Wordplay, The CROSSWORD COLUMN
A Sunday debut from David W. Tuffs puts a lot on our plate.
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SUNDAY PUZZLE — Today we have one of those grids that’s completely befuddling until that mental connection happens — click! — that brings clarity and an appreciation for the clever mind that assembled the pattern. David W. Tuffs is to blame; the pattern's execution required sifting through endless lists of phrases, but he enjoyed doing it.
Mr. Tuffs is, fittingly, a fourth-year linguistics student at the University of California, Santa Cruz, and a contributor to that school’s satirical publication, “The Fish Rap Live!” This is his third Times puzzle, after a Thursday debut and a Wednesday grid, both from last autumn and both full of quirky linguistic humor, which is also fitting.
There are some really smart, sneaky puns in the short fill of this grid. “March madness figure” — HARE — is a nod to an Old English expression (that famously figures in “Alice in Wonderland”); IMDB, the entertainment website, is clued as “Where you might see scrolling credits?” because you could browse it forever. IMDB reminds me that there’s some fun pop-culture trivia: I know JADEN Smith and Heidi KLUM, but could not get WOODY based on one line from a movie.
52A. “Out on their own” sounds a little lonely, but if that’s how some folks get out of jail, say, they’re ESCAPEES.
58A. If you don’t know this one, you’re not going to deduce it — KNEX are toys from the 1990s that are still popular and used in early STEM education, so modern generations of kids may be familiar with those little connectors and cogs.
7D. After the fact, it makes sense that “chrism” would be a religious substance; it’s an oil used when a priest ANOINTS someone in sacrament.
71D. This entry harks back to a pre-surveillance era, when the only “classroom with a camera” in school was the AV LAB.
There are 11 theme entries today, at 23-, 24-, 34-, 47-, 55-, 67-, 82-, 90-, 99-, 115- and 117-Across. Each finishes with a run of gray boxes, and each is clued with a straightforward definition — no pun clues here.
Not a lot of easy answers, either, as these clues are all fairly generic. I had confidence in a couple of clues on the right side of the grid: 99-Across, “Birthplace of three major world religions,” which had to be “middle east,” and 82-Across, “Feature of a healthy dog,” which I sniffed out as “wet nose.” The second word in each of these expressions inhabits gray boxes — “east” and “nose.”
A bit lower down, at 117-Across — “Demonology and such” — I wrote in “black arts,” given a couple of crossing letters from IBMS and ADRIANA Lima in the Down entries. It was here that I started having problems with all of the Downs that ran through the gray squares in these Across entries.
For example, 76D: “One end of a cell.” I assumed that the cell was a battery, which meant that ANODE was my answer. The next clue, 77D, is “_____ circus,” which solved to MEDIA. But neither of these jibed with either “nose” or “east.” In addition, after filling in a few more crosses, I realized that 100D had to be SETS TO (I needed STAY LOOSE at the very bottom to feel any confidence on this, but it was the proverbial straw that broke this theme open to me). Once I had SETS TO, ANODE and MEDIA, I almost reflexively realized that 78D, “To now,” had to be AS YET. That gave me all four spots where I’d wanted to put “nose,” and all four spots where I’d wanted to put “east” — but they had to be ONES and SEAT to make the rest of this part of the puzzle work.
So, we’re changing “nose” to ONES and “east” to SEAT. First of all, these are anagrams, scrambles of the same letters to form new words. Second of all, these anagrams, next to the same first word, create entirely new terms: WET ONES (a brand name that I know just enough to recognize) and MIDDLE SEAT. Farther down, “black arts” has to appear as BLACK STAR. In order to solve the puzzle, you need to rearrange the last half of each theme entry, revealing the meaning behind the puzzle’s title, “Ordering Seconds.”
I tend to think these are the simplest three examples of the bunch, and they’re not the most delightful. There are a couple more that are about as accessible — I’m thinking of the “oil lamp” and the “dead stop.” I dearly love the piscine reference, and the showpiece theme entry at the center of the grid is a massive wow: PEANUT ALLERGY, with a clue for “peanut gallery.”
I found 115-Across to be very difficult: “Advances in a baby’s cognitive development.” I got stuck in the weeds of Piaget’s four stages, but the answer is perfect for this style of puzzle (or, really, any good crossword): “mental leaps” reorders to MENTAL LAPSE.
I’m excited to be back in The Times and doubly excited to have my first Sunday puzzle published. This puzzle got its start with an entry that didn’t make it into the final version: SOLAR PANEL/PLANE, which cropped up while I was looking for entries for another theme now lost to time. Once I had that entry and the aha moment that ‘this could be a puzzle,’ I went to the largest online list of anagrams I could find and spent the next week or so sifting through it to see what was out there. Some entries that were interesting, but not the best for crosswords (or had the anagram in the wrong place) were PARENTAL/PATERNAL LEAVE, ONE MORE NIGHT/THING, and NEVER/NERVE ENDING. Filling in a 21×21 grid always takes a lot of time, so I spent a while either putting it off or trying to make my favorite entries fit into a 15×15 grid, but over the fall I got caught up in the Delta wave of the coronavirus, leaving me stuck at home for a week and finally giving me the motivation to finish it.
As a final note in the puzzle, the solution to 117-Across has a third possible anagram that can form a real phrase. Can you figure it out?*
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