Do you know which crossword is the hardest, on average? Using a compelling n of 1 (that would be me), Peter Gordon, editor of the New York Sun crossword, has calculated my average solving times (data taken from my blog posts) for the Sun (Monday through Friday), NYT (Monday through Saturday), and Newsday Saturday Stumper. Pop quiz: Can you put the following in order from toughest to easiest?
Thursday Sun (half of which are "Themeless Thursday" puzzles, half themed)
Friday Sun ((half of which are themeless "Weekend Warrior" puzzles, half themed)
Friday NYT (pretty close to all themeless)
Saturday NYT (all themeless, save for the rare rebus)
Saturday Newsday (all themeless)
For extra credit, what are my average solving times for the hardest vs. the easiest of these?
This week, the Friday New York Sun puzzle is a "Weekend Warrior" by Frank Longo. (Raise your hand if you wish Frank would spend a little more of his time crafting themeless newspaper crosswords, and raise your other hand if you're feeling a little whiny that you have to wait until January for Frank's crazy Vowelless Crosswords book to publish.) The marquee entries have unusual letter combos, such as CQ (in FRERE JACQUES, clued as [Renowned round]) and, well, LMXBLVD (from MALCOLM X BLVD.) crossing MBCH in LAMBCHOP. (What the heck, Frank? Are you trying to go half vowelless in regular crosswords, too?) There's also IOD at the beginning of I/O DEVICE, and who expects those letters together outside of iodine?
Let us wander through the Acrosses, shall we? I adore the word PLUMBAGO ([Graphite] or the plant also called leadwort); it looks like a portmanteau of juicy plums and the back pain called lumbago. Actor OMAR EPPS graduates to first-and-last-name status, which is, of course, the goal of ever famous person with a short name. Is it wrong that when I read the clue, ["I Felt Like Smashing My Face in a Clear Glass Window" singer], I wanted it to be ENYA? Alas, it is Yoko ONO. (Yes, that one's a Down answer, I know.) Enya's new-age stylings are also not involved in [Composer and singer of "And When I Die"]; that's Laura NYRO. [Bee kin] is a devious clue for OPIE—TV's Opie had an Aunt Bee, of course. "Good gravy, what is the answer to [Stool softener] going to be?" I asked myself. Turns out it's a CUSHION placed on a hard stool. Love that clue! (Much more so than E. COLI, [Likely find in a gut check?]) Am proud of myself for grasping that [It is what it is] referred to the PRONOUN "it." Any other Seinfeld watchers expect [Sponge alternative] to be a form of contraception rather than a WET MOP? I like the name Childe HASSAM, but the painter's work doesn't grab me at all. I usually think of OPIATE as a noun rather than an adjective meaning [Causing dullness], but there you have it.
Moving to the Down zone: The NYT crossword just had the Te-Amo cigar, didn't it? And here is TE AMO, clued as a [White Owl alternative]. To anchor the Downs, ANNA PAQUIN and baseball's NELLIE FOX follow the DRUM MAJOR (a [Long march leader?]) to the DANCE-A-THON. I've never heard of Las LUNAS, a county seat in New Mexico. (A typo while typing "never" leads me to note that Albanian leader ENVER HOXHA doesn't show up in the Cruciverb database.) And my Italian is rusty, if "rusty" means "nearly nonexistent," so while CAPI makes etymological sense as [Heads of Italy], I didn't recognize the word. The NYT's TEAT gives way to the Sun's TIT ([Lead-in for lark or mouse]).
The New York Times crossword by Peter Collins may represent the first time that a BETSY WETSY doll and the David Lynch movie Eraserhead (you know—back when Lynch made avant garde movies, before he got so ordinary with Blue Velvet) have been mentioned on the same page of any newspaper. Excellent combo!
Favorite clues: [Falcons' grp.] for USAF (not the NFL!); [Sealing fans?] for POLAR BEARS (the verb "to seal" means to hunt seals); [It's no longer divided] for BERLIN, tied to OST (German for "east"); [It is in Peru] for ESTA (Spanish for "it is"—you didn't go for LIMA, did you?); [Simplest, in math and logic] for FIRST ORDER (hmm, more or less new to me); [When doubled, what a rat does] for names NAMES; [Immoderate indulgence] for ORGY (see usage note about the word's history here); and the non-poker [Opening pair?], ADAM AND EVE.
Flashback: A few weeks ago, Mischa Auer was in the NYT crossword with a violinist clue, but it was his grandfather Leopold who was a noted musician; Mischa AUER was an actor, the [Oscar-nominated "My Man Godfrey" actor, 1936], in fact. I reckon this clue is nit-proof.
