Monday, February 1, 2021

Clue of the Year 2020 roundup + indie puzzle highlights: January 2021

January's highlights are at the bottom of the post, but first: clues of the year! As a reminder, constructors could nominate their own clues in two categories (wordplay and non-wordplay), and then anyone could vote for up to five of their faves. Many thanks to both the constructors and the voters! Below, I've got a rundown of all of the clues, including the top vote-getters.

Wordplay clues

#5: [Party crashers] for JENGA TOWERS (Brooke Husic). I love these two-word clues that elegantly repurpose a common idiomatic phrase (and evidently, so do the voters - see also #2 and #1 below).

#4: [10 Downing Street], in a puzzle where 10-Down is SKI, for PICABO (Will Nediger). Not gonna say anything about this one because I wrote it!

#3: [Ancients, for instance] for ANAGRAM (Will Eisenberg). Clues of the form "___ for ___," where "for" trickily indicates a wordplay relationship between the words in the two blanks, are not uncommon, but this one's especially devious because "for instance" is such a common clue tag.

#2: [Stimulus check?] for REFLEX TEST (Joon Pahk). Topical and also beautiful, especially because it reinterprets both of the words in the clue.

#1: [Top gun?] for T-SHIRT CANNON (Trent Evans). This one may only reinterpret one of the two words, but it's still a perfect clue, and it doesn't hurt that T-SHIRT CANNON is a fun answer even without a clever clue. More than half of the 109 voters chose this as one of their top 5 wordplay clues!

Those were the top 5 vote-getters, but there was a stacked lineup of nominations. We also had:

[Period, to feminists?] for WAVE (Max). Really nice misdirect, and it uses a sense of "wave" that's not often clued.

[How are you making out?] for WITH TONGUE (Ada Nicolle). Fabulous seed and a hilarious clue for it (but how does Ada know how her solvers are making out??).

[Ask about a function in math class, maybe?] for PROMPOSE (Paolo Pasco). I knew the term "promposal" but I'm too much of an old to have realized that there was a verb equivalent too. Nonetheless, it's totally inferrable and has an excellent play on the double meaning of "function."

[My kingdom for a horse!] for ANIMALIA (Adam Aaronson). Sure, the wording might be a bit of a stretch, but I doubt I'd even think of trying to come up with a clue like this for a technical term like ANIMALIA, never mind actually succeeding to come up with something laugh-out-loud funny.

[It means nothing to Venus, ironically] for LOVE (Quiara Vasquez). One of those "wish I'd thought of it!" wordplay observations.

[Super bowl add] for ACAI (Amanda Rafkin). I tend to give extra points for fresh clues for answers that we see all the time; there's a pretty narrow range of standard cluing angles for ACAI and this one's a clever twist.

["Pick a side..."] for SOUP OR SALAD (Kate Hawkins). If I'm remembering correctly, there were a bunch of clues I really liked in this puzzle (a themeless collab with Matthew Stock), but this was my fave.

[Bit part on Mr. Ed] for REIN (Rob Gonsalves and Jennifer Lim). [Bit part] alone would have worked for this clue, but the Mr. Ed tie-in is a really elegant touch.

[Bias of articles in Canada] for LEAN (Neville Fogarty). This one's a cryptic clue, which makes it pretty hard to compare with the rest of the clues (sorry, voters!). If I do this again next year, I'll make a separate category for cryptics. Anyway, it's a beautifully concise example - since Canada is bilingual, it uses articles like LE and AN, which combine to make a synonym for "bias."

[State of war?] for SPARTA (Malaika Handa). Good wordplay clues for proper nouns are few and far between, but this is a fabulous example.

[It makes you feel worse about your problem areas?] for LOCAL ANESTHESIA (Max Carpenter). This is one of my personal favorites, because it has three different reinterpretations going on ("feel worse," "about," and "problem areas"). Very intricate!

[They may have cold nuts] for SUNDAES (Dave Murchie). I don't want to give short shrift to clues on the less intricate side of the spectrum, though. Sometimes you just need a good dick joke!

[Frank admission that sounds like A, E, I, O, or U?] for AVOWAL (Bryant White). A different strategy than most of the other nominated clues - not trying to mislead the solver, necessarily, but using a neat wordplay observation to provide an aha moment.

