Writing the Perfect Crossword Puzzle Clue | The New Yorker
Writing the Perfect Crossword Puzzle Clue | The New Yorker

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Break the Fourth Wall

Jules Markey’s puzzle is for the birds.

The Plaza de España in Sevilla, Spain

WEDNESDAY PUZZLE — It’s a welcome return for Jules Markey, who’s making his 22nd appearance in the New York Times Crossword! This one was pretty tricky for a Wednesday, in my view, between a higher-than-average number of clues I’d classify as “tricky” and another element you might more commonly expect to find on a Thursday (more on that below).

But first, I want to break the fourth wall for a moment and speak directly to you — yes, you, the person reading this right now. There have been a lot of changes here at Wordplay over the past few months, between me joining the team, the departure of the Spelling Bee to its own forum, Deb Amlen’s (blessedly short) leave of absence and our hiatus from Crosswords Live. I just want you to know how much I appreciate having the opportunity to talk to you three days a week about crossword puzzles. Thank you for sticking with us, and I hope you continue to come back. Crossword people like you are some of the best people, and it’s such a joy to write for you.

By the way, you look great today. Did you do something different with your hair? Whatever it is, it’s working.

Tricky Clues

1A. “Animal that’s also a plant?” is a punny clue for MOLE, which is both a fuzzy subterranean mammal and a spy on the inside of the organization on which she is spying, also called a plant.

13A. The IDES, as in “The IDES of March,” is the Roman calendar name for the day that occurs on either the 15th or 13th of a month, depending on whether the month contains 31 days or not. It is the “Follower of the calends and the nones” because the Roman calendar called the first day of the month the “calends” and the seventh or fifth day of the month the “nones.”

46A. “What participles shouldn’t do” is a grammarian’s clue for DANGLE. A “dangling participle” is a modifier in a sentence that modifies a noun not actually contained in that sentence. For example, “Writing this explanation, the clue actually doesn’t seem that tricky.” “Writing this explanation” modifies me, the writer, but I’m not actually in the sentence, so instead the phrase is left dangling. Isn’t grammar fun?

55A. I expected “John of Scots” to be a reference to some historic person, like Mary, Queen of Scots. But instead the clue wanted the name that is equivalent to “John” in the language Scots, which is IAN.

9D. If you’re a newer solver, you may not have encountered the word EDDA (I certainly have never seen it outside of crossword puzzles). An EDDA is one of two Icelandic literary works, one of which was a “literary source for Wagner’s ‘Ring’ cycle.”

12D. In plays, movies, TV shows or crossword columns, ASIDES are comments made directly to the audience, breaking the “fourth wall.”

17D. Although ANON is often clued as short for anonymous, here it is clued in the Shakespearean sense of “In short order” (think Juliet crying “ANON, good nurse!” to mean “I’ll be there in a minute, lady!”).

25D. I quite recently learned that “pokey” can mean “slow,” but in this case “pokey” is slang for jail, also slangily called “the CAN.” I prefer “slow” — cute names for jail don’t really make it any more appealing.

26D. “Be in a red state, perhaps” does not refer to being in a conservative part of the country, but rather to being in the red, financially. To “be in a red state” is therefore to OWE.

48D. “Current event?” is a punny clue for EL NIÑO, which is a climate pattern associated with warm ocean currents.

51D. This one took me a minute. A “Flat liner?” is a liner that could go inside of a flat, which is a type of shoe. Another name for such a shoe liner is INSOLE.

59D. “Made a touchdown” sounds like a sports clue, but it actually refers to a flying thing touching down to earth. For instance, a bird that has “made a touchdown” on a tree has ALIT.

61D. I was fooled for a moment here. An “Award for a great play” is not a Tony, which would fit and works with the Y, but is instead an ESPY, which is the award given out by ESPN for great sports plays (among other things).

Today’s Theme

Warning! A rebus has been detected! Rebus puzzles, which require you to fill in more than one letter in a single box, are typically reserved for Thursdays, when solvers are more primed to expect something tricky. If you are a Monday-Wednesday solver, this may be a new element for you, but never fear: There’s a guide for that. This article will walk you through how to enter more than one letter in the grid if you are solving in the app or on the website.

This puzzle calls for four rebus squares, all of which are filled in with the same three letters. The revealer at 63A is the key to unraveling what those three letters are: “Typecasts, in a way … or a hint to four squares in this puzzle” is the clue for PIGEONHOLES. Merriam-Webster defines “pigeonhole” in three ways:

1. a hole or small recess for pigeons to nest

2. a small open compartment (as in a desk or cabinet) for keeping letters or documents

3. a neat category which usually fails to reflect actual complexities

The third definition here is the one that matches the revealer clue — to pigeonhole people is to typecast them by putting them in neat categories that fail to reflect their complexities. The first definition is the one that unlocks the rebus. Scattered throughout the grid are four PIGEONHOLES into which the solver must put the sound a pigeon makes: “COO.”

For example, at 49A, the clue is “Brand with a snow-covered mountain on its label.” This can only be COORS LIGHT, but there is only space for _RS LIGHT. In that one box, the solver must enter COO, which also works with the Down entry crossing through it (OIL TYCOON).

My favorite rebus of the puzzle occurs at the intersection of ME WANT COOKIE (“TV monster’s catchphrase”) and COCOONING (“Doing dinner and a movie at home, say”), a term I had never heard before but one that aptly describes my last year and a half.

It turns out that the second definition of “pigeonhole” from Merriam-Webster was the impetus for this puzzle, coming as it does from a 30-year employee of the United States Postal Service! Over to you, Mr. Markey:

Constructor Notes

I live in Blue Bell, Pa., which before 1840 was called Pigeontown for the sky-darkening flocks of passenger pigeons that once alighted there.

A species that numbered in the billions was hunted to extinction until the last one died in captivity in 1914. However, that historical fact has nothing to do with the genesis of this puzzle.

That would be the fact of being around pigeonholes every day of my 30-year career with the Postal Service, both at Fairmount Station, where the clerks sorted mail into pigeonholes, and in the mailrooms of the high-rise apartment buildings I delivered to. It was during a fallow creative period in late 2019, that I finally saw the crossword potential of those ubiquitous little boxes.

Hope you found this puzzle to be a pleasant diversion, especially if you’ve found yourself cooped up this past year.

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