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5 puzzles by Nancy Stark
with Jeff Chen comments

TotalDebutLatestCollabs
53/14/20193/10/20215
SunMonTueWedThuFriSat
1002200
ScrabbleRebusCirclePangram
1.72100
Nancy Stark
Wed 3/10/2021
MOSSMICSBIGIF
ETTUECHOAROSE
NORMAKINLITHE
TOOMANYCOOKS
ALKALIMESHUGA
LEEONEBADAPPLE
SEGERTUDOR
WASPSKIFFBOBO
ALLOWDALIS
SPARETHERODSEW
HOTTAKEOEUVRE
SPOILERALERT
JUMBOFILMCLAN
ASIANEMMAETTA
YEARSRESTREAP

I say, "I'm probably overthinking this, but …" so often that I'm surprised it's not a meme. Jim Horne and I chat every week by phone, and I can always see him sitting up and rubbing his hands together every time I utter those five magical words. This week:

JIM: What confused you?

JEFF: It's probably clever, a SPOILER ALERT. But aren't the TOO MANY COOKS the spoilers? So they've already been spoiled?

JIM: No, the word SPOIL is what comes next in each saying. The very next word. Thus, a SPOILER ALERT is perfect; such devilish wordplay.

JEFF: But in that case, it should be SPOIL ALERT. It doesn't make sense as—

JIM: (hysterical laughter)

Once I solved SPARE THE ROD, I had that vague sense of unease that I would receive a flood of irate emails. I appreciate that Will Nediger acknowledged this landmine. I don't know that it's considered universally harmful and wrong, though — there are people with strong opinions on both sides.

Fantastic grid, amazing extras in IRISH PUBS / SPORTS BAR (although I wondered if there was a secondary theme in here), HOT TAKE, and fun mid-lengthers like OEUVRE and SVELTE.

I botched MESHUGA, guessing MESHUSA (sounded like Methuselah? Wasn't he a little crazy?), but that's the clue's fault, not the grid's, since both SLOB and GLOB aptly rhyme with "blob."

There's a fine line between clever and stupid, and this puzzle falls well toward the side of clever, with me heading the other way. It's such a great concept and presentation (once you stop overthinking it), but a shame that SPARE THE ROD is a lightning rod of controversy.

Thu 8/27/2020
HIJABBASKSCAT
AMOURUCLAHATH
TALKINGOUTECHO
EMTDOORMENHEN
BARONEKING
IMPELIOWANS
MIENWHADDAYNOW
INNFEARNOTAHA
NINJARRIORITIS
SEABEEPREOP
PEPSIALPHA
ERAOATMEALALE
PISACHATTERBOX
PETSMESAGOUGE
ASAPEASTMOTES

The best rebuses have a beautiful raison d'etre, something that perfectly explains why the solver should shove a bunch of letters into a single box. CHATTERBOX is as good as any, although the BOX notion is becoming overdone. It's a common rebus rationale, HAT BOX coming to mind immediately.

As a huge NINJA WARRIOR fanboy — I think I could get about 12 rungs up the Super Salmon ladder — seeing that entry tickled me.

And how meta was it to get GAB within TALKING ABOUT! I usually don't care for "add-a-preposition" phrases, but the self-referentialism here was worthwhile.

I usually love casual, conversational phrases, so WHADDYA KNOW should be my favorite of the three themers. I paused, though, as it strikes me as potentially unfair to plunk a rebus square in the middle of a phrase that can be spelled in many ways.

I have to disagree with Will on CACHINNATE. It's such a bizarre word (and spelling) that I couldn't believe it was correct, even knowing all the crossings were so easy that it had to be. The best crosswords generate a victorious fist-pumping moment for solvers, and this did the opposite, leaving me a bit puzzled and feeling stupid.

I begrudgingly admit that it's beneficial to learn new things, but don't force me to learn when I don't want to.

Similarly, I got stuck in the lower right, in a corner that felt hard for hardness's sake. LOGE is tough enough, MOTES staying so maddeningly generic with the clue, and even as a beer drinker, [Cream ___] = ALE wasn't anywhere the top of mind.

Overall, a reasonable rebus concept and strong technical execution — no junky short entries at all! — but ultimately, the subjective constructing and editorial decisions made for a less-than-ideal solving experience.

Sun 3/15/2020READY, SET ... GETS LOW!
ABBAICUSCADSAPCALC
DEEDFOPOAKENHOORAH
ALLHAILHALLALEARMANI
GLIDELIBELGAGKANYE
EYEITALORAKEDCAF
BOOBLURREDBLUEBIRD
DEPAULTEAPOYBRANDO
IMANICEIMOELITISM
SONERVOUSNOSERVICE
UTEDENCHNEMEANAXES
SERRACHANDENSHUEVO
ESAUWARREDNOIREDEW
STEVEDOREDIVASTORE
SALTINEPATREDOUST
AGEISTAGENTSIDOTOO
DUTCHTOWNTOUCHDOWN
TIMOREOSRAISESPF
ALEUTRECSTONYEMCEE
LETTERBCHORDKEYBOARD
ERRATAIHOPEIREONCE
SAYHEYTIPSYESPSTYX

Ah, our good crossworld friend, the Reverend Spooner. He stops by the NYT crossword frequently, and I'm sure this won't be the last we've seen of him. Whether it be switching starts of words in a phrase, starts of syllables, playing on famous people, etc. … he works in mysterious ways.

