MGWCC #274

crossword 4:06
meta 4 days (yup, 4) 

hello and welcome to episode #274 of matt gaffney’s weekly crossword contest, “Livin’ Large”. hope you all had a great labor day weekend and enjoyed the extra 24 hours before the deadline—i know i made good use of them! this week’s instructions ask us for a bygone, ten-letter place name. what are the theme answers? it’s not immediately clear, but there are three long answers:

  • {Its sections include “beauty+hlth” and “toys+games”} CRAIGSLIST.
  • {Show set in suburban Philadelphia} is THIRTYSOMETHING.
  • {Poet born in Cambridge, Mass.} is E.E. CUMMINGS.

okay, so it didn’t take me long at all to notice that we’re looking at a lowercase theme here. check out craigslist boston (for one) and you’ll find that out of 100+ words on the front page, there are precisely 5 capitalized letters. (i don’t really know why TV is capitalized in one place and not others, nor why ETC is capitalized at all.) thirtysomething was always stylized exactly that way, with no capitals. and of course edward estlin cummings was notorious for his disdain for capitalization in his poetry, although it turns out he probably preferred his name to be rendered according to standard orthography. but it is true that he was often credited as “e e cummings” [sic].

that said, i was unable to get anywhere from the lowercase idea for three days. (as a devotee of lowercase myself, i was staring down the barrel of a rather embarrassing wheelhouse whiff here.) things that i tried that did not work included:

  • looking at all the capitalized letters from the clues
  • looking at all the first letters of the clues that would have been capitalized even if they hadn’t been the first letter (e.g. the N of {Neil Armstrong, John Glenn, etc al.})
  • looking at all of the letters in boxes numbered 30-39, just because of thirtysomething. hey, there are ten of them and we’re looking for a ten-letter answer, right?

now, i also had a strong suspicion that there were more than just three theme answers. it’s an 82-word grid, 4 over the usual limit, so there had to be constraints other than just a modest 10+15+10 of theme material. but i wasn’t getting anywhere with this.

it wasn’t until i looked at the puzzle for the umpteenth time tuesday night that what should have been apparent from the start finally became apparent: the entire grid could be solved in lowercase letters, fitting the clues both across and down, except for 10 letters (circled in my screencap above). ridiculous, right? craigslist, thirtysomething, and e e cummings are (peculiarly) lowercase proper names. but every other answer in the grid is a common uncapitalized word, except for these carefully chosen few:

  • {3.14, say} is an ERA (earned run average), and pretty good one. all three of these letters are capitals. the E, R, and A cross {Hirsch of “Into the Wild”} Emile, {“Friends” role} Ross, and {Carol on the runway} Alt.
  • {Airing} clues on TV. the T and V cross {Site of many British Opens} Troon and {Virgin goddess} Vesta.
  • {Bobbitt who probably has a tough time getting dates} is Lorena, crossing {Rob or Chad} Lowe.
  • {Neil Armstrong, John Glenn, et al.} are Ohioans, crossing {“Beetle Bailey” dog} Otto.
  • {Marie Osmond, Steve Young, et al.} are Utahans, crossing {Language with over 100 million speakers} Urdu.
  • there’s some more sneaky capitalization in {Jobs creation} iPhone crossing {1990s candidate} Perot.
  • {Promoter of positive thinking} norman vincent Peale crossing another non-initial capital, {Tablets since 2010} iPads.

those ten capital letters are ERATVLOUPP, which we have to anagram into the final answer. my first find was POPULAR VET, which is an interesting phrase but not a bygone place name. but i kept digging and found UPPER VOLTA, the former name of burkina faso, and a very appropriate final answer for a meta about uppercase letters.

anyway, this is a fantastically creative and clever meta. the idea of a crossword with all lowercase letters is brilliant, the choice of three long answers was inspired, and the execution was just terrific. a definite 5-star puzzle.

so that’s my take, but let’s hear from the rest of you in the comments…

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46 Responses to MGWCC #274

  1. Matt Gaffney says:

    Thanks, joon. 120 correct answers this week. Most common incorrect answers were YUGOSLAVIA and STALINGRAD.

  2. Jeff M says:

    simultaneously oh so simple and so complex. Stunning.

  3. Jeff Chen says:

    Blurgh, I was so close! (not really)

    I figured out the lower caps stuff, but thought Salt Lake City and Columbus had to have something to do with it. Perhaps “uncapitalizing” the grid by striking out all the letters in SALT LAKE CITY and COLUMBUS?

