WSJ Contest — Friday, June 14, 2024

Grid: untimed; Meta 30 minutes 


Matt Gaffney’s and Peter Gordon’s Wall Street Journal contest crossword, “Sign Language” — Conrad’s writeup.

This week we’re looking for a fast-food chain. I didn’t spot any obvious theme entries, but GOTATATTOO struck me as odd. Ten-letter entry, 90% comprised of T’s, A’s and O’s. I have learned to note weird stuff when working on a meta. I solve .puz files with Black Ink on my MacBook, and always upload them to Mechapuzzle. One of the handiest features is the letter frequency distribution. Here it is for this puzzle.

Frequency distribution for Matt Gaffney's meta crossword puzzle "Sign Language"

Normally the most unusually prevalent letter (E in this case) is important. I mapped the E’s on the grid and got noise. Then, based on GOTATATTOO, I focused on T, A, and O (all under represented on a frequency scale). There were seven A’s versus an expected 21. Highlighting TAO (almost) formed a bell shape in the grid. I briefly explored a doomed cracked Liberty Bell rabbit hole before realizing that TAO forms most of TACO, so I highlighted two two C’s in the grid, which formed a bell shape.

WSJ Contest Solution – 06.16.24

WSJ Contest Solution – 06.16.24

Matt and Peter designed a TACO shell that formed a bell, leading to our contest solution TACO BELL. The bell was symmetric in the grid. Amazing.

I thought this meta was brilliant. I have often experienced the feeling of “WTF is going on here” as I tried to find my bearings while solving a meta. Noticing odd entries (like GOTATATTOO) has helped me many times. I’ve also learned to look for weird frequency distribution. Here are three examples. It’s a tried-and-true meta technique that matters a few times a year for the WSJ meta. That’s the nature of metas. Solvers: please share your thoughts.

I’ll end with a non-meta related song that’s been playing rent free in my head for weeks. Bored, by Waxahatchee.

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20 Responses to WSJ Contest — Friday, June 14, 2024

  1. Bob says:

    So was I just supposed to try letters from every fast food chain until I found one that formed something!? There was nothing else to point me in the direction of Taco Bell? This is a brilliant meta if you were lucky enough to stumble on the right answer, but otherwise it seems very weak. I’m glad I didn’t spend more than about 10 minutes on the meta. Makes me want to give up on them altogether.

  2. Burak says:

    I had the right idea, but wrong execution. I knew the restaurant’s logo had to come into play somehow, and I noticed a lot of MANO in that center area and thought “well I guess we’re making the McDonald’s arches somehow?”

    I feel like this puzzle was only backsolvable, at least for me. Kudos to people who could immediately recognize the bell that is made out of T,A,C,O. I don’t have that kind of pattern recognition.

  3. Barry Miller says:

    Well beyond my pay grade. The puzzle itself was tough for me.

  4. Jon Forsythe says:

    Not even close. Was there any hints or nudges to this meta answer other than randomly trying out a letter frequency distribution online site?

  5. Homer says:

    I thought it was DQ because Q is the only letter in the alphabet missing from the grid answers. SERIALIZED is a very prominent grid answer in the middle which I took to be a hint, or help for the solver. Pairing that with (1A) UNHELP, I got dequeue, or DQ – a fast food chain that also sounds like a word in the English language.

  6. GTIJohnny says:

    For a time, I was considering old time modem language, what with AT commands and such. I think modems connected to PC’s on SERIAL (SERIALIZED being the other theme answer) ports. The whole “handshake” ritual being a type of sign language. Wow…pretty far off there!

  7. Sheik Yerbouti says:

    Not their finest work, but interesting. The theme constraints made for some ugliness — that NW corner on its own with unhelp, begrime, Ulee, negs — yikes.

  8. EP says:

    Brilliant, yes, but as the previous comments suggest, a tad on the difficult side. On really tough metas I think that constructors should make sure that the title at least gives a reasonable clue for how to get started…this one didn’t, at least for me.