Speaking of mysterious, the title was originally "READY SET … GET SLOW!", and it confused the heck out of both Jim Horne and me. I pretended like I knew what was going on, smiling knowingly at Jim while saying that it would be a good exercise for him to explain it to me.

When we finally worked up the courage to ask Will Shortz what it meant, Will admitted that it was supposed to be GETS LOW, a spoonerism for "let's go." Ah! See, I'm not as stupid as I look. Or sound. Or smell.

It's been changed for the digital files. Sometimes the print version doesn't get updated in time. Fingers crossed!

I enjoyed many of these finds, STEVEDORE to DIVA STORE a gold-medalist. It doesn't make any sense to have a STEVEDORE DIVA STORE, but I'm willing to overlook that to enjoy the interesting discovery. The spelling change is so dramatic.

I didn't get a lot of laughs from the themers. You can sort of imagine a birdwatcher saying BOO BLURRED BLUE BIRD, but it's more of a tongue-twister than a smile-inducer.

I would have preferred presenting just the spoonerism, i.e. DIVA STORE as the grid entry, with its clue containing "stevedore." DIVA STORE is crazy enough. STEVEDORE DIVA STORE is bonkers, to the point of making for a frustrating solve.

All in all though, technically strong gridwork, and there were some gems that would have made the good reverend proud.

Wed 6/12/2019
WARMINDEBTOLD
ASEANAIVERCEO
THELADYVANISHES
TELEVISEPARKA
NORAPROFESS
RUNAWAYBRIDE
ATOMSLOGSPDA
GATEJEEPSCLAM
SHEAIMSCRUDE
INVISIBLEMAN
VERMEERSLAV
AXIOMPRURIENT
LACKOFCHARACTER
ICENAPIERECRU
DTSEXALLYSHOE

I spent some time thinking about what other movies might fit a LACK OF CHARACTER theme — nothing came to mind. Tight theme.

(Now I'm bracing for the slew of obscure movies readers throw at me.)

Speaking of obscure, I wasn't aware of THE LADY VANISHES. I've seen a lot of Hitchcock films. Considering how high THE LADY VANISHES appears on many Hitchcock ranking lists, it looks like I need to shore up my knowledge base.

Editors often prize multi-word fill, as it tends to be more colorful than single-worders. VERMEER is awfully colorful, though. PRURIENT is an interesting word, CREVICES as well.

Most constructors stay away from six-letter widths at the edges of puzzles because they tend to be much harder to fill cleanly than five or four-letter widths. Take a gander at the top of the grid: IN DEBT is a strong headliner, but NAIVER hit my ear wrong. The south further confounded me when I was sure that John NAVIER of the Navier-Stokes equations was correct.

Apparently, that was Claude-Louis Navier and John NAPIER.

Excuse me while I go turn in my mechanical engineering card with shame.

Along with EX-ALLY making me tilt my head, and MALE NAME not sounding quite right (although after some thought, it felt fine ... ish), it wasn't the best grid product I've seen, especially given how strong Will is at construction.

The theme worked well enough, although it provided more of a head-nodding moment than a delightful a-ha.

Thu 3/14/2019
LAIDAWAYBARCAR
ALTEREGOEXHALE
MAINMENUSEEFIT
ASSEDITSEAR
SHOWINGUSSY
LAPTOPDUKES
ACHEBEWRITAMP
CHEWONTEMONGER
YEWBLOCONAUTO
SAYAHNINEAM
SHRUGDESOTO
HOODMYTHMAD
IMGONEJARLOOSE
PEEKINOLDLATIN
SYRUPSBLACKHAT

The villainous BLACK HAT played upon; HAT implied in the central square (see below for images / fixed-up entries). Four sizzling phrases hid that HAT in confounding ways — YOU DID WHAT, HATE MONGER, HATCHET JOB. CHEW ON THAT! Note how HAT was never alone, like in HAT HEAD or COWBOY HAT. Great work picking themers.

Solid gridwork, too. Not a surprise, given that Will Nediger is one of the best in the business. With only four shortish themers, I'd fully expect a ton of great long fill. ALTER EGO, BAR CAR, HOBO BAG, GET ON IT, OLD LATIN — not disappointed!

I wasn't keen on the grid segmentation, though. I got trapped during my solve in the SW, then again in the SE, then a third time in the NE. So frustrating to dead-end multiple times. It's tough to avoid grid segmentation in a theme layout like this, but I'd have taken lesser sizzling fill in exchange for more grid feng shui. Think about how much more open the grid would have felt without the block between IT IS and PHEW, for example.

The puzzle conceit would have felt more deliberate if the HAT square had been the lone black square not touching any others. As it was, I wondered, why that square? Just because? A bit too random.

That train of thought led to another puzzle, with much more of a BLACK HAT. That would have been exceptional for use in today's! It may not have been possible to have every answer running into the HAT be thematic, but I'd have been okay if it had been just a subset.

"Words or letters in black squares" have been tapped for thematic material enough that Jim wrote a script to help automate the fixup process. One from just a couple of months ago came to my mind immediately. Since this is getting to be an old idea, it'd be helpful if Will (Shortz, not Nediger) spaced them out further going forward.

But aside from dead-ending a couple of times, I enjoyed the solve, enough of a trick to make all the hard work worth it. Strong debut.