MGWCC #799

crossword 5:03
meta 2:30 


hello and welcome to episode #799 of matt gaffney’s weekly crossword contest, “And the Last Shall Be First”. the instructions for this week 4 puzzle tell us that we’re looking for a six-word phrase that I hope will describe those solvers who’ve figured out the meta. okay, what are the theme answers? there aren’t any in evidence—there are two long across answers in this 17×17 grid, and it turns out one of them is thematic and the other isn’t.

twenty-six across entries, one starting with each letter from A to Z, are placed in alphabetical order in the grid. not every single across entry is thematic (i don’t know if matt tried pulling that off, or just thought about it for 5 minutes and realized it was totally impractical), but it’s very easy to figure out which ones are, because it’ll be the next across that starts with the right letter of the alphabet. here they are:

  • {Sailing the waves} AT SEA.
  • {Pitch that’s too low, say} BALL.
  • {Simple weapon} CUDGEL.
  • {___ double take (looks again)} DOES A.
  • {Abbr. on a cornerstone} ESTAB.
  • {Charles Atlas or Billy Blanks, e.g.} FITNESS GURU.
  • {Celeb chef Oakley} GAZ. never heard of them, or seen this entry in a crossword. this was the part of the solve when i started to realize how strained the fill was going to be.
  • {“I can ___ cheezburger?” (cat meme)} HAZ.
  • {Slavic woman’s name} IVANA.
  • {Door frame} JAMB.
  • {Beach Boys #1 hit of 1988, or an Indiana city} KOKOMO.
  • {In ___ of (replacing)} LIEU.
  • {Comic Sahl or political commentator Kondracke} MORT.
  • {Eagle’s home} NEST.
  • {TV drama (2003-2012) named after a U2 song, for short} OTH. one tree hill. i know very little about the tv show, but i know the song well (it’s on the joshua tree). not only that, but last month when we were in auckland, we climbed up one tree hill (maungakiekie), which has a spectacular view of the city. the english name of the hill is currently inapt; there’s an interesting story here. that said, i have certainly never seen this three-letter abbreviation, either for the show, the song, or the hill itself.
  • {Actress Gilpin of “Frasier”} PERI.
  • {Quid pro ___ (reciprocating acts)} QUOS. it’s already somewhat contrived to pluralize this noun. i suppose quid pro quos is the plural form with dictionary backing, but i kind of prefer quids pro quo. or even quae pro quibus, but let’s not get carried away.
  • {Bring back to the garage yet again} RETOW.
  • {Half of a cassette tape} SIDE ONE.
  • {Low digit?} TOE.
  • {Boat traditionally rowed by women} UMIAK. i learned this word with the UMIAQ spelling because it’s one of the handful of words in the official scrabble players dictionary where Q is not followed by U (but, like SUQ and QIVIUT, it is not one of the “Q without U” words). however, i’ve learned that the UMIAK spelling is more common in english, albeit less fun. anyway, it’s an inuit word, in case that wasn’t already clear from the spellings.
  • {Beta alternative} VHS.
  • {“Fetty ___” (self-titled debut album of 2015)} WAP.
  • {1,000+-mile tributary of the Amazon} XINGU. neeeeeever heard of this river. there are dozens of amazon tributaries of comparable length that are similarly obscure. that said, matt needed a word starting with X and ending with U for this puzzle, and the only one i can come up with off the top of my head is really not less obscure (the second-worst track from mellon collie and the infinite sadness).
  • {Numbskull} YUTZ. ah, memories of mgwcc #94. anybody who’s been doing these for long enough to remember that meta probably got this one a little easier.
  • {Saul who won Best Picture for producing “One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest,” “Amadeus,” and “The English Patient”} ZAENTZ. right, another “who the hell is that?” answer. i guess it’s nice that he has three best picture oscars, but who cares about producers?