Groovy entries: SQUEEZEBOX (this [Zydeco instrument] is just an accordion); ORANGE ZEST (I hereby declare that if my fake first name is Orange, my fake last name is Zest); two nutty Norwegians not of my acquaintance, mathematician NIELS Henrik Abel and prime minister JENS Stoltenberg; and two intersecting current actors, Liam NEESON and Edward James OLMOS. Please, let no one complain that these actors are too obscure to cross in the grid. Neeson was nominated for an Oscar for playing Oskar Schindler (any other Oscar-nominated Oskar roles?), he played a Jedi in that bad Phantom Menace Star Wars movie, and he was also in Krull.
I didn't notice the byline on the CrosSynergy puzzle, "Chard Catalog," until after I finished. The theme entries convert four phrases starting with CA- words to ones beginning with CHA-. For example, Camp David becomes CHAMP DAVID, [Title for a giant feller?]. Favorite clues: [Stag film?] for BAMBI (hah! I couldn't get that one for the longest time); [Expletive from Cathy or Bill the Cat] for ACK (I could do without "Cathy," but I love-love-loved "Bloom County" and once owned an Opus shirt); the paired [Total] for DESTROY and ENTIRE; and the paired [Scratch, e.g.] and [Scratch] for FLAW and CLAW.
Bruce Douglas's LA Times crossword takes five phrases ending with -LL words and changes those words to -LT endings. Geeze, it took me forever to make sense out of [Lithuanian skid row denizen?]—GUTTER BALT. (Eerie coincidence: My half-Lithuanian grandfather was once an alcoholic in the gutter! But it was before I was born, so this clue didn't traumatize me.) I think the BARBIE DOLT is the one Mattel sold some years back that said "Math is hard!" [1982-94 NFLer], 8 letters, was hard; I forgot about the L.A. RAIDER football team. Did they go back to Oakland? Favorite entry: [Fictional author of "The World According to Bensenhaver"] for T.S. GARP. Five bonus points for pulmonary anatomy: PLEURAL was a gimme for this editor of pulmonary medicine manuscripts.
Patrick Berry's Chronicle of Higher Education is masterful without being exceptionally hard. The "Quarter Rests" are the seasonal breaks from the academic calendar (not sure how many places have a FALL break, but the other three seasons, absolutely—we are on my kid's SPRING break right now). Each season is broken in the grid, staggered in two rows (e.g., the SPR of SPRING is circled in SPRAINED and the ING follows in the answer below, RINGED). The longer words for the broken seasons all intersect with the vertical explanation, THEM'S THE BREAKS, which is delightfully and colloquially ungrammatical for a crossword for academics. Wonderful gimmick crossword! Favorite clue: [One who loves too much?] for TWO-TIMER. I misread [Badly circumstanced] (IN A MESS) as [Badly circumcised]; uh, no. NUN is clued as [What a novitiate aspires to]—some will argue (and did argue this week on the NYT forum) that novice and novitiate are different, blah-blah-blah; close enough for crosswords, if you ask me. BUTTER UP is a terrific entry. VITAMINS is clued as [Junk food's lack]. I would argue that plenty of junk food has been fortified with vitamins to cozen consumers into buying it. For example, Glaceau vitaminwater is basically Kool-Aid—sugar and water, total junk food, but with vitamins added to persuade customers that it's somehow better for them than plain water. Corn Pops cereal—tons of sugar, little fiber, enriched with vitamins. Is it junk food anyway? I say yes (and pour myself another bowl).
Matt Jones's Jonesin' puzzle, "90-Degree Turnz," plays a fun game—a pair of Zs get turned 90° so that they look like Ns. Thus, a [Belly button that tells jokes] is a FUNNY NAVEL instead of a Fuzzy Navel. Cute! Fresh fill: HALFPIPES, NFC WEST, CAT PERSON, Julie KAVNER, IT'S PAT, ISN'T IT? Favorite clues: [Diesel that's not fuel] for actor VIN Diesel, and [Took a stool sample?] for SAT. Two stool clues in one day! A proud day for crosswords—at least it is if you enjoy playing with the multiple meanings of so many words in this rich language of ours.
Randy Ross's Wall Street Journal puzzle is calculated to delight those who prefer their rebus puzzles to hew to a strict symmetry—the five rebus squares in "Box Sets" form a symmetrical pattern. There are 10 phrases intersecting at [TV] rebus squares, and they're not so long. That means Ross had the leeway to include some broad expanses of white space in the grid, with plenty of lively longish fill entries—WHODUNIT, JAYWALKS, OF NO USE, TUNES OUT, CRACKLES. One semilethal square for me. Actually, two: [Fall, for a señorita] crosses [Jibs on racing yachts] and [Acid used in food preservatives]. OTONO crossing GENOAS and SORBIC? Ow. At least my guesses turned out to be right.
March 20, 2008