[Beach body?] for SEA (Juliana Tringali Golden). Paradoxically, because there are so many potential cluing angles for an entry like SEA, it can be hard to come up with a good wordplay angle. But this one succeeds completely!

[Hot Gaul summer?] for ETE (Christopher Adams). Another great example of a clue that rescues a bit of overcommon fill - and this time, in French!

[Test with a clear answer] for EYE EXAM (Jess Goldstein).

[Contempt of court?] for TRASH TALK (Brian Thomas).

[Swimwear worn while out looking for an anonymous gay hookup?] for CRUISING SPEEDO (Nate Cardin). Unlike the rest of the nominations, this one's a theme entry - but after all, I didn't give any guidance on what counts as a "wordplay" clue, and this certainly counts. Plus, it's a perfect example of Nate's hilarious cluing style.

[Fish frequently found inside Mahi-Mahi?] for AHI (Rachel Fabi). Lately, we've been seeing a lot of quasi-cryptic clues of this sort, and I have mixed feelings about them, but this one I love - especially the use of "frequently" (two times is, after all, a lot of times for one word to be hidden in another!).

[For example, flight or invincibility] for ICEBREAKER (Ryan Fitzgerald). It took me a while to grok this clue because the wordplay aspect is extremely subtle. You would normally interpret the clue to be asking for something exemplified by "flight" or "invisibility," but it's actually asking for something exemplified by "flight or invisibility." As a clue whose misdirection relies on the relative scope of two operators, it warms the heart of this former linguist.

[If you leave it around the house, someone might trip on it] for LSD TAB (Richard D. Allen). This one really tells a story! Don't leave your LSD tabs around the house, folks.

[Low setting] for LEA (Barbara Olson). "Low" puns in MOO clues are extremely common, and you can spot them a mile away if you're an experienced solver, but this one's for a completely different word, and it also has a perfectly natural non-wordplay reading, so it's much more devious.

[Part of an open-faced club] for ANTIMASKER (Tim Croce). As anyone who solves his puzzles knows, Tim is preternaturally good at coming up with tough clues, and this is a prime example.

[God with fur, feathers, and scales?] for ANUBIS (Andrew Esten). For some reason, I like this clue way better than if it had just been [God with fur and scales?]. Something about the rule of three, maybe, but whatever the reason, I'm a fan.

[Man who made a Pooh] for MILNE (Jesse Lansner and Laura Braunstein). What I said before about dick jokes, but this time with poop jokes.

[Like some ravers] for ON E (Chris Piuma). The entry ONE is usually one word, but ironically, this time it's two! A nice angle that you definitely don't see a lot.

[They come down mid flight] for TRAYS (Steve Mossberg). Beautiful misdirect here - I'm sure most solvers had birds on the brain when they first read this.

[Future date, maybe?] for SEED (Sara Cantor). The rare clue that makes me say "I wish I'd thought of that" and also makes me hungry.

[Hip hop products, briefly] for IPAS (Sid Sivakumar). It feels like I've written approximately a million clues for IPA(S) and I've never once thought of this approach. So good!

Non-wordplay clues

#5: [Former Lifelock CEO Todd Davis's is 457-55-5462] for SSN (Brian Thomas). I love a clue that inspires you to head to Wikipedia and learn an interesting story.

#4: ["The answer to this clue is TIP," e.g.] for LIE (Paolo Pasco). Probably my favorite misdirection of the bunch, just because I could totally see Paolo using this as a clue for TIP.

#3: [One who might pull up a chair to a booth] for FIFTH WHEEL (Brooke Husic). It's a straightforward clue, but it really paints a picture - just one of those perfectly apt, concise clues.

#2: [Weirdly enough, not a nickname for Eastern Michigan University athletes] for EMUS (Rachel Fabi). Honestly, it'd be way better than the Eagles. Who do we talk to about getting that changed?

#1: [Visa, vis-a-vis Avis] for ANAGRAM (Andrew Esten). Try saying that five times fast! Such a fun clue.

