MGWCC #127

crossword 3:46 (paper)
puzzle about -3 minutes

mgwcc127greetings and welcome to the 127th episode of matt gaffney’s weekly crossword contest, “Language Barrier.” i’m not sure what the “barrier” refers to, but this week’s contest asked us to identify the name of a language. simple enough. what were the theme answers?

  • {It runs columns like “This Month in Polynomials”?} is ALGEBRA MAGAZINE. in my youth, i used to read the american mathematical monthly, which (at least at the time; i don’t know if this is still true) was published ten times per year. i always found that kind of ironic. on an unrelated note, i’m always a little annoyed when a clue is a complete sentence, but still ends with a ?. i’d usually try to word it as a fragment instead, like {Periodical that features columns like (etc.)?}.
  • {Leader of the Zombie Fleet?} is the GHOUL ADMIRAL.
  • a {Potion that lets you solve any cryptogram?} is a CIPHER ELIXIR. now this would be handy, even though the kaidoku blog is no more.
  • a {Thug who throws bowls of dessert off the balcony?} is a SHERBET ASSASSIN. i’ve heard of death by chocolate; this sounds decidedly less pleasant.

well, this was an easy meta for me, because i had done the themed kaidoku by matt with the same theme. but from what i can gather, it wasn’t nearly as easy for most people. the answer is arabic, because all eight of the words in the theme answers trace their etymologies to that language. i don’t think there’s anything more going on here. by the way, if you do the kaidoku (and why not give it a try, even if you haven’t drunk your CIPHER ELIXIR), there are ten words in the grid that can loosely be described as the long central across answer.

i think this meta could have been easy enough for a first week, but the instructions would’ve had to be a little more explicit. just “name a language” makes it awfully hard to know where to look if you don’t happen to already recognize all these words because you did a themed kaidoku last year.

what else?

  • {___ day (travel eastward over the International Date Line)} is LOSE A. okay, not a big fan of this partial answer, but let’s talk about the clue. if you travel east across the date line, you set your clock back 23 hours. isn’t that gaining a day? after all, if you’ve got until tuesday to solve a meta, having those 23 extra hours might help.
  • {Asashoryu’s sport} is SUMO. i’m not familiar with his work.
  • {Letter shaped like a horseshoe} is a (capital) OMEGA. my physics students invariably refer to lowercase omega as w. they are okay at theta and alpha, but eta is n and rho is p, no matter how many times you tell them otherwise.
  • {South of Can.} is apparently USA. jeffrey, your obligatory canadian content seems to be in the wrong part of speech. i blame wayne gretzky.
  • {“Into the Wild” setting} is, apparently, ALASKA. holy crap, i’m supposed to know something about this movie other than EMILE hirsch being in it?
  • {Passionate states} are ZEALS, if you are playing scrabble. if you’re just speaking english, it’s hard to imagine needing to use this in the plural.
  • {Travel in Amsterdam, often} is BIKE? i did not know that. i often BIKE, but never in amsterdam.

okay, that’s all for me. anybody who got the meta without having done the kaidoku, i’d be interested to hear what tipped you off.

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28 Responses to MGWCC #127

  1. Matt S. says:

    I got the meta without doing the kaidoku. I couldn’t find anything they had in common, so I started looking on a dictionary website to see what I could find. The etymologies just stuck with me for the first few, and after that, it was simply validation.

  2. David says:


    I was immediately tipped off by ALGEBRA. As a mathematician, I know that the word comes from the book “Hisab al-Jabr wa-l-Muqābala” written in the early 9th century by the Persian mathematician al-Khwārizmī. Interestingly, al-Khwārizmī’s name also gives us the word “algorithm”.

  3. Howard B says:

    Knew that both ALGEBRA and ASSASSIN(that one from the same root as ‘hashish’!) were from Arabic, so that connection was helpful in checking a couple other words to confirm. And sherbet, go figure! Loved learning that one.

    Publishing ten times a year would have been mathematically correct in the old Roman calendar, where December was the 10th month (Decem=10). They’re just a little behind the curve, is all.

