Analysis | Solution to Evan Birnholz’s Aug. 2 Post Magazine crossword, “Alphabet Soup”

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Next on the tournament docket is Lollapuzzoola 13, which will be holding its first-ever virtual tournament on Saturday, August 15. You can sign up for that here.

Do you remember learning that the sentence “The quick brown fox jumps over the lazy dog” is an example of a pangram, meaning it contains every letter of the alphabet? Today’s elongated grid (26×17 squares) features a riff on that idea but with a specific constraint. Each of the four 26-letter theme answers is an example of a “perfect” PANGRAM (85A: [A “perfect” one uses all 26 letters once each, as seen in four answers in this puzzle]), so they are anagrams of ABCDEFGHIJKLMNOPQRSTUVWXYZ. As you can expect, the phrases themselves are extremely bizarre:

  • 27A: [A non-straight ’90s MTV personality canceled general Norman? Delish!] is LGBTQ VJ NIXED SCHWARZKOPF? YUM!
  • 54A: [Yo, dude! A sappy NFL passer is annoying everyone at a New York airport.] is WORD UP! SCHMALTZY QB VEXING JFK.
  • 80A: [Mr. Griffin, the “Atlanta” network holds the rights to that clumsy dance tune by the fictional composer of “A Little Nightmare Music.”] is MERV, FX OWNS KLUTZY P.D.Q. BACH JIG.
  • 108A: [Mr. Novak, please send that home shopping network a copy of Junior’s car rental ad immediately.] is B.J., FAX QVC MY KID’S HERTZ PLUG NOW.

Because there are four pangrams, that makes the whole puzzle a quadruple pangram, where each letter is represented in the puzzle at least four times. It’s just a Q and a V short of a quintuple pangram, too. The theme answers also proceed in order of their number of words. The first has five words, the second has six, the third has seven, and the fourth has eight. There’s no compelling reason that I stuck to that pattern other than I felt like it.

I learned a couple of things the hard way in writing this puzzle. First, 26-letter pangrams plus a crossing revealer of PANGRAM can cause havoc with the short fill. The grid is overrun with three-letter answers (64 of them — far more than any other word length). While I don’t think that puzzle statistics like overall word count should be used as a measure of a puzzle’s quality (who out there actually counts how many words are in a crossword while they’re solving?) I can understand the idea that having longer, less common fill is generally more desirable. They are likely more interesting to uncover than many three-letter words. Having to work around numerous Z’s, Q’s, X’s and J’s made it nearly impossible to avoid a glut of three-letter words without making the grid much bigger or dropping one of the theme answers. I have no doubt that the “five-six-seven-eight” theme pattern I used also contributed to the three-letter overflow as well, so my goal was to make the short fill stick out as little as possible.

Second, my two preferred anagramming sites (this one and this one) really got a workout for this puzzle since 26-letter pangrams are much, much harder to create in a way that makes coherent sense. Having only five vowels and Y out of 26 letters basically forces you to use all-consonant acronyms and initialisms to have any shot at a complete sentence, and most of the time the grammar ends up being a little odd. The B.J. Novak pangram is the only one of the four that reads like a grammatically proper sentence. The other three seem like strange newspaper headlines. I think the only other pangrams I came up with that sounded like proper sentences were ASH, JO KNEW QVC DUG MY FX PR BLITZ and BJORK, FAX QVC MY ZEN WIDTH PLUGS. I … really don’t want to know what “Zen width plugs” are and hope no one invents them.

All that background aside, I hope you had fun with this puzzle. Sometimes a wacky theme isn’t enough so you have to go big with a Wacky theme with a capital W.

Some other answers and clues:

  • 98A: [___ Alto, Calif.] is PALO and 57D: [___ Altos, Calif.] is LOS. I didn’t plan this before writing the puzzle.
  • 102A: [Audre Lorde pieces] is ESSAYS. My book club read a series of essays by Lorde in her collection “Sister Outsider” a few years ago. I recommend it.
  • 4D: [Starz series in which the World War II-era nurse Claire Randall travels back in time to the year 1743] is OUTLANDER. I’ve only watched an episode or two of this series, but my wife found it entertaining.
  • 7D: [Friend found in Amiens, in two different senses] is AMI, which is the French word for “friend” and literally contained in the French city name Amiens.
  • 10D: [Billboard Hot 100, e.g.] is LIST. A callback to last week’s “Smash Hits” puzzle.
  • 17D: [Chief Zed’s portrayer in “Men in Black” films] is RIP TORN. I always found it amusing how his last name is a past-tense synonym of his first name.
  • 65D: [What the outer fingers in the hand symbol m/ represent] is HORNS. As in, the sign of the horns that you might make while rocking out at a concert.
  • 70D: [Word that has stress on the last syllable] is OXYTONE. It’s a word I hadn’t heard of before writing this puzzle, but somehow it fit better than all other ??Y???E options that I saw.
  • 73D: [Til ___, actor who played Hugo Stiglitz in “Inglourious Basterds”] is Til SCHWEIGER. Here’s a name I didn’t know before writing this puzzle, but like OXYTONE, it just fit better than the alternatives. That said, I’ve seen the movie a bunch, so I’m very familiar with his performance as Hugo Stiglitz.



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