MGWCC #751

crossword 2:40
meta 5 min 


hello and welcome to episode #751 of matt gaffney’s weekly crossword contest, “Tales from Decrypt”. this week’s puzzle is a collab between matt and jeff chen, and the instructions ask for what you might find the META ANSWER to be. curious!

the grid is also highly curious, with its oddball dimensions (9×17), left/right symmetry, and high black square count, including a weird sideways E-looking formation dominating the top and middle portions. what are the theme answers? the only one we’re explicitly told about is {Number of pairs of theme entries} FOUR. hmm. well, based on the title of the puzzle and the capital letters in the instructions, it’s not hard to surmise that we might have to figure out some sort of cipher from the theme answers and use it to decrypt the phrase META ANSWER into the actual meta answer.

so let’s work under the assumption that the theme answers are telling us about the cipher being used. the FOUR clue mentions “pairs” of theme answers, which would be a natural way of telling us about the cipher—you have the plaintext on one side and the ciphertext on the other. it does not appear to be a simple caesar cipher (which would be highly constrained—it’s very difficult to get words to caesar-cipher to other words), but let’s assume it’s a normal substitution cipher, as in a cryptogram. the pairs of code words have to be of matched length, so with the left/right symmetry of the grid, it makes sense to look at the longest down answers:

  • {Star-shaped cell in the brain} ASTROCYTE. new word for me! this pairs with {Court nickname} THE DJOKER, a nickname for novak djokovic. he’s no longer even the most notable serbian athlete with a joker-inspired nickname, as two-time reigning nba mvp nikola jokic has ascended to must-watch status and djokovic himself has alienated many of us due to his petulant antivax stance. anyway, ASTROCYTE has a repeated T in the 3rd and 8th positions, with no other repeated letters; THE DJOKER has an E in those same places and is also otherwise isogrammatic. so this is nice confirmation for our working hypothesis about the meta.
  • {Clean your boat, maybe} JET-WASH. not being a boat owner, i have never had occasion to use this term. it matches in length with {Christmas circles} WREATHS, which are decidedly more familiar. both JETWASH and WREATHS are isogrammatic, but the E, T, A, and S of JETWASH correspond to the R, E, T, and H (respectively) of WREATHS, consistent with the substitution cipher we’ve started to work on from ASTROCYTE <-> THEDJOKER. so we’re definitely on the right track here, and we’ve added three new letters (J, W, and H) to our knowledge of the cipher.
  • {Aaron Judge or Shohei Ohtani, e.g.} clues RBI MAN, a term i dislike as a baseball fan (and dislike even more as a crossword solver). this pairs with {Second half of a nursery rhyme name} DUMPTY; i hope you, too, are having a great fall. R and A we already know cipher to D and T, but this gets us four new letters: B, I, M, and N.

those are the only answers in the grid over 5 in length, and this already gives us enough to solve the puzzle. given the three pairs of words on the left side and their corresponding words on the right, we can construct a partial decryption key:


we don’t know how to decrypt every letter in the alphabet, but we do know all of the letters of META ANSWER: they become PRETTY HARD, which i suppose you might well find the meta answer to be this week if you’re not up on your cryptograms.

incidentally, it turns out that the fourth pair of theme answers is 1-down/6-down, {Slow down, as a process} GUM UP and {Secure, as a sleep-sack-covered baby} ZIP IN. you could use this pair to add a few more letters to our decryption key (G -> Z, U-> I, P ->N), but it’s a little weird that none of them are relevant to the meta. they’re just … there.

i thought this puzzle was fun, and also some ways off the beaten path for meta crosswords. the crossword itself was so unusual, but basically none of the unusual features were directly relevant to the meta other than the left/right symmetry; instead, they were merely ancillary results of the constraints imposed by the meta: you need to have these specific paired answers, and they need to be the longest answers in the grid even though they’re not very long, and the grid needs to be fillable. the fill itself was acceptable but certainly nothing to write home about.

taking a step back, it’s worth noting how constrained the meta was to begin with. if you start with the idea of using META ANSWER as the ciphertext, then there aren’t all that many 10-letter phrases that it could cipher for; i like matt and jeff’s choice of PRETTY HARD as a somewhat relevant phrase. but then you need to flesh out more of the cipher; even though only 8 letters of the cipher are constrained at first, you need to find pairs of words that include those eight letters in corresponding places, and are also consistent with the other pairs you choose. sounds PRETTY HARD indeed, which could be why we ended up with the unfamiliar ASTROCYTE, the boat-owner-problems term JET-WASH, and the ungainly partial DUMPTY. (i’m counting THE DJOKER as a plus even though i am at the point in my life when i prefer not to think about novak djokovic the person.)

that’s all i’ve got this week. how’d you all like this one?

