Not in bounds? [14]

My favorite type of question-mark clue is one that seems to be describing a common phrase, and this puzzle’s got a bunch more, like Washer dryer? (9), which sounds like a desired component of a rental apartment, and Record skip? (9), which sounds like an undesired component of a vinyl. The boundary one, of course, evokes any number of sports in which a ball or other object can go out of bounds, but this clue is actually talking about the bounds that are associated with leaps, which gives us ONE STEP AT A TIME. Those other two are BATH TOWEL and NO COMMENT respectively, the first talking about a washer (like you, having come out of a shower) and the second referring to one who is willing (or not) to go on the record. The other ? clues are also pretty good, like What makes juice expensive? (9) or Current issue (5), which are both literally electric, referring to an ENERGY TAX and a SHORT. But I’d like to recognize too the work that this constructor does in, having sucked us in with playful stuff, raising the bar on other stuff we should be aware of, like the Ethnocentric lens critiqued by Toni Morrison (9) and the Joy that might come from being aligned in one’s body (14), which are WHITE GAZE and GENDER EUPHORIA. I like that even the negative first one has a positive clue that focuses on the brilliant critic–constructors are directors, calling our focus all over the place.

“If I ____ to Pay the Pink Tax Tampons Should at Least Be Ribbed for My Pleasure” (“Reductress” headline) [4]

Well that happened–an eight hour, thirty-one puzzle solveathon and I didn’t even really put a dent in my backlog. I did, however, get to jump on the latest Inkubator as it launched, and it’s a good one! First off, this is, as far as I’m concerned (unless you’re trying to give solvers gimme squares) the only reason to have a fill-in-the-blank clue, and if you’re going this route, find the best possible quotes or stories that will spice up an otherwise pedestrian entry like HAVE. This quote is outstanding, and lest you think this is somehow “cheating” for a constructor–remember that they still had to find this quote and intentionally use it. It’s the same with the choices for trivia, like Gooey treat whose recipe first appeared in a 1927 Girl Scout guidebook (5)–they didn’t make that up, either, but they chose to include SMORE, and if you think of a crossword as a meal and the constructor as a chef, you should understand why ingredients and portioning (and that extra bit of love) make all the difference between two similar grids. In short, you can’t just Google a common word and find the perfect headline, and if you’ve ever tried to write a trivia night, it’s harder than you think to find interesting yet not wholly obvious clues. Other choices made are Cot-caught ____ (canonical example of phoneme unification) (6), which is another heavy-lifting fill-in-the-blank that has you thinking about phonemes instead of corporate shenanigans for MERGER, and the lovingly high-brow-meets-low-brow Pasta brand whose noodles are similar to anellini (11), and no, the Italian in me is not offended to have these small rings compared to SPAGHETTIOS. Finally, I love a good misdirect, and we get two great ones with Warm stretch? (7) and Self defense? (6), which clue HOT YOGA and SAYS ME respectively. Great fun, and I didn’t even talk about the great theme entries/crossers!

  • Shannon Rapp & Rose Sloan, “Garden Variety,” The Inkubator, 9/22/22

Standing question [15]

I actually feel better knowing that Brooke and Malaika have been kicking iterations of this puzzle back and forth for over a year, because the thought of someone producing a puzzle this smoothly and enjoyably filled… doesn’t bother me at all, but it does make me feel a bit bad for all the other constructors who will never again see the light of day if a quad-stack of these suddenly show up on an editor’s desk. (OK, well I guess Times constructors are safe because Way of doing it (8) probably won’t get published, even though PHONE SEX is perfectly normal and that’s a fantastic clue.)

The titular clue here dares a solver to ask where the question mark is, but you really don’t need it–just think what you’d ask while standing: IS THIS SEAT TAKEN? The same goes for Lesser-known bars (8), which is absolutely misleading if you’re stuck on dives and holes-in-the-wall or speakeasies because this is actually music related: DEEP CUTS. The one clue that does get a ? does so likely only because it requires a bit of pop-culture knowledge: Clarifying statement? (15) as in something you’d say when you’re trying to make something look clearer on one of those miraculous cop shows, or COMPUTER, ENHANCE. Just because reality doesn’t work that way doesn’t mean the puzzle can’t riff on the perception of reality that they put out (and I dunno, maybe surveillance really is getting that good). Also great is Like the dogs on (8), not least because that’s a website you can now check out, but because the answer references an entirely different animal (SHEEPISH). And finally–just to say–there’s a poetry in-joke riffing on William Carlos Williams: Unlike the plums that were in the icebox and which you were probably saving for breakfast (forgive me) (7). This is one of those clues that’s fun to parse: you need to know what famously happened to those plums so that you can confidently write in UNEATEN.

