April 28, 2009


crossword 9:38
puzzle 4:00ish

hello, fellow crossword solvers, and welcome to the 47th episode of matt gaffney's weekly crossword contest, "Disconsonant Vowels." this week's contest featured a very tough crossword along with a tricky metapuzzle. let's have a look. the puzzle contains five 15-letter "theme" answers:

  • ["The Little Big Apple"] is MANHATTAN, KANSAS, home of kansas state university. i didn't know it had that nickname, but it makes perfect sense. not to be confused with reno, the "biggest little city in the world."
  • [R.E.M. song off "Reckoning"] is LETTER NEVER SENT. i don't know this song. i don't even know the album, although i thought i had heard of all of the REM albums. is it new(ish)?
  • [#1 country hit of 2005 for Faith Hill] is MISSISSIPPI GIRL. didn't know this either, but that's somewhat less surprising.
  • [Thoroughly] clues FROM TOP TO BOTTOM.
  • and [Marble Cliff, Ohio, and Grove City, Ohio, for two] are apparently COLUMBUS SUBURBS. um... okay.

what do these theme answers have in common? well, the title is a hint to look at the vowels, and it seems like each theme answer has only one vowel, used over and over: A in MANHATTAN, KANSAS, E in LETTER NEVER SENT, I in MISSISSIPPI GIRL, O in FROM TOP TO BOTTOM, and U in COLUMBUS SUBURBS. oh wait... except that COLUMBUS has an O in it, too. what's going on?

a closer look at the grid reveals that actually, entire rows of the puzzle contain only single vowels. in fact, the 15 rows can be divided into 5 3-row stacks, each stack containing only a single vowel: A for the top fifth, then progressing alphabetically to E, I, O, and U. so in some sense, those five answers aren't the theme answers... every single across answer is a theme answer! (well, maybe not SSR, DMV, PSST, FSK, and TSST.) however, there are some glitches (like the O in COLUMBUS), which i've circled in the screenshot:

  • 1-across is ["Time's Arrow" novelist] martin AMIS, son of "lucky jim" novelist kingsley AMIS. i've heard stories of people missing out on the ACPT A finals because they tried AMES for this exact clue, crossing the I in actor delroy LINDO. (i obviously wasn't there, so maybe i've got some of the facts wrong.) anyway, it's definitely AMIS. i've read this book; it's about a guy who lives his life in backwards order, sort of like benjamin button (not that i've seen that either). it was kind of underwhelming, actually. back in college i was really into literature featuring non-standard progressions of time in the narrative, but this was easily the weakest of the books i read in this stretch. not that it's a bad book—but the others were just so good: the good soldier, catch-22, and some others i can't call to mind at the moment. something by calvino, probably. borges. etc. anyway, where was i? oh yeah, AMIS. there's an I in AMIS, which isn't an A. it crosses the I in -ISH, clued as [-like]. matt seems to like these -ated suffix clues.
  • [Clan rejection] is the scottish negative NAE, even though it's in the area of the grid where only Es are allowed. the A crosses the [Depilatory brand] NAIR in one of the easiest crossings of this wickedly tough puzzle.
  • the aforementioned O in COLUMBUS crosses OSH [Kosh B'Gosh clothing].

what do these seemingly out-of-place (you might even call them "disconsonant," if that were a word) vowels have to tell us about the answer to the metapuzzle? well, as always, it's good to check the instructions: This week's contest answer word is a well-known four-letter geographical place name. straightforward enough. is there such a place name that uses I, A, and O? why yes, there is: IOWA. and that's the answer to the puzzle.

i wasn't too sure about the W, because i didn't really understand how we would know it wasn't, say, IONA. but matt assures me that the W is also hinted at in the same way, because the W in HOW'S (49d, ["___ that again?"]) is also a vowel, and hence "disconsonant" in the same way that the I, A, and O are. color me skeptical... especially since the W crosses WOK, where it is most certainly being used as a consonant. i think of W as a vowel only in crazy welsh words like CWM and CRWTHS (which are fun words to spring on unsuspecting anonymous online scrabble opponents, not that i'd know anything about that), but i suppose there's something to be said for matt's argument when the W is part of a diphthong.

at any rate, it's a cool theme. the demanding nature of the grid (five 15-letter answers plus the vowel constraints all over the grid) required matt to exceed some of the usual norms for a 15x15 puzzle: 80 words, 48 blocks, and a whopping 40 three letter words. there were also a number of entries that, it could reasonably be argued, fall somewhat short of crossword legitimacy/familiarity:

  • apparently a [Soviet limo] is a ZIL, and the [KGB successor] is the FSK. um, okay. both of these were strictly crossings for me. and in fact, i had to make an educated guess at the Z, which crossed [Wyoming senator Mike] ENZI, not a name i'd heard of. there's also the related URS, or [USA rival, in Cold War Olympics shorthand]. ugly acronym, but at least that one was pretty gettable.
  • [E-mail program feature (hidden in RIVER PHOENIX)] is such an odd clue that you know the answer has to be odd, too. and VERP doesn't disappoint. what the hell is that? wikipedia says it's variable envelope return path, but i've sure as hell never heard of it, and i'm fairly well-versed (but not, apparently, well-verped) on my internet protocols.
  • [High-rise apartment number, perhaps] is TEN E. that is even shadier than the [Bingo call] clues i have known and not loved in newspaper crosswords.
  • did you know that [Finland's fifth-largest city] is TURKU? i sure as hell didn't. i think i knew that its second-largest city is ESPOO, but i definitely couldn't have named three more. still, i suppose there aren't too many options for U-only words down there in the bottom area of the grid.
  • finally, the [Palindromic, onomatopoeic "South Park" episode title] is TSST. i don't watch/like south park, so i don't know what's up with that. but at least it was gettable from the clue, with a couple of letters.

my favorite clue has to be ["___ Island" (Tina Fey-written "30 Rock" episode featuring attractive older women], which clues MILF. i recently got into 30 rock. funny show. MILF island is jack's brilliant idea for a reality show, with the tagline "50 8th-grade boys, 25 super-hot moms, no rules." the only problem with making fun of reality TV, though, is that any ridiculous reality show parody you can dream up is actually not far from being an actual reality show. MILF island, as ridiculous as it sounds, is really just a combination of date my mom and temptation island, isn't it? not that i've ever seen either of those.

okay, that's all i have time for, even though there's plenty more interesting stuff in this grid; feel free to comment on your favorite clue. see you next week for the easy-peasy may puzzle.