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13 Responses to MGWCC #751

  1. Matt Gaffney says:

    Thanks, Joon — 251 right answers this week.

    Big thanks to Jeff for both reworking and then refining my original concept and then doing the heavy lifting in making it happen by coming up with the META ANSWER/PRETTY HARD pairing and then making it work cryptogrammatically (?).

    And to anyone whose answer hasn’t been verified yet — due to my posting error this became a chaotic week for entries, but Webmaster and I will get them all sorted out by tomorrow at the latest.

    • C. Y. Hollander says:

      Your invitation to resubmit made it chaotic! To be honest, I didn’t quite understand the concern that believing the deadline were Tuesday noon would induce submissions on Monday morning!

      I liked this puzzle, by the way. “De crypt” fits the Halloween theme you’ve been running with, of course, and ciphering “pretty hard” was a witty touch, I thought. One might quibble over the extent to which the puzzle’s actual difficulty level matched that solution*, but it’s probably impossible to please everyone in matters like that.

      *For what it’s worth, I’d have preferred a prompt like “The solution is the meta answer”, sans upper-casing, making the puzzle vastly harder, but its solution commensurately more spectacular!

  2. ASB says:

    I brute-forced this one, just by imagining we were looking for some kind of cipher, seeing that all the letters of METAANSWER were contained within JETWASH and RBIMAN (and both of those entries were within what I was interpreting as the “crypt”), looking at the symmetric entries and realizing that I was spelling “PRETTY ____”. I never did figure out what the four pairs of theme entries were until I read this.

    • C. Y. Hollander says:

      It’s not clear to me that, given the prompt and the partial solution “PRETTY ___”, PRETTY HARD is objectively any likelier than PRETTY EASY, so it’s perhaps an interesting feature of this that for anyone resorting to educated guesswork to fill in that blank, the former possibility is presumably the more accurate (in turn, making it that bit easier to arrive at, after all).

  3. Wayne says:

    > but it’s a little weird that none of them are relevant to the meta. they’re just … there.

    I don’t think I would have gotten the meta without GUMUP/ZIPIN. I needed the second occurrence of pairs with the same letter pattern (“12324”) to give me the confidence that I was on the right track, after which I went on to find the other two [relevant] pairs.

  4. Norm H says:

    Nice meta, but I still don’t get why the fourth pair is needed at all. Perhaps because some sort of hint was needed in the grid, and FOUR was doable but THREE wasn’t?

    • Mutman says:

      GUMUP/ZIPIN, while perhaps not needed for the cipher, were the standout answers that confirmed the cryptogram theme for me. I’d probably had taken longer if not there.

  5. Seth says:

    Ha, I thought of this mechanism quickly but was like “that’s probably it, but I kinda hate cryptograms, so if that’s the mechanism I don’t feel like doing it.” I looked around for some other rabbits, didn’t find any, and gave up. But really nice meta!

  6. Katie+M. says:

    I needed all four, because I didn’t pay attention to grid location when I wrote them down in numerical order. So apparently I was going right side to left side, and didn’t have an N in the first three, so I had to find the fourth pair to get the N in ZIPIN. Of course that didn’t spell anything so I decrypted the other direction and got it.

  7. Garrett says:

    Seeing ASTROCYTE and THEDJOKER, and the coincidence of the Ts and Es, I tried ROT-11 on ASTROCYTE. The Ts became Es as expected, but the rest was garbage. I just gave up on decrypting anything.

    What I did after getting tired of trying to solve it was to notice WAS embedded in JETWASH. Reversed that’s SAW. ELBA reverses to ABLE, there were two Is in that area, and CUER’s ER has an E below the R, so I submitted ABLE WAS I ERE I SAW ELBA. 😂🤣

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