  9. jefe says:

    My process was similar, though I didn’t actually do the letter counts. The lack of obvious theme entries and the prevalence of less-than-stellar fill suggested a grid-wide constraint and, with the title, that it might be one of those picture puzzles. I noticed a ton of E’s, which led me to notice the A’s and O’s were confined the the middle area, and that the T’s were clustered around row 11. After I colored them in, it was easy to see that the 2 C’s completed the bell shape, which was very satisfying.

  10. Mac Lane says:

    Matt- Not a fan of this one. Agree with Bob above. Was I supposed to look for letters of every fast food chain? Also, found the grid to be beyond hard. Brutal even. No fun! I live in North Carolina and we don’t say, “YEESH.” And Mobutu ____ Seko? What’s up with that?

  11. Mike says:

    Not saying anyone else’s beefs with this are wrong, but….

    Folks, the name of the restaurant isn’t “Taco Christmas Tree”….

    • David W Benbow says:

      I was tempted to submit Taco Christmas Tree as my answer, but thought better of it!

  12. Eric H says:

    I spent too much time looking at the longer answers (MIKE DEWINE – ugh) for signs or languages. I have never seen a meta based on letter frequency, so even though GOT A TATTOO struck me as green paint (and ugly green paint at that), I never looked for those letters elsewhere.

    I don’t think anyone has mentioned this, but the only A’s, C’s, O’s and T’s in the grid seem to be the ones that make up the Christmas tree. That undoubtedly contributes to some yucky fill like BEGRIME.

    Impressive construction, but not a whole lot of fun.

  13. Simon says:

    I guessed the answer would be Taco Bell but didn’t send it in. I got obseSSed with the double letters in the grid. EBB BLEEPER BREEZY YEESH TATTOO LOONEY ELLESSE ETC. and thought of chains with double letters: HARDEES WAFFLE HOUSE SBARROS APPLEBEES and TACO BELL. Lol. Never saw the BELL in the design. Loved the olden answers UNHELP BEGRIME ENVENOM.

  14. Matt Gaffney says:

    Sorry this didn’t go over better! Surprised me how tough this played. My thought was that solvers would take pretty much the path that Conrad took (but without the computerized letter frequency analysis help).

    GOT A TATTOO, with its 9-letter string of A’s O’s and T’ is super-unusual, and then noticing that every single ATO was in the center would seem like a logical nudge to TACO, (all the C’s are in the center, too) since there are only maybe 20 meta answer possibilities so TACO BELL and maybe DEL TACO were possibilities. In retrospect an omega-across hint might’ve been appropriate.

  15. Dan Seidman says:

    Didn’t get this one, but it reminds me of an MGWCC one (that I also didn’t get) from way back, where the letters formed the Nike logo.

  16. Robin McEnerney says:

    Spotted “GOTATATOO” in the grid. But I thought it connected (in a weird way!) with Clue 33A, “Go toe-to-toe.” Obviously, got nowhere fast with that.

  17. Frogger says:

    I didn’t get this meta and no sour grapes from me, but is it really a “taco” bell? There are only two Cs so you could only spell TACO twice, leaving you with a mess of Os, As, and Ts left over. Taco isn’t even spelled out consecutively, although that might have made the meta incredibly easy and construction of the grid incredibly hard.

  18. Steve Thurman says:

    I definitely appreciate the brilliance, but I agree that an extra (or stronger) nudge was needed. The long down entries were all that caught my eye.

  19. Baroness Thatcher says:

    Begrudging hat tip to Matt and Peter for an incredible puzzle. This is an incredible META achievement. I didn’t get it. I’m only a 25% solver. I stood no chance.
    Yeah, get a tatoo stood out.
    So did serialize.
    So did the archaic begrime, unhelp, envenom, and revengeful.

    Anytime you have to count letters to solve, you’ve lost me, especially on Father’s Day weekend where family takes center stage.

    Still, I added this solution to my META journal for future reference, and will continue trying my best to solve these weekly contest puzzles.

    Finally, I did not enter a rating for this puzzle.

    Technically-speaking it’s a 5.

    From an enjoyment level for occasional solvers like me, it’s a 1.

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