Cryptic Roundup #28 (8/29-9/11)

Totally whiffed on getting something up last week, which means it’s an oversized edition this week (and I may have been a bit more picky with more to choose from, accordingly). Out of 19 perplexing puzzles and 584 conundruming clues that were published between Monday (8/29) and Sunday (9/11), here’s what I found (and remember, if you don’t like guessing when the next roundup will publish, my newsletter will surely tell you when a new one goes up).


  • MPC (minutes per clue): how long it took me to fill in the grid, divided by total number of clues
  • PJ (personal joy): how many times I though a clue’s wordplay and/or surface stood out
  • D (difficulty): a simple average of every clue, rated with a 1 for straightforward mechanisms and up to a 5 for multiple devices, stretchy definitions, or devious wordplay and indicators
  • A variety puzzle has a gimmick that alters how clues are read and/or answers are entered. [V1] does one of those, lightly, [V2] is a bit trickier, [V3] is maximum shenanigans.
  • A themed puzzle has at least eight clues within a similar category.
  • A Twitch puzzle is one that was solved on stream, with a link to it.
  • ($) represents a puzzle available only to subscribers for that outlet. Costs vary. Note that the New Yorker only allows a certain number of articles per week for non-subscribers.


Juff goes two-for-two this roundup with the cheater-y “Bad Idea #2,” which does a very particular thing very well, and then “Loop,” a nifty variety puzzle that he was kind enough to let me suggest some fun clues for (but which sadly means I can’t talk about it here). I learned a lot, mainly that he never cuts corners in the surface department, and I’m happy to collaborate with anyone else looking for a partner. In general I love variety puzzles, so also adored the ones from Bob Stigger in World of GAMES, the rare blocked variety puzzle from Joshua Kosman & Henri Picciotto in Out of Left Field #127, and Steve Mossberg‘s “Heist.” (Matt Monito‘s “DDR” is a good gimmick that harkens back to my arcade days, but I did not have the right knowledge base to prase some of those clues!) Finally, if you just want to see a standard grid jam-packed with fun clues, check out Jeffrey Harris‘s Browser #89.

Learn Something New!

For me at least, one of the joys of a cryptic is learning an old word in a new way. I’ll try to highlight a few surfaces or individual words that did just that:

  • Audibly price footwear and woman’s scarf (5) [OOLF 127, Kosman & Piccioto]
    • There’s a whole brand of cryptics out there that are designed around lesser known words that you learn by cracking the wordplay. I’m not great at those; to me, it’s a lot of guessing along the lines of “is this a thing”? But I did enjoy learning of the FICHU /fee shoe/.

Favorite surfaces (by predominant cryptic category):


  • [4a] Vape, on reflection: cool for all ages (1-3) [“Where in the World #3,” joeadultman]
    • Was this cryptic clue endorsed by the vaping corporations of America? Look, I trust cryptic solvers to be smart enough to not be misled or swayed by advertising, and I trust Joe (Camel) enough to enjoy this as a play on how cigarettes were marketed by “cool” mascots and the media. At any rate, E is a great abbreviation for “for all ages” and I like that “cool is a verb here: [ECI+G]<.
  • [28a] In revolution, puts an end to heartless entitled tyrants (7) [“Theme-less,” joeadultman]
    • If you found the previous clue distasteful, you’ll probably enjoy this one, which is all about justified revolution–and not just the reversal-indicating kind, but the sort that calls out [DE+SPOTS]<. This was a good place for a “heartless” indicator.


[1d] Sorbet at establishment employing modern quality-control technique (4, 4) [Games September 2022, Stigger]

I’m a sucker for those “hide a modern thing” (sorBET AT ESTablishment) in a classic thing (ice cream parlor) surfaces, and “quality-control” is something you’d hope both would have.