  4. I figured that that’s how you would find the answer to the meta, but honestly that just didn’t seem very fun. I’d rather find an answer inside of the grid hidden in some fashion, so I just wasn’t very interested I guess. Not ragging on Matt in any way for putting the puzzle together this way, just wasn’t my cup of tea this week.

  5. Matt Gaffney says:

    Barrier as in a hurdle you have to get over, like solving a meta.

    I didn’t even remember the kaidoku! Alex remembered and sent it to me. It’s in my storehouse of knowledge that a lot of cool nouns come from Arabic, though, so it’s not surprising.

    I considered other languages for this one, but almost all have some quality that doesn’t make for a good meta: either too few words in English to work, or far too many, or the language itself looks so distinctive that the meta would be blindingly obvious (SAMURAI SUSHI or RIGATONI AGITATO wouldn’t stump anyone).

    Nevertheless I did underestimate the correct # of entries. 236 came in, while I had expected well north of 300. The most common etymological tipoffs people mentioned were ASSASSIN, GHOUL, ADMIRAL and, above all, ALGEBRA.

  6. Jeffrey says:

    I figured the words all came from the same language, and google did the rest.

  7. Al Sanders says:

    Joon, I hadn’t done the Kaidoku, but recognized ALGEBRA and CIPHER as coming from Arabic. I googled “words from arabic” and found a list that included all the theme words, so figured that was it. I expect Matt G. thought this would be really easy for people, but everyone is so used to wordplay and grid tricks, that the straightforward fact-based meta threw folks for a loop. Kind of like a nice slow changeup pitch when folks are expecting a fastball.

  8. Bob Kerfuffle says:

    I also got the meta without having done any kaidoku in my life. ALGEBRA and GHOUL both jumped out at me as being of Arabic origin, and most of the others looked as if they might have been Arabic. Only MAGAZINE, SHERBET and ASSASSIN really demanded dictionary confirmation.

    Speaking of Algebra Magazine, I remember well deducing that there really were magazines of narrow interest when, almost 50 years ago, I was aimlessly browsing in the stacks of a library at MIT and came across The Journal of Quadratic Equations!

  9. joon says:

    ADMIRAL was the most surprising one to me, by far. (well, it was when i did the kaidoku. not so much this time, because i remembered.) turns out it’s from amir, and totally unrelated to the latinate admire. MAGAZINE was the surprising new one this time. i also learned that CIPHER has the same etymology as ZERO (which was in the kaidoku).

  10. joecab says:

    SHERBET’s origin was news to me, too. It struck me that GHOUL would probably be Arabic since I knew Batman villain Rā’s al Ghūl’s name (which is constantly mispronounced, even in the movie “Batman Begins”) is Arabic for “demon’s head.” Comics for the win!

  11. Charles Montpetit says:

    Once you’re told that the meta is a language (other than English, one assumes), then it pretty much follows that the words in the theme answers originated in that language — and all you have to do is look up etymologies. Or you can use brute force and Google the eight words at once. The sites that will then pop up will all be about arabic roots.

  12. Howard B says:

    I still love the Sherbet Assassin. I do want to see a comic with that as an archvillain now. Or at least a sidekick.
    “Revenge is best when served cold. Freezing cold!”. “Taste the rainbow… of death!” The possibilities are, well, finite.

  13. Noam D. Elkies says:

    Well my first theme entry was “Sherbet assassin”, which happens to span “BETA”, but that first thought quickly went nowhere. Fortunately I recognized half the theme words as being of Arabic origin: “algebra” of course, “cipher” and even “magazine” (both of whose Arabic sources have Hebrew cognates), and “assassin”. So the second thought was quick to come. I vaguely remembered, and quickly confirmed online, the Arabic source of “sherbet” (the root SH-R-B for “drink” is one of the few bits of first-year Arabic I still know 30+ years later), “admiral” (the Latinate “admire” might have influenced it but isn’t the source; cf. “alba”=white converting “Alcatraz” into “albatross”), and “ghoul”. The neatest surprise was that the X-R of “elixir” and “Xerox” come from the same source (which is Greek — the Arabs added the definite article “el-” to what was originally a drying powder).