"Non-wordplay" is, of course, a multifarious category, and I appreciated all of the different kinds of cool clues people submitted. This post is already long enough, so I won't shout out each of them individually, but I loved them all. I'm going to list them in categories based on what I particularly appreciated about them, though many of them could be slotted in multiple categories:

Educational clues/fun facts

[Film inspired by a "Long Pause" in Polynesian colonization] for MOANA (Will Eisenberg)
[Musical instrument that Margo uses to scary away a leopard in "The Leopard Man"] for CASTANETS (Max Carpenter)
[Jam ___-poly (British pudding also known as "dead man's arm")] for ROLY (Bryant White)
[Island where garbage trucks play music] for TAIWAN (Jess Goldstein)

Intriguing mysteries to investigate

[ (art site)] for WWWWWWWWW (Max)
[She's normal and carries an egg] for CHANSEY (Chris Piuma) (ok, if you know stuff about Pokemon, this is presumably not a mystery at all, but if, like me, you don't, then it's delightfully inscrutable)

Just funny-sounding entries

[Quaint contraction with four apostrophes] for Y'ALL'D'NT'VE (Ada Nicolle)

Fresh angles for ordinary words

[___ Princess (singer of the queer anthem "1950")] for KING (Amanda Rafkin)
[Appliance hue big in the '70s] for AVOCADO (Barbara Olson)

Pointed commentary

[How tabloid media might describe two women who are dating] for GAL PALS (Malaika Handa)
[Sick of staying in (but not actually sick, so that's good)] for STIR CRAZY

Observational comedy

[Streaming button (that often disappears just as you're about to click it!)] for SKIP INTRO (Dave Murchie)
[2020 film that's (basically) a remake of "Clueless"] for EMMA (Jesse Lansner and Laura Braunstein)

References to fun/funny stuff

[Company whose Airblade hand dryer appears in a meme with the caption "worst urinal ever"] for DYSON (Richard D. Allen)
[Garten who said "During a crisis, you know, cocktail hour can be almost any hour" while making herself a pitcher of cosmopolitans at nine in the morning] for INA (Christopher Adams)
[Dangerous pair of urban legend] for POP ROCKS AND COKE (Steve Mossberg)

Clues that I just find funny

[Likely response to the question, "Will you cancel our German final?"] for NEIN (Neville Fogarty)
[The hit musical "Come from Away" is actually not about them, surprisingly enough] for ETS (Tim Croce)
[Is that BeyoncĂ©?!] for SASHA FIERCE (Nate Cardin)

That's so meta

[Rapper featured on the 2020 remix of Lil ___ X's "Rodeo"] for NAS (Adam Aaronson)
[Word often exempted from the "no duplications" crossword rule] for THE (Sid Sivakumar)


[Like movies marketed to teens, often] for PIRATED/PG RATED (Rob Gonsalves and Jennifer Lim)

Whew! If you made it this far, I'd love to hear from you about what you thought worked and didn't work about the nominations/voting/writeup, so I can improve things if I do this again next year.

Onto the monthly roundup!

January 1: Expiration Date (Ricky Cruz, Cruzzles)

January 5: Themeless (Max, Max Puzzles)

January 8: Untitled (Alina Abidi, 7xwords)

January 12: Themeless 88 (Erik Agard, Glutton for Pun)

January 13: Untitled (Malaika Handa, 7xwords)

January 18: 404 Page Not Found (Mollie Cowger, Crosswords from Outer Space)

January 23: The A-A Team (Evan Kalish, USA Today)

January 27: Et Tu 3D (Et Tu Etui)

January 28: Themeless #42 (Brian Thomas and Brooke Husic, Puzzles That Need a Home)

January 30: Demi Themeless Five (Brooke Husic, xwords by a ladee)

January 30: Entry-Level Stuff (Paolo Pasco, Grids These Days)









Expiration Date (Ricky Cruz)

A timely puzzled themed around Flash Player's obsolescence, which is official as of 1/1/2021. The theme entries (FLASH GORDON, FLASHBACKS, FLASHLIGHT, and FLASH PLAYER) all contain the word FLASH, which has to be ignored when solving the down entries. We've seen plenty of examples of this type of theme, but it's always hard to pull off well, because the down entries have to form a valid word either with or without the ignored letters. In this case, a whopping 20 down entries are affected, and there are some elegant long examples, like READDING/REDDING, LINEAR/IN-EAR, and IT'S-A ME/IT'S ME.

Themeless (Max)

I love a wide-open, clean grid, and all the more so when there are excellent highlights like ELAINE DE KOONING, AUTODIDACTIC, CHILI OIL, and GLOWORMS in the fill. Also, SCATTERED ACROSS, perversely as one of the down entries, is a fun touch.