  • [22a] Adore old resort, fabulous place (2, 6) [Everyman 3960]
  • [11d] So, a reputable resort offering vehicle for fun (8, 4) [Everyman 3961]
    • “Resort” is an outstanding indicator, so nice I actually got fooled by it again one week after figuring it out. Both surfaces offer smooth, near-invisible anagrams for EL DORADO* (*adore old) and PLEAUSRE BOAT* (*so, a reputable), and that’s great.
  • [19d] Okay with plan for a Bond remake editing out what’s essential to Blofeld (2, 5) [“DDR,” Matt Monito]
    • A very nice surface in which a letter must be removed from the fodder, but it’s all remained very true to the Bond franchise of films–that “F” from “Blofeld” is the sort of good get you can find when your hero has fought like 26 different bad guys. I’m saying I’m ON BOARD* (*[-f]or a Bond) with this clue and especially the “remake” indicator.
  • [14a] Facility is seen as corrupt (8) [“Psychic Medium,” Keynes]
    • I admire surfaces that look simple but then drop one last trick. Yes, we’re clearly looking for an anagram for “facility”–but not the physical kind: EASINESS* (*is seen as).
  • [8d] Clumsy nuns cook with ketchup: they’ll drop some on the floor (8, 7) [“DDR,” Matt Monito]
    • I’m picturing a parodic film series called The Frying Nun that’s just kitchen hijinks with nuns. You see why funny surfaces work? I have no issue with the linking word “with” and even if I did have a complaint, that definition would lay me out: KNOCKOUT PUNCHES* (*nuns cook ketchup).
  • [3d] Any thug could be disobedient (7) [OOLF 128, Kosman & Picciotto]
    • It’s an anagram, but which way? Are we getting “Any thug” from the letters in COULD BE or is it that the letters in ANY THUG make up “disobedient”? For a heavy clue, very elegantly done: NAUGHTY* (*any thug).
  • [40a] Meatball, meltingly soft and light (5, 4) [“Heist,” Mossberg]
    • The surface split is nice here; the meatball is soft, but the “light” is our definition, leading to TABLELAM*+P (*meatball). Double definitions are everywhere, whether they’re the highlighted gimmick or not.


  • [3d] When a countdown might end [:00] (2, 3) [“Theme-less,” joeadultman]
    • The recent essay from Will Eisenberg on “Trust” comes to mind. I may not understand why at first, but I know there is a reason for having the literal countdown clock here–and that’s because it gives us two zeroes: O+NONE.
  • [6d] Heroic to go into area that’s shaking? (9) [NYT 9/4/22, Ewbank]
    • My ideal charade. Clever definition and two (or more) parts that break the word in a novel way: EPIC+ENTER.
  • [4d] Exit, say, on ship (6) [“Psychic Medium,” Keynes]
  • [18a] Say love is focus of human selfishness (6) [“DDR,” Matt Monito]
    • “Say” is one of those innocuously deceptive bits. It looks like a homophone indicator, but it can just as easily mean “e.g.,” as in “for example, say.” These surfaces use it both ways, equally misleadingly, and I’m here for it: E.G. + RE + S.S. and E.G. + O + IS + M.
  • [36a] Knock over fish in online game (6) [“Heist,” Mossberg]
    • My kid isn’t old enough to play this game yet, so for now I think it looks silly and I’m staying far away from it, and this wordplay befits my idea of it perfectly: ROB+LOX. Bonus points for there almost certainly being an option to actually “knock over fish” in this game. Grand Theft Auto: Deli Edition.
  • [11d] Santana vacantly practice banger (7) [“Heist,” Mossberg]
    • I can’t stop picturing the band playing “Smooth” on some very meaty instruments, so thanks for that! Just a real nice use of a modern meaning of “banger to give us SA+USAGE.


  • [9d] Reviewer, wrapping up Stephen King novel: “A pain in the neck, mostly” (6) [OOLF 127, Kosman & Picciotto]
    • King has written so much that this is certainly true of some of his work, although probably not for this particular novel. Either way, though, it’s a humorously reductive take on what a reviewer or CR(IT)IC does and you’ll note that when a surface is this clean, I don’t mind an alternate spelling.
  • [11a] Pooh’s friend Rabbit’s beginning to intervene and provoke (7) [Everyman 3960]
    • I love the fake out here of “Pooh’s friend Rabbit,” which is accurate, but not what’s being used here. Instead, we put “Rabbit’s beginning” inside a different friend of Pooh’s to get a word that very clearly these days means “provoke”: T(R)IGGER.
  • [20a] For example, top power seized by malefactor (7) [OOLF 128, Kosman & Picciotto]
    • K&P are becoming known, at least to me, for this type of break, and that’s not a negative! The split is seamless, yielding S(P)INNER as a kind of top–power being used formulaically.
  • [16d] Overcome by a problem of restricted airflow, Kenan’s partner is using a breathing tube (10) [“Theme-less,” joeadultman]
    • OK, I don’t love “Kenan’s partner” because it’s arbitrary but the rest of this is so good (and I do love the Good Burger-y show that’s being referenced), with two different types of air-related components: SNOR(KEL)ING. Imagine trying to treat apnea this way!
  • [1d] Influence campaign finance watchdog in back (6) [OOLF 127, Kosman & Picciotto]
    • This surface describes something that’s not on the up-and-up, but the wordplay itself is 100% legit: AF(FEC)T.
    • I can’t stop picturing the band playing “Smooth” on some very meaty instruments, so thanks for that! Just a real nice use of a modern meaning of “banger to give us SA+USAGE.