so, the meta answer. taking a hint from the title, we look at the last letters of these entries whose first letters go from A to Z, and they spell out ALL ABUZZ ABOUT THIS WEEK’S PUZZ. i don’t know that i would describe myself as such after figuring out the meta, but i can graciously acknowledge that it’s a neat mechanism. it’s a nice little touch that the meta answer itself also goes from A to Z, though i wonder if the challenge of jamming all those extra words that had to end with Z into specific places in the grid constrained the fill more than was comfortable.

because let me tell you, solving this crossword was far from comfortable. it started out okay in the top third or so of the grid, with relatively few obscurities—but right away among the downs we had a trio of awkward partials: A-DEE, TO SAG, and SETS A at 1-2-3 down. the middle sections were laden with names i’d never heard of: comic book artist ZEB wells crossing cold war spy bill GAEDE at the (second) E was tough, and i was similarly guessing at the last letter of {U.S.-born sumo champion} AKEBONO crossing {UK military honor} DSO. {Former Colorado governor Richard} LAMM crossed four (!) proper nouns, none of which i’d call well-known: ELBERTA, IVANA, KOKOMO, and MORT. i got them all, but it was a struggle, and not an enjoyable one.

anyway, i don’t want to harp on it any more. the meta obviously constrained the entries in the grid to a near-breaking point, and matt did the best he could. maybe going to 19×19 could have helped here, but there were inevitably going to be some compromises necessary given the theme.

that’s all i’ve got for this week. on to week 5!

This entry was posted in Contests and tagged . Bookmark the permalink.

13 Responses to MGWCC #799

  1. C. Y. Hollander says:

    Over half the across entries dedicated to a double acrostic, whose left-hand side (the alphabet) was not subject to any tweaking whatsoever; the associated constraint of placing these entries into the grid in strict order, along with the not-strictly-necessary but self-imposed constraint Matt added of not placing any of the remaining across entries until after the point in the grid where its initial appears in the acrostic; all this while maintaining conventional crossword symmetry: notwithstanding the considerable compromises to fill quality entailed, this remarkable feat of construction surely merits the buzz about for which its constructor hopes!

    However, I’m not sure I understand the sense in which “the last shall be the first” here. The best I can do is interpret this in the context of a typical metapuzzle, where the final step, after assembling a thematic set of words, is to form the solution out of their initials. That being impossible in this case, the last letters of these words take the role (spelling out the solution) ordinarily played by their firsts.

    Have I correctly interpreted this puzzle’s title? Does anyone have a better interpretation that I’ve missed?

  2. C. Y. Hollander says:

    “there are two long across answers in this 17×17 grid, and it turns out one of them is thematic and the other isn’t”

    Apart from the directly thematic entries, I think a number of entries nod or hint towards the theme, including SIDEONE, KAYS, SPELT, and also CONCORDANCE (an alphabetical list of the most important words in a corpus of text), making these at least semi-thematic to my mind.

  3. Adam Rosenfield says:

    that said, matt needed a word starting with X and ending with U for this puzzle, and the only one i can come up with off the top of my head is really not less obscure (the second-worst track from mellon collie and the infinite sadness).

    XANADU would have made a fine theme entry for that, but it’s the wrong length for this grid and would have required a completely new grid.

    • C. Y. Hollander says:

      Technically, it could have been placed where UNEASE sits in the actual grid. To be sure, the resulting ?XZ string would have made for a particularly bad piece of fill, but OneLook does give a number of options (mainly codes for ports [airports, generally, but also this computer port]) that would at least technically pass muster as letter strings that are occasionally used in the English-speaking world, with particular denotations.

      With judicious cluing, these could even be rendered somewhat guessable. For instance, the I of the Indian airport code IXZ stands for India, and the X and Z are both more or less filler letters whose primary qualification for this role is relative unlikeliness to be part of any actual abbreviation.

      I’ll be the first to admit that the above “remedy”, which is already shaping up to be worse than the issue it would cure, even before getting to the other 11 letters that would have to be dealt with, holds only theoretical interest, if that.

