last sentence about a bird’s name that is hidden inside an animal’s name is excellent. If that was the starting point behind this meta maybe its execution was just too subtle.

      • Andrew Bradburn says:

        I did not get this one, but now that I see the answer, I notice that besides all the Ls in the leftmost column and the Rs in the rightmost column, the only word that crosses the middle column to have an M in that column (in the middle of the word as well) is EMU, so perhaps that was supposed to be an extra indicator of the solution.

        • C. Y. Hollander says:

          Oh, well spotted! Thank you for pointing that out!

          That’s a very nice touch and makes me appreciate this puzzle the more.

    • Jim S. says:

      I’m interested in more info on the clues as well, as I think I might have missed something there. “Bird” is re-used a lot, as is “animal”. But why “mammal” for MINK instead of animal? Why only the bird MLB teams and not Tigers? If it was all to reinforce looking towards a bird, why no mention of “bird” for PAPERCRANE? Was there something up with frequency of some of these terms that flew under the radar and would have improved the click if it was noticed?

  12. Scout says:

    Here is how I got to LEMUR: There is one L-R word in the grid which is LUNAR. If you take the 3 letters from the middle and substitute a 3-letter word from the grid, it’s LEMUR. Didn’t get that on my own; I had help. The first step was very well done, the second and third seemed like a bit of a stretch.

    • C. Y. Hollander says:

      I don’t think LUNAR has anything to do with the theme. Consider that the only thing that made LUNAR salient to you in the first place was being an “L-R word”—yet, once you discard its middle, the only parts of it that you’ve kept are the L and R that you began with!

  13. RPardoe says:

    My solution path was to also notice that the L??? and ???R words can be combined into single words starting with L / ending with R:


    which gave me more confidence I was looking for an L???R animal. Would have been more confident if LEMU / EMUR were also words like the “themes” but took the EMU in the middle of the grid as my confirmation to submit.

    • MountainManZach says:

      Oh wow I didn’t notice this! I grumbled to myself that the meta would be tighter if LEMU and EMUR were both words. I think this does tighten it up significantly. (I’d argue that they are in order increasing “actual wordness,” LUBER doesn’t *really* seem like a word to me. But I could imagine referring to an employee at a certain oil-change establishment as such.)

    • Dave says:

      I noticed this but decided it wasn’t relevant because none of them connected back to the puzzle (with, say, a clue matching each one), and since the first three aren’t in common use. If they were all like LEDGER (unrelated to either LEDGE or EDGER), that would have been another story.

  14. G says:

    I’m surprised noone mentioned EAGLE as a possible answer.

    It’s the only animal that can be made by selecting one letter from each of the common spans between the left/right entries. Granted the ordering is slightly askew (EALGE, not EAGLE), but it still seems like at least as good of a solution as LEMUR to me.

    • C. Y. Hollander says:

      “selecting one letter from each” with no indication of which other than whether the result fits the prompt is a dodgy enough mechanism already; adding the step “reorder”, again with no indication of the correct order beyond the result, and with nothing that would have prevented the setter from ordering the entries correctly, takes this out of the realm of plausible meta-mechanisms to me and into the realm of wishful thinking.

      The fundamental problem with mechanisms of that sort is that they are unchecked (like a square in a crossword that belongs to only one word), which gives rise to a host of issues. For a start, both the setter and the solver need to ascertain to their satisfaction that one—and only one—of the hundreds or thousands of theoretical alternatives yielded by the ambiguous mechanism makes an acceptable solution to the prompt. Furthermore, if nothing independently corroborates the mechanism beyond, again, the solution yielded, both setter and solver must take into account not only the particular mechanism chosen, but any equally reasonable mechanism that someone might dream up to extract a solution to the prompt from the same sets of letters—a nearly impossible task, I’d say. Just for example, in this case, instead of assuming that the letters selected will spell a five-letter animal after suitable anagrammatization, I might imagine taking a [still-arbitrary] letter from each in order to form BADGE and add an R to its right side, to make BADGER.

      For these reasons (and more besides), independent corroboration, I submit, is a vital guardrail along the route to a puzzle’s solution; dispense with it, and you walk a perilous path, at your own risk.

  15. MountainManZach says:

    I rejected LOBSTER based on 1) its inclusion in a clue and 2) the eyebrow-wiggle of EMU. I would’ve voted “doesn’t work” if on Matt’s Consideration Committee before reading this. I still think LEMUR is the more sensible answer, but Joon has me convinced that LOBSTER is pretty damn good and should be counted. And as a puzzley sort of thing, in a situation where the “extraction” step isn’t clear, LOBSTER submitters did solve the main mechanism of the puzzle. They just, you know, took a L where they should’ve taken a R

  16. Matthew S. says:

    Hi y’all! Thanks a ton for solving the puzzle and especially to joon for the thoughtful writeup. As a constructor and solver who’s still relatively new to metas, I’m always so impressed by a) how flexible people can be when finding their way to a solution and b) just how much care goes into crafting an airtight and also fulfilling meta puzzle.

    The answer I was going for here was LEMUR, with the EMU in the middle a nod to (L)EMU(R) — if I could redo the grid today, I would have put some other entries in the middle like AGE, OWE, etc. that can also be bookended by L and R to make new words to drive home that answer. Matt informs me that a lot of people did arrive at LEMUR, which makes me feel good as the constructor of this puzzle, but I also feel a bit bad that I left gray area around LOBSTER.

    Thanks again for solving, and I definitely plan to raise my meta constructing game going forward!

  17. Mary Flaminio says:

    Very Good Puzzle. Thank you. M

  18. John says:

    It was a fun puzzle, just about right on the meta difficulty. I think if EMU is dead center we aren’t even talking about other possibilities. But where it was, so near the center, was enough for most. Thanks, Matthew!

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