  • [27d] Result of cramping style–not to criticize (4) [“Bad Idea #2,” juff]
    • I really like to see whole word deletions; they’ve got a bit more play or surprise to them than simple curtailments and beheadments. “Cramping style” is a nice place to split here, too, giving us [-pan]ACHE.
  • [25a] Pull from storytelling device with amnesia at the start (4) [“Welcome to the Inn,” joshsolves]
    • “With amnesia at the start” is a fantastic indicator to suggest losing (or forgetting) a letter and it is even better in this surface, which yields [-t]ROPE.
  • [7d] Top story: “Network of bars rejecting outsiders” (5) [Browser 88, Cardin]
    • I feel like FOX reported on this very story when a rowdy MAGA-hat-wearing fellow was asked to remove the apparel or leave, but those aren’t the outsiders we’re talking about here, and that’s not the kind of top story: [-l]ATTIC[-e].
  • [21a] Age of beheading a member of a noble group? (3)  [“Where in the World #3,” joeadultman]
    • Between this clue and the tyrant one above, I think we should either keep Joe very far away from the guillotines… or get him one for his birthday. It’s OK, the police–we’re not talking about those nobles, see? [-n]EON.

Double Definition

  • [3d] Pedestrian where they shouldn’t be? (6-2-3-4) [“Psychic Medium,” Keynes]
    • How often will you find a phrase that, with perfect surface sense, doubles for two meanings like this? This isn’t average or median at all, despite the MIDDLE-OF-THE-ROAD answer.
  • [18a] Like an anagram that’s not working? (3, 2, 5) [NYT 9/4/22, Ewbank]
    • A lovely, semi-meta clue that doesn’t use an anagram but spot-on describes it: OUT OF ORDER.
  • [19a] Lecture that might be a little flat (7) [Everyman 3960]
    • Are we really talking about yet another boring lecture here? Nope! This is a UK setter, so we’re looking at a double for ADDRESS, a place that literally might be a little flat.
  • [1d] One who’s blamed or one who’s worshipped? (4) [New Yorker 9/11, Kosman & Picciotto]
    • This is a neat turn of phrase given the way we’ve repurposed this word as an acronym (see the following heteronym section): this word is now both positively and negatively charged and maybe that makes it the GOAT word?
  • [22d] Panic in part of aircraft (4) [Everyman 3961]
    • I don’t like to see the word “panic” anywhere near an “aircraft,” but I feel a little better about it as long as I’m on solid ground myself, and so long as we’re in cryptic territory, but I am certainly never going to look at a FLAP the same way.


  • [24a] Reagan campaign slogan produces something negative? (8) [AVCX 9/8/22, Zawistowski]
    • I don’t particularly hide my politics, sorry. His slogan was “Let’s make American great again,” and that has very clearly led to bad things for this country, so this is about as true a surface as you will ever get by way of science: ELECT RON.
  • [19d] Legal official’s musical phrase for women? (7) [OOLF 128, Kosman & Picciotto]
    • Some people obey their local deputies, but I only listen to those who can carry a tune as well and do that SHE-RIFF.
  • [25a] Attack Michael Jordan or Simone Biles? (4) [OOLF 127, Kosman & Picciotto]
    • K&P clued this same word as a double definition above, here’s how it plays out as a heteronym, adding a space between the word for these two great athletic examples to describe an act of violence: GO AT.


  • [29d] Broadcast earlier broadcast (3) [“Welcome to the Inn,” joshsolves]
    • Echo clues are particularly apt for homophones, and this is a very smooth one that reminds solvers that broadcast isn’t just an indicator, it’s also AIR /ere/.
  • [17a] Enlightenment in, we’re told, (7) [Everyman 3961]
    • A cute nod to the publisher of the Everyman puzzle, this is INSIGHT /in site/.
  • [8d] Cheap place to stay sounds less than welcoming (6) [Browser 89, Harris]
    • An oldie but a goodie, at least if you watched Eli Roth’s 2005 horror film that basically went no further than this basic similarity; this is a HOSTEL /hostile/.
  • [7a] Sounds like #1 joint for card game (8) [AVCX 9/8/22, Zawistowski]
    • Always here for a good #1 joke, especially with this clever pairing with “joint,” which makes me think of an underground PINOCHLE /pee knuckle/ club that also hosts MMA fights.