  4. Mike says:

    When I was solving, I immediately noticed the A-Z across entries.

    But given that it was a week 4, what *really* caught my eye about that was that for the entries that weren’t involved in the meta, all of them begin with a letter that is above that entry in the grid pangram. My (wrong) presumption was that that was the key.

    But having said that, if Mr. Gaffney sees this – was that an intentional part of the construction?

    • Matt Gaffney says:

      Correct, and this constraint was the main reason for the subpar fill.

      You always take the last letter of the first instance of a given letter starting an entry. Otherwise solvers wouldn’t know which one to use.

      For example, you use the A at the end of AT SEA (1-a) for the first letter of the meta answer since it’s the first A- entry, rather than some later one like the second S in ANISES, the second E in ALEE, or the I in ARI.

      • C. Y. Hollander says:

        You always take the last letter of the first instance of a given letter starting an entry.

        While it’s elegant that the theme can be described this way, I believe (as noted in the first comment here) that this constraint was stricter than necessary for solvers to know which letter to use. For that purpose, it would be enough to ensure that you always take the last letter of the first instance of a given letter starting an entry to appear after the thematic entry for the previous letter.

        For example, replacing A-DEE/EAS with ADEN/NAS would lead to no ambiguity to speak of, since NAS could not be the thematic entry for N unless the acrostic were out of order.

        The property I describe is strictly weaker than the one you imposed (the former implying the latter, but not vice versa). I submit that it would have been fair and reasonable to rely on solvers assuming the weaker property without assuming the stronger one.

      • Mike says:

        Ok; the way you say that both makes a lot of sense and removes any ambiguity. My simple-minded response is that if you had


        at the top of the grid, the ABCD of the first 4 would have caused you to mentally bypass the next 3 and pick the train back up with ESTAB. I’m probably also less argumentative than many of your subscribers though…. :)

  5. Garrett says:

    That southwest corner of the grid was the hardest part to fill. I’ve just added TIREZ (Shoot!) to my vocabulary.

    • John says:

      If you are a fan of French New Wave film, you might know: Tirez Sur le Pianiste. I know it and it didn’t help me fill the grid though.

  6. John says:

    It was tough, but i disagree that the fill was really so obscure. If ELBERTA, IVANA, KOKOMO, and MORT are not well-known, at least 3 should be commonly know to people who puzzle and the third had a hint giving away all but one letter. The SW is also where i really struggled. I did the WSJ this week where the frequency of the letter Z was the key. All the Z’s here were exceptional also, in the extreme, and i just couldn’t get past that.

    Super construction. Wow!

    • C. Y. Hollander says:

      I can only speak for myself, a single ‘person who puzzles’, but I certainly puzzled over the middle-left section before Googling for some answers. With hindsight, I should have gotten VOYEURS from ??YEURS, which would have enabled me to correct IriNA to IVANA, but being entirely unfamiliar with either KOKOMO or AKEBONO that would have been at best a very difficult crossing for me. Arguably, the correct K does still represent the best guess for that crossing on general phonetic principles, but this is not entirely clear to me. Throw in various degrees of uncertainty around other intersecting entries, including ERN?ST, DSO? (might have been DSC or some other initialism that I hadn’t heard of), and LAM?M, and the fill in this area was indeed obscure to me.

      I’d argue that the Z of YUTZ/CERVEZA was not strongly exceptional in its own right, but I agree that all the others were, which, in conjunction with the title’s reference to “the last” and the various hints that the alphabet was important to this puzzle, was a red herring for me.

  7. EP says:

    It’s somewhat reassuring to see that I am apparently not the only one that thought that this was the grid from hell. It was a challenge for me, even furiously googling away like a madman.

    Needless to say, the meta was out of the question for me. I’m realistic enough to still appreciate a well constructed meta even though it’s one I’m unable to crack. But although I found this one clever and intricate, it came up short in the ‘elegance’ department.

Comments are closed.