WSJ Contest — Friday, January 12, 2024

Grid: untimed; Meta: 40 minutes  


Matt Gaffney’s Wall Street Journal contest crossword, “Use Your Head” — Conrad’s writeup.

This week we’re looking for an adjective that does not describe most contest crossword solvers. There were six long theme entries:

  • [Always thinking of other people]: UNSELFISH
  • [Highly observant]: WATCHFUL
  • [Foolish]: IMPRUDENT
  • [Unlikely to take criticism well]: SENSITIVE
  • [Not wanting to say what you really think]: HESITANT
  • [Not playing favorites]: IMPARTIAL

It took me a little while to find a foothold on the meta, so I scanned the grid few times and and noticed (KIND)A, right next to UNSELFISH. Then KIND(HEARTED) came to mind, and I was off to the races. Each theme entry was adjacent to another entry that became a matching adjective when you dropped a letter, added a body part, and “ed”:

WSJ Contest Solution – 01.14.24

WSJ Contest Solution – 01.14.24


The dropped letters spell ABSENT, leading to our contest solution ABSENTMINDED, an adjective that does not describe most contest crossword solvers. It also included MIND, mapping back to the title. Beautiful meta by Matt, I really enjoyed it. This is the type of meta that requires some inference: it’s not all laid out in the grid or clues, and it was very well executed and quite fair. Great “aha” moment when I figured it all out. Solvers: please share your thoughts.

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17 Responses to WSJ Contest — Friday, January 12, 2024

  1. Barry Miller says:

    Beyond my pay grade.

  2. Jon says:

    Never in a millions years would I have seen KINDA across from UNSELFISH and thought kindhearted. And even if I had spotted that, I think the dropped letter being in the middle of MEANLY instead of at the end like the others would maybe have stopped me in my tracks.

    Am I getting dumber when it comes to metas? Like the week 2 MGWCC is still stumping me.

    • Baroness Thatcher says:

      Jon, I don’t do the MGWCC. In your opinion, would this META equate to a week 4 or 5 MGWCC? Just curious. I don’t understand how this puzzle is solvable by casual WSJ players.

      • Just one MGWCC solver’s opinion, but even though I wouldn’t say this one was easy, I didn’t find it to be as difficult as a week 4 or week 5. Those sometimes leave me wondering for a while which entries even are the theme answers, whereas in this one I at least felt confident from the start that the six long adjective entries had to be involved, so I stayed focused on them. The way I solved it was a little bit of luck. I looked up synonyms for IMPRUDENT and found RASH, and then I saw SHARE sitting adjacent to IMPRUDENT, so I figured we needed anagrams + another letter of those theme answers’ synonyms. KIND + A and EAGLE + B came right after that; those didn’t involve anagrams and I saw then with EAGLE-EYED that I needed body parts as well, but thinking of RASH and seeing SHARE was close enough that it got me on the right path.

        There’s never an exact science for hitting the intended difficulty on a meta, and sometimes the WSJ can play pretty tough even for experienced meta solvers, but solving a lot of MMMM and WSJ and MGWCC metas (and many times trying and failing to solve them) has given me a better sense of what I should be looking for. Matt has used similar mechanisms from this puzzle in previous metas, so that knowledge helped me get this one.

        (Also, if it should help, Jon, I thought the current week 2 MGWCC was harder than I normally expect for a week 2. It felt more like a typical week 3, with a very good aha moment.)

  3. Baroness Thatcher says:

    Adding to my ever-growing list of things to look for when the puzzle creator gives you absolutely nothing:

    Look at entries adjacent to the theme entries, after getting high.

    • mkmf says:

      Good idea.

      We might add to your list to note when the longest across themers do not include a center entry. That means there usually could be only one other word in each themer line, so it might be helpful to pay them some extra attention.

      I spent several days following many fruitless paths before noticing that “kind” would be a synonym for unselfish. Then “(b)eagle” added the “-eyed”, and the rest fell from there. But if I’d paid earlier attention to the themer arrangement (i.e., an even number of symmetric themers), I might have gotten there sooner.

      BTW, when the title came into play for me was when I got to entering “absent” or “absent-minded”. “Use your head” gave the answer.

  4. jefe says:

    I just submitted ABSENT 🤦‍♂️

  5. mtjb says:

    Spotted a few animals and got nowhere.

  6. golod says:

    So elegant in concept and execution, masterful.

  7. Neal says:

    Somehow I got as far as ABSENT without adding the body parts. But then the edible wore off and the rest of the puzzle fell into place. :)

  8. Eric H. says:

    I knew the six long adjectives were part of the solution, but I got nowhere beyond that.

    The “Use Your Head” title would make a lot more sense to me if each of the added body parts was something found on your head. Four of them are; two aren’t.

  9. Uncle Bob says:

    I regularly attempt to solve the contest crossword and often do solve it (though not this time). I am also absent-minded. I suspect I have a good deal of company on that. So I don’t think the prompt was on target.

  10. Simon says:

    Would never have thought of that. In fact, I was looking for the word THINK in the puzzle (Use Your Head) and started with THINE (replacing K) then SHANK (replacing TI) and NIGHT (replacing K) and KINDA etc and got nowhere. Hail Mary guess was IMPATIENT. I love Matt’s NY Mag puzzles but his Contest puzzles most often outsmart me.

  11. Riddler says:

    I almost got there. I spotted EVEN(t) for Impartial first, then when hunting figuring the extra letter was the key. However, even though I figured Eagle Eyed for Watchful and Thin(e)
    Skinned for Sensitive I thought I was on the wrong track because Skin has nothing to do with “Using My Head”. Share was also misleading because I thought that connected to Unselfish. I couldn’t connect Mealy Mouth to Hesitant and thought Saton had more to do with it. So I never made it to the “add an extra word” because none of that had anything to do with using my head. I’m sorry, but I can’t quite call this one “elegant”, I think sloppy is a better descriptor.

  12. Tom C says:

    Meta comment: You’ve got to be kidding me! Glad I didn’t spend more time on this one.

  13. Big Cheese says:

    I submitted absent. I Thought about absent-minded and had the first 4 associations as well. Never heard of mealy, let alone mealy mouthed, so I think this was a stretch. Even handed also a bit weak in my opinion. Without the 2 additional connections, I went with absent. Close enough for me.

  14. Steve Thurman says:

    I almost gave up on this one. The only reason I kept looking at it is because the six adjectives were such an obvious starting place. This is one of the few times that several looks got me to the answer under the wire.

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