  • [24a] Spooner disappoints supplier’s marketing group (5,5) [Browser 88, Cardin]
    • A terse spoonerism that pays off in spades by leaning into the commerce of SALES FORCE /fails source/.
  • [3d] Reverend Spooner’s taunting remark put on break-up letter (4, 4) [Browser 89, Harris]
    • A fun thing about spoonerisms is not needing the root phrase to make sense. This could’ve been “jeered on,” but no, we get “put on” for surface reasons, and that’s even better: DEAR JOHN /jeer don/.
  • [14d] According to Spooner, Holmes’ creator pleads for simple culinary fare (6, 4) [Everyman 3960]
    • See? This knighted author was a true Everyman, the sort of guy who, despite commercial success is still just looking for good BOILED EGGS /Doyle begs/.
  • [14a] Rev. Spooner’s charming pitch for a yarn-making device (8,5) [Games September 2022, Stigger]
    • “Charming pitch” makes for a lovely phrase but, hey, did you know that his real name was Rumpelstiltskin? SPINNING WHEEL /winning spiel/.


  • [31a] Excites Tesla coils! (10) [Browser 88, Cardin]
    • How exciting it must have been to discover this self-descriptive anagram of OSCILLATES* (*Tesla coils).
  • [26a] Finally, after appropriate review, redo your task! (6) [Games September 2022, Stigger]
    • A cute last-letter path for REWORK.
  • [3d] Some gum, in taste! (4) [New Yorker 9/4, Cox & Rathvon]
    • All &lits are good because they’re true. “Some” is working overtime here both as indicator but also as the qualifier that not all gum–just an awful lot of it–is guM IN Taste.
  • [16a] It’s used to start retrieving fish! (4) [Browser 89, Harris]
    • Does this one need a qualifier given that you can also trawl or fish without this object? Nah, for our purposes the connection is well enough established for R+EEL.

Letter Bank

  • [15d] Lab worker reorganized and redistributed insect parts (9) [Browser 89, Harris]
  • [18d] Found value in Sade played on shuffle-repeat (8) [“Bad Idea #2,” juff]
    • I’ve been saying that letter bank clues, more than almost any other type, require really strong indicators, and these two are outrageously good. A technician working with pieces for insect > SCIENTIST and then a musician being on “shuffle-repeat” with a “played” in there for good measure to make sade > ASSESSED? Love these, truly.


  • [28a] Reluctant male model against shaking behind (8) [“Heist,” Mossberg]
    • All models are likely to face exploitation at some point, if reality television is to be believed at least, so kudos to this fictional character for giving the example of when and where to take a stand: HE+SIT+ANT[-i].
  • [22d] It just shows . . . backward Michegan put nothing into reading, writing and arithmetic (6) [“Bad Idea #2,” juff]
    • I’m not sure if the misspelling of Michigan, but given this surface, it is funnier to leave it in. (I am very proud, after all the scoffing they did of English classes, that my “elite” high school, Stuyvesant, gave me a diploma in Science and Mathemetics.) And it does show, literally: MI+RR(O)R.
  • [9a] Cooler installed in a bus for summer (6) [AVCX 9/8/22, Zawistowski]
    • The only thing that isn’t smooth about this surface is the sad realization that most districts are just going to let their kids sweat it out if they wound up needing summer classes. How backward, almost like an A+B(AC)US.
  • [13a] Fixes member of Congress with a naked girl at either end of week (6, 4) [“DDR,” Matt Monito]
    • Who doesn’t like a scandalous clue now and again? That said, I think the real star here is “either end of week,” which does a lot of work, literally: REP+A+[-g]IR[-l]+W OR K.
  • [11a] Retro banger featuring popular singer/rapper (5) [Browser 89, Harris]
    • We had a banger-as-sausage clue earlier, but this one’s showing you the other sense: M(IN)AJ<.


  • [16a] Demands lovemaking after cycling (6) [Browser 88, Cardin]
    • I don’t relate to this clue, either in the “demands” department or the sense of doing absolutely anything else physical after a good bike ride, but that doesn’t stop me from laughing at it, because both of these things can be true: {}EX ACT{S}.
  • [10a] Belt out ballads incompletely (just the intros) (3)  [“Where in the World #3,” joeadultman]
    • “Just the intros” is a delightful way to indicate on a musical surface that has suggested an incomplete work, and it hides the real use of “belt” entirely: O+B+I.
  • [28a] Wide, costly piano swapped for trombone at first (9) [OOLF 128, Kosman & Picciotto]
    • Real talk: price aside, it is much easier to have a trombone than a piano, especially with Manhattan real estate being what it is. Good thing we’re not really using either of these instruments in this clue, then: EX{p/T}ENSIVE.
  • [20a] Stories that can be read backwards (5) [OOLF 128, Kosman & Picciotto]
    • That’s a fun way to cue a palindrome like SAGAS. Oho, you say!
  • [4d] Starting point of petroleum product, replacing vanadium with boron (8) [AVCX 9/8/22, Zawistowski]
    • Like the music clue above, this is a nice swap, this time using two elements that I would believe could appear in this petroleum product to move from this jelly to a new start: {v/B}ASELINE. I really appreciate how different the two parts sound.
  • [2d] Cover surface of meat with combination of spices: a step in the Cuban tradition (5) [“Theme-less,” joeadultman]
    • I love the way this effortlessly shifts from cooking to dance with a RU(M)B+A and a well-utilized “a” and “step.”
  • [1d] Prime spots in atrium designed for walk (6) [“Bad Idea #2,” juff]
    • I’m just impressed by people who can make sensible phrases out of restricted placements like evens and odds or every third letter. I particularly like “prime spots” in this surface because that’s genuinely how I can hear an architect explaining it.

