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Solution to Evan Birnholz’s May 22 crossword, “Unmatched”

The Washington Post logo The Washington Post 5/22/2022 Evan Birnholz
Filled grid to May 22, 2022 crossword, “Unmatched” © Evan Birnholz/FTWP Filled grid to May 22, 2022 crossword, “Unmatched”

Today we have a metapuzzle and the instructions say we are looking for a 10-letter phrase. There are 10 starred answers, so that would be a good place to start.

  • 23A: [*Type of IT account that has complete access to a network of computers] is DOMAIN ADMIN.
  • 25A: [*Under no circumstances] is NEVER EVER.
  • 41A: [*1957 short story collection by Isak Dinesen] is “LAST TALES.”
  • 53A: [*Ben and Jerry, e.g., usually] is MEN’S NAMES.
  • 66A: [*Airport employee who scans boarding passes] is GATE AGENT.
  • 74A: [*Motored past, as on a bridge] is DROVE OVER.
  • 90A: [*Phone conversation in your neighborhood] is LOCAL CALL.
  • 97A: [*Adopts a reasonable course of action] is SEES SENSE.
  • 119A: [*Person who might make accusations of cheating] is SORE LOSER.
  • 121A: [*Power from renewable sources] is GREEN ENERGY.

This is one of those single-insight “either you see it or you don’t” metas — and the puzzle’s title can help — but one way it might be easier to spot the meta is just to look at one or two starred answers instead of all of them. For example, DOMAIN ADMIN is a somewhat unusual phrase; you’re probably more likely to encounter SYS ADMIN, so what is it about DOMAIN ADMIN that fits this theme in a way that SYS ADMIN does not? Or what about NEVER EVER? It rhymes, and although the other starred answers do not, a rhyming phrase like this does lend itself well to the pattern you have to find.

That pattern is based on individual letters. Each starred answer has two words where the longer word matches all of the letters of the shorter word but has one additional unique letter:

  • DOMAIN ADMIN DOMAIN matches the letters of ADMIN + O.
  • NEVER EVER NEVER matches the letters of EVER + N.
  • LAST TALES TALES matches the letters of LAST + E.
  • MEN’S NAMES NAMES matches the letters of MEN’S + A
  • GATE AGENT AGENT matches the letters of GATE + N.
  • DROVE OVER DROVE matches the letters of OVER + D.
  • LOCAL CALL LOCAL matches the letters of CALL + O.
  • SEES SENSE SENSE matches the letters of SEES + N.
  • SORE LOSER LOSER matches the letters of SORE + L.
  • GREEN ENERGY ENERGY matches the letters of GREEN + Y.

Take those 10 unmatched letters and you spell out the meta answer ONE AND ONLY.

Back in mid-2021 I read a news story with the phrase GREEN ENERGY and I wrote it down on my notepad. It seemed like a very lucky find that ENERGY anagrams the letters of GREEN plus a Y. But I shelved the puzzle for almost a year because I didn’t think I’d be able to easily find other phrases with a similar pattern. There are crossword constructors who are adept at computer programming and surely could have built some code to find two-word phrases where a) one word is one letter longer than the other and b) the longer word anagrams the shorter word plus another letter. I, however, am not one of those constructors. I spent several days just doing trial-and-error sifting through OneLook and Adam Aaronson’s Wordlisted resource and only came up with a small number of answers for each target letter. “LAST TALES” was, appropriately, one of the last theme answers I found. I figured it would be relatively easy to find a phrase with a unique extra E, but nope; the only other alternative I found was LIBEL BILL, and I wasn’t sold on that.

This isn’t the first metapuzzle to make use of the “matching letters with one unique letter” trick, and in fact, SORE LOSER has appeared in at least two others. Mike Shenk wrote a metapuzzle for the Wall Street Journal in July 2016 called “One of a Kind” which featured answers like ANTIPERSPIRANTS and SORE LOSER, and the unique letters spelled out ELVIS. Patrick Berry wrote a New York Times Sunday crossword in September 2007 called “Process of Elimination” that also featured ANTIPERSPIRANTS and SORE LOSER, and the unique letters spelled out LEFTOVERS. SORE LOSER didn’t show up in Joel Fagliano’s March 2016 New York Times puzzle called “Double-Crossed,” but it used neat phrases like HIPPOCRATIC OATH (which has matching letters everywhere except the R) and the final meta answer REMAINDERS. Patrick’s 2007 puzzle, by the way, had such an influence on me that it made an appearance in one of my dreams back in 2018 — I’m not kidding. Where I wanted to differentiate my theme from theirs was that I sought only to use two-word phrases with anagrammed words plus another letter in the longer word. ANTIPERSPIRANTS is a very impressive find, of course, but it wouldn’t fit the pattern that I aimed for.

What did you think?

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