    Yes, I too complained about “LOSE A day”, and for the same reason…


  14. Abby says:

    I thought the title was a clue in that “Barrier” is kind of like “Arabic”. Well, if you’re dyslexic or something. My initial thought on seeing it was Language Barrier -> Chinese Wall, but that doesn’t fit the meta at all.

    There must be another Arabic word that would work, but the only structure I know of is minaret, which is too on the nose. Though it makes good anagram fodder, especially with “meta” in it.

  15. Neville says:

    Didn’t do the Kaidoku (those things are near impossible for me) but got it off of ALGEBRA since I knew we were going for a language. That’s a freebie for most math students, I think.

    I found it funny that I was enjoying a spinach salad while solving the puzzle – spinach also coming from Arabic!

    I think most solvers were able to figure out that the language had to be tied to the 4 long ? entries, and just looked for a connection if they didn’t know immediately.

    Though my mom (who I think didn’t send in an entry yet again) thought it was German because of alGEbRaMAgaziNe. Fancy that!

  16. George says:

    This puzzle grid was the first one that I didn’t need the internet, a dictionary, etc. to completely solve. Since I am pretty much totally ignorant in word origins I didn’t want to accept having to Google the eight words from the four long answers to solve the meta. I liked the ‘bic’ being closely nestled to the homonym ‘era’, and then transposed, as being a better solution to the meta.

  17. Dan F says:

    Like Al said, I wasn’t expecting this type of meta. But I looked again this morning, thought about etymology, looked up the theme words, and got in under the wire.

  18. russ says:

    Count me among those who submitted the alGEbRaMAgaziNe “solution”, even though I was pretty sure it was wrong because it didn’t involve any of the other long answers.

  19. Amy Reynaldo says:

    Algebra, assassin, admiral. I never knew the Arabic etymology for the other five words.

  20. Evad says:

    And here I thought it would be GERMAN as well since Matt scolded us last week for our balking at HEMD as unconstrained fill.

    Luckily I did the puzzle first to confirm…

  21. sandirhodes says:

    I’m not happy. I wouldn’t have gotten this meta in 10 years.

    Did anybody notice DOS at 1A. Look, it’s a FIRST WEEK puzzle! DOS is a language! Had to be! At least I got an ‘aha’ from it, even though it was wrong.


    I noticed GERMAN, and dismissed it as a red herring. I spent most of the weekend trying to figure out all of the groups of letters associated in the grid (listed l-r/t-b): ‘eyeyee’ are together, as well as ‘arraa’ ‘amaa’ ‘mama’ ‘eerer’ and the remarkable ‘aaassassss’

  22. *David* says:

    Wow, lots of comments for a first week puzzle. I had no idea that people would find this one that hard. I figured this one out with half the puzzle completed. I said to myself themed puzzle, wacky phrases, and connecting theme must be the origin of the words in the phrases. I got ALGEBRA first and knew that had an Arabic etymology and GHOUL confirmed my suspicions.

  23. john farmer says:

    I hear the ORANGE comes from Arabic too. Also, ALCOHOL, HASHISH, and LOOFAH. Could be the start for another theme.

    No CHECKMATE in Matt’s puzzle. That’s a surprise.

    (OK, those aren’t all straight from Arabic, so the theme would have been a little muddied.)

  24. Tyler says:

    Stumped me too, and I’m not sure I ever would have had it. Needless to say, I don’t think this is a first-week meta at all.

  25. joon says:

    john: either a theme, or a theme party. though i’m a little hazy on where the loofah comes in.

  26. russ says:

    joon, you’ll be hazy about more than that after the party!

  27. Mary Lou says:

    Well…I guess it was just me! I found the word “GERMAN” hidden in the first theme answer…not very satisfying since there were not any hidden German words in the other three! Too little and too easy – even for the first of the month!

  28. pannonica says:


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