Rule Breakers

[15d] Musical instrument heard in Hoboken (4) [New Yorker 9/11, Kosman & Picciotto]

I don’t know that this is necessarily a rule breaker, but I’ve never seen a hidden homophone before. (Next week I’ll talk about a reversed letter selection.) It’s cool, and direct enough that solvers shouldn’t have a problem picking out the answer hOBOken /OBOE/.

Definitions Only

  • [21a] What some might call “Law & Order” finale involving nature worshipper (9) [Browser 89, Harris]
    • This is god-tier fill, and a really deceptive placement in the surface, with “finale” really looking to be part of “Order” if not the television series itself. In actuality, it’s CO(PAGAN)DA, and boy does every part of that except the out-of-place (but necessary for the wordplay) nature worshipper sing.
  • [13a] Oddly callow actor without a thing on the line? (10) [Browser 89, Harris]
    • “Thing on the line” could be very high stakes, or it could be as trivial as it is here–a CLO+THESPI[-a]N.

Beats Me

  • [1a] Pressing Adam? (6) [OOLF 128, Kosman & Picciotto]
    • I wasn’t even thinking of punny prefixes here because I don’t often use this original one, but yeah, that’s a solid way to describe Adam, the UR-GENT.
  • [2d] Caretaker in Bury on WhatsApp? (7) [Everyman 3960]
    • I think this is INTER+IM because that’s a word for how to bury someone and what you do on WhatsApp, but I don’t think I’ve heard this for “caretaker” before. I think it’s a common UK football association, and shame on Ted Lasso for not teaching me that sooner.
  • [25d] Cliff and Mark left following injury (4) [Everyman 3960]
    • No clue. I think I filled in SCAR, but I didn’t feel good about that.
  • [17d] Did river divide Spain and Germany? (8)  [“Psychic Medium,” Keynes]
    • I like the word EXECUTED here for “Did,” nice and deceptive, and I can see “cut” as a potential way to divide, but I don’t know what to do with the river or the countries.

1Across Weekly Crossword Contest #398: SUPERLATIVE

These clues all have the same answer. Check the highlighted link above for the answer and to see the full list of ones submitted.

  • Unparalleled pleasure on popping bit of Viagra – sex’s revolutionary! (11)
  • I put several rowdy, drunken, tulip-averse relatives up; unfortunately, any one of them would be horribly repulsive at best (11)
  • Trap elusive mutation of the highest order (11)
  • Wonderful, exotic silver tea cup about to be given away (11) 
  • “Evita” plus “ER”, strangely, is the absolute best (11)

And mine: 

  • Eat emergency room laxative, shitting out 40% of Xanax–that’s excessive (11)

And for those of you who have made it to the end of this recap, I want to leave you with a burning question for the comments or next week’s Twitch stream or Twitter. Well, two since this is a double issue, so to speak.

  • Inspired by Juff’s passionate takedown of symmetry–yay or nay? I don’t think there’s enough to be gained by having symmetry in a grid, especially a barred one, to justify whatever compromises that may require to the fill/theme. I’m sure some of you will disagree, but why?
  • We’re fine–sometimes begrudgingly–with abbreviations from text speech, like U for “you,” or from other fields, like P for “power” or R for “resistance.” Do inferable but non-indicated homophonic swaps bug you, like T from “tea”?

I’ll be back on stream on Monday night (9:00 Eastern) on September 26–and possibly earlier, as I did a fun impromptu crossword-only stream on a random night where I found myself with some free time. I also might be looking for a new night to stream, so if y’all have preferences, let me know!

contraction no one uses except for in the Star Spangled Banner or poetry i guess [3]