Untitled (Alina Abidi)

7xwords, Malaika Handa's massively collaborative project to publish a puzzle using every legal 7x7 grid pattern in 2021, is already the best thing in crossworld this year. The Oulipian constraint encourages creativity, and we've already seen lots of different approaches to the 7x7 grid (straight themeless, mini-theme, circled letters, etc.). This one's a themeless but you could say the theme is "stuff that's fun to say" - SKIPPY HAPPY HIPPOS KAZOOS KAZUO is an incredibly delightful run of fill.

Themeless 88 (Erik Agard)

Erik's back with (unsurprisingly) a beautifully filled and clued wide-open themeless. Love to see the great throat singer TANYA TAGAQ in the grid, but the highlights for me are a string of really creative, clever clues: [Internal memo?] for NOTE TO SELF, [Folding machines?] for DEFEATISTS, [Someone who might do a touchdown celebration] for FLIER, and [Bit of sheet music?] for SNORE.

Untitled (Malaika Handa)

If you construct custom crosswords, then there's a good chance that you've gotten a request for a puzzle where every grid entry is thematic, and you've had to patiently explain that that's impossible. Well, pretty much impossible. In this 7x7 grid, Malaika achieves the remarkable feat of filling a grid with only words that appear in Taylor Swift lyrics. They're all clued as fill in the blanks, and the beautiful thing is that it's solvable even if you're not a T-Swift fan, since you can logic out the answers.

404 Page Not Found (Mollie Cowger)

On the first day of her new blog, Mollie flexed by dropping not one but two excellent puzzles. I could've picked either, but I'm going with the themed one to counteract the usual glut of themelesses in these roundups. This one has a theme type we've seen many times before: the revealer, BROKEN LINK, indicates that the word LINK is split up across pairs of entries (HOWL/INK-STAINED, E. COLI/N. K. JEMISIN, WENT ALL IN/KUDOS). But it's perfectly executed, with the word split differently every time, and with fill that's smooth and easy while still including some creative touches (especially TAJIN, which I've seen in grids very rarely).

The A-A Team (Evan Kalish)

I tend to give the USA Today puzzles short shrift in these writeups - they're so consistently smooth that it's easy to take their high quality standards for granted. But Evan's puzzles tend to be smooth even by USA Today standards; the fill is sparkling enough and the cluing is easy enough that I can usually do them downs-only in about 1:40. This one is no exception, even with the two J's in the theme entries (JESSICA ALBA, JACINDA ARDERN, and MAYA ANGELOU).

Et Tu 3D (???)

Et Tu, Etui is back! I have to keep taking a break from trying to write this post because every time I look at the "in clues" from this 3D puzzle I can't stop laughing. This site could easily have become a one-note joke, but the attention to comic detail is truly outstanding.

Themeless #42 (Brian Thomas and Brooke Husic)

This puzzle's got an aesthetically pleasing wide-open grid (64 words), but the fill doesn't suffer at all. Highlights include BUBBLE OVER, COPYPASTA, Z SNAPS, CUTESY-POO, DON'T PLAY, AYURVEDA and BEER BATTER. The cluing's predictably great too, including an extreme rarity: an actually entertaining clue for ALERO ([Car in a saleroom?]).

Demi Themeless Five (Brooke Husic)

Two Brooke puzzles in a row! But I couldn't resist including this one, which has an early contender for clue of the year: [Dump over text] for POOP EMOJI. The rest of the puzzle (including PULLOUT GAME clued as [Ability to withdraw]) is also fantastic, but that clue alone would earn it a place on the list.

Entry-Level Stuff (Paolo Pasco)

One of the loveliest surprises in a crossword I've seen lately: a second crossword! Solving the puzzle gives you a code ("pipe down") which, if you enter it, makes another crossword appear. The first grid includes a chunk of black squares shaped like one of the pipes from the Mario games, and the second grid has an upside-down version of the same chunk. Corresponding entries in the grids combine to form legitimate phrases (PRESS/URE, DELE/GATORS, WAR/PZONE, CATT/LEHIDE, and DRYER/ASE), as if you're warping into the pipe from the first grid, into the second grid. Beautiful, high-concept stuff.