You should read the introduction to this puzzle, which explains “i had a pretty bad day yesterday, but i made this funky, lightly themed 11×15 midi puzzle to cope ❤ i hope you all find it silly and uplifting like i do!” Crosswords are, and should be, a conversation, otherwise they’re just one step removed from being entirely computer-generated. The two “light” themers here have to do with catcallers: birds whose name definitely doesn’t have a second meaning associated with cat-calling (9) and birds that definitely don’t have a second meaning associated with what’s definitely not being mentioned in the catcall in 15-across (7), in short, GREAT TITS and BOOBIES. Like stand-up comedy, this is a great way of turning something hurtful into something positive, clever even, and while I wish people would just be more respectful, I am in awe of those who say stuff like, “Fuck it, I’m gonna channel this into a crossword.” The main entry I chose, incidentally, isn’t about toxic men, but is just as representative of how thoughts might filter through a constructor and to the solver, in this case, “Oh, say can you see a single place where O’ER is ever used?” (I guess the missing meta parenthetical here would’ve been “(or crosswords like this one).”) Oh, I also adored Queen Anne’s Revenge but also GentleBeard (BlackStede??? no that feels wonky) (11), which is a really clever–cryptic, I would say–way to get at a PIRATE-SHIP, as in the act of shipping two people, pirates in this case (Blackbeard and Stede Bonnet, the Gentleman Pirate). Along the same lines of that creative thinking, actor Liu of Shang-Chi who no one thinks isn’t a ____lacrum of himself but we’ll never get the REAL truth, will we (4), which is probably the best clue SIMU will ever get.

Academic-sounding euphemism for “shit no one cares about” [9]

I’ve said it before but will continue to maintain that, after growing up a steady diet of You Don’t Know Jack, I will always have a soft spot for where high culture and pop culture collide. This clue goes a step further, even, in marrying an ivory towered bit of Latin with the very low-brow “shit,” and hey, that’s the thing about the language–ESOTERICA is in fact an equivalent! Other neat decisions from the constructor:

  • C+ but not A+, say (3) looks as if it’s something computer program-y, but it’s even more deceptive than that, going all the way to how much you remember from Chemistry 101, as only one of these two is an ION.
  • Video game dog who rhymes about kung-fu, driving lessons, using the toilet… (7) thrives on that ellipsis, which promises so much more absurdity. They still make weird games, just look at Cosmo D’s latest, Betrayal at Club Low, but this ostensibly kid-facing Schoolhouse Rap rhythm game was just so good, and this clue for PARAPPA should make you seek it out.
  • “Having ____ and taking medicine for it is nothing to be ashamed of”: Simone Biles (4) is a clue type I’m not normally a fan of, the fill-in-the-blank, but the way it’s used here, to normalize a condition that has been so misunderstood and misdiagnosed? That brings art to ADHD and provides a positive-facing way to clue it.
  • “____ Creek” (TV show that ran for six seasons and had notable LGBTQ representation) (7) is also a fill-in-the-blank, obviously, but I love this one because it does what I thought this type of clue couldn’t: be deceptive. You can see recency bias on full display here if you tried to make SCHITT’S work here, instead of the slightly older ’90s reference–eerily described the same way–that was DAWSON’S.

In short, never settle for basic clues or fill. Find the topics that interest you, find fun ways to discuss them, and audiences will love you (or at least your puzzles) forever. Don’t let anyone tell you that something like Online retailer that sells dresses in all sizes from 0 to 36W (7) is “shit no one cares about.” You care about it; time for the rest of the world to get hip to it: ESHAKTI.

Drag name for Gilbert Baker, designer of the rainbow flag [9]

One of the underrated features of any language, and a core component of cluing in general both in trivia and crosswords, is a word or phrase’s inferability (or inevitability, if you will). That’s how we get portmanteaus that are easily accessible, how we unpack idioms, and what makes a good (or bad) pun. The constructor may not have come up with this one, but he was wise enough to spotlight it. If you know anything about flag-making, you can get to Betsy Ross. If you know anything about the campiness of drag, you can get the last couple of inches to the delightful answer, BUSTY ROSS. There are other instances, too! Creature atop the miner Willard’s head, in “Jak and Daxter” (6) doesn’t actually require you to know anything about this delightful video game trilogy, only to think of an animal that might be associated with a (coal) miner–namely a CANARY. Clues can also be dressed up like, Hercules character, who per Kate Knibbs, is “the only Disney princess with a shitty ex-boyfriend, except she’s not an official Disney princess” (3). It’s likely that if you get this, even if you know Knibbs or the mythology of Megaera, you’re getting it from the only three-letter Hercules character (MEG) but wow, all that extra information is delightful, and now you’ve got other stuff to look up. A few other really good clues from a standout puzzle: Fulfilled a minor responsibility, in millennial-speak (8) has great fill and clever cluing over what you determine “minor” to mean (ADULTED), Breaker breaker (5) is a minimistically appealing echo along the same lines as “Buffalo buffalo….” that yields JETTY, and It’ll help block out all the “bullshit” (9) is a justifiably quoted use of foul language in a clue, since we’re talking about the TAPE DELAY that would help a censor stop it. Isn’t it nice to talk about language like adults every once in a while? So much more good stuff; you can check out my real-time solve and reactions on Twitch.

  • Brian Thomas, AVCX+, 9/16/22

Enjoy unearned success despite preventative counterstrikes from the universe, perhaps [11]

There are two components to every crossword: the clue, and the fill. (A cryptic has two more: the straight clue, the wordplay, the surface, and the fill.) The best entries are going to be those that excel at all given opportunities, and that’s why I’ve highlighted FAIL UPWARDS. Not only is that an amazing (and depressing) term in which the world shows itself to be stacked in certain people’s favor, but it has a terrific clue that emphasizes the wrongness: we’ve got “unearned” and “preventative counterstrikes from the universe” which is just like, how has this been allowed?! In other well-described clues, we’ve got Like one using the “biting lip” emoji, perhaps [5], which, yes, it’s fun to convert emojis back into text: how would you define some of these and why is LUSTY so perfect? There’s also Music style that pairs Yoruba beats with proto-disco instrumentals [8], which is a meaty and inferable clue that seems way more respectful of this subject that most that are just looking to jazz up their puzzle but don’t actually care about AFRO FUNK. Then we’ve got It’s just a big, British bodega, innit? [5] which, OK, I would’ve clued without “British” because “innit” is doing all the work there for TESCO, innit? That said, I’m a big fan of structural clues, where the presentation itself gets at the answer, in this case, the accent. Finally, the puzzle closes with two modern phrasings, one the delightful portmanteau SPAMALANCHE and the other an apt description of remote work’s ZOOM FATIGUE. Both clues, Catastrophic amount of unwanted email that may render one’s inbox unnavigable (11) and E-meeting ennui (11) are perfect, from the alarms of “catastrophe” and “unnavigable” to the terse alliteration you might expect from someone overwhelmed. Only 11×11, this one feels like it made every entry count.

“Helping You Ditch Wedding Stress” podcast/blog [11]

This podcast clue is the lone middle entry, the anchor to the puzzle which stands out. It’s very valuable real-estate, especially since it signals to the reader that this term was almost certainly a seed or an intentional placement from the constructor, and not just a well-clued turn of phrase to salvage something that the rest of the chosen grid entries necessitated. As such, it tells you plenty about what the constructor wants readers to walk away with, and as things go, even if you’re not into that scene, BRIDECHILLA is a fantastic name (I’m assuming a play on the bride + Godzilla portmanteau) that’s well worth learning. I suppose if you don’t like stumbling into fun words, this won’t do anything for you, but I would ask why you’re solving crosswords at all in that case. A few other fun bits from the way the familiar ANTS is clued in _____ : raisins :: log : celery (4). As a cryptic guy (specifically @thatcrypticguy), I admire clues that reparse familiar things, this time in the form of an analogy as opposed to the more direct (though perhaps idiomatic?) finger food. Finally, some credit to the choice of fill and cluing: Hivemind communication? (8) is fun but the answer BEE DANCE is amazingly evocative, while the reverse goes for ON A DATE, which is elevated by the beaming tone of Out with one’s sweetie (7).

NOTE: I know I've got my regular cryptic roundup, but I do still want to more regularly highlight fun crossword clues, a vital component for setters of either type of puzzle. Please don't be shy about reaching out to me on Twitter or Twitch if there's a grid you'd like me to solve or talk about. I've been pretty candid about the types of puzzles I like!

Your mom’s home cooking vis-à-vis your mom’s home cooking in exchange for helping her change her online banking password, for example [5]

I don’t know if I’ve ever solved one of this constructor’s CROSSWEIRD puzzles before, and shame on me for that, but this is why I keep telling people to look out for indie puzzles, because they’ve got really hip voices that they’re not afraid to use (or at least, that won’t get misshapenly edited out). This clue in particular is great, hinging on some actual knowledge, of the comparative vis-à-vis, but framed in a very endearing (and not actually repetitive) fashion, especially if you’re from one of those generations where every conversation with your parents might turn you into tech support at any minute. At any rate, the answer FREER is simple, but it’s elevated by the clue, and a good puzzle should always be doing that in at least one of the two directions (fill to clue also works), the occasional bit of unavoidably basic abbreviated glue aside. Other spotlights include Software keys? (5) for SYNTH, the neatly phrased Heaven, at least for seven minutes (6) as CLOSET, and the very nice misdirect of Spot-gaps? (8) for DOG DOORS. In all that, we’ve also got casual references to the Magic WandTM, The Room (You’re tearing him apart, Lisa! (6), one of the only cases where I’m okay shifting from character to an actor who is even more of a character–WISEAU), and modernisms like “How come?” in textspeak (4), which looks like nonsense on the page, but makes perfect sense as Y THO. It’s all just very, very solid and, more importantly, fun.