    Roughly 687 iterations later, I almost hit the proper solution but somehow missed Ross and Troon. I repeat: blurgh.

    Matt = genius!

  4. Jan (danjan) says:

    Brilliant! I should have solved on paper! But I probably would have still missed getting it.

  5. Ken Stern says:

    What a fantastic meta, that I didn’t solve and didn’t get close. My twitter and email buddies who heard me complain that I was “obviously” on the right track but couldn’t go any further will be tickled to learn that I was on quite the wrong track: I was looking at all the alliteration in the clues — including two-worders (Hound hand, Piraeus pocket, some others), two-plus-short-connector (Yes in Yokohama, Peppermint or peanut) and those hidden in the clues (SHOW SET in …, … has a TOUGH TIME getting dates, etc) — that also shows up in the title, so that MUST BE the right route! I should have known that wasn’t elegant enough to merit the raves I was seeing, but I kept pushing and never, embarrassingly, noticed the lowercase angle. Oops!

    tl;dr: Awesome meta, bad solver this week

  6. Bob Kerfuffle says:

    [ . . . . . . ] . . . stunned silence.

  7. Ephraim says:

    Damn. Through our whole discussion of this meta I used Upper Volta as an example of a bygone, 10-letter place name. We talked about the funny situation with iPad/iPhone and I looked at TV. But we totally didn’t get it.

  8. John says:

    Wow. I figured the small-case letters in the 3 “themes” was too too simple, but the actual answer is crazily complex – at least to me. I went with it anyway and submitted “smallville”. A canceled (bygone) TV show that is also a place name and somewhat reflects the all-short theme i thought was germane. Congrats to the folks who thought beyond.

  9. Imfromjsrsey says:

    Got it with a partial guess of Upoer Volta! I saw the lower case thing then got stuck, figured Upper Volta went with lower case somehow. Also could not find many 10 letter former place names that were not obscure.

  10. Paul Coulter says:

    First, I’d also like to congratulate our leaders on the amazing perfect year they’ll reach next week (since few visit here on Week Ones.) Also, many thanks to Matt for another outstanding year. Our few remaining genii remind me of my days at MIT, when it was kind of nice to be a regular guy among the truly brilliant. I don’t know how they can nail every single tough meta — all I can say is, “We are not worthy.” Bow, scrape, grovel.

    As for the meta, I entered Upper Volta simply because no Lower ????? seemed likely. I felt certain there was another level of virtuosity, but I couldn’t find it. I tried back-solving to arrive at U.V. with most of Joon’s methodology and many other strategies of an equally useless nature. I paid particular attention to the one V in the grid. I was also fairly sure that Utahans and Ohioans would be important, since their symmetrical placement and echoed cluing make them near-themers. And a rousing Ouagadougou to you, Matt!

    • DannyBoy says:

      Like most who’ve commented, I saw the lower case thing and little else. But there was one Lower bygone place that came to ten letters, so I submitted Lower Egypt. This was the ancient UPPER (at least northerly) half including Memphis. It was called Lower because it was downriver on the Nile. One of a pharaoh’s titles was King of the Two Egypts. I’d also like to extend congratulations to the five perfect players and to Matt.

  11. Evan says:


    I’ve been stymied by Week #4 and Week #5 meta puzzles before, but for me this one was the stymiest stymier which ever stymied. I never even got close. I won’t go through my entire failed thought process because it failed. I’ll just say that I figured we were going for somewhere in the U.S. given all the cities the three themers (plus OHIO and UTAH) contained, so I submitted YERBA BUENA at the last second because that’s the former name of the city where CRAIGSLIST was founded (San Francisco).

    One big red herring that threw me off: I noticed that UTAHANS was at 45-Across. Utah just so happened to be the 45th state admitted to the Union. THIRTYSOMETHING’s clue number is basically in that range (35). Nothing else came to mind for the others. But I was convinced that had to be important.

  12. Charles Montpetit says:

    I went with ALEXANDRIA because… uh… back then, the Greek and Latin languages didn’t distinguish between upper and lower cases. Or something to that effect.

  13. Blanche says:

    Boy, was I red-herringed. I thought the emphasis on U.S. places in the clues was significant, so I took the abbreviations for the five states involved, CA OH PA UT MA, and tried to anagram them. Didn’t work.

    • Debbie says:

      I did the same! (Also tried anagramming all branded lower case letters even though there were only 8.) Despite the odd cluing of Carol on the runway (as opposed to many preferable ways to clue ALT), the presence of both iPhone and iPads (which I took as just an error that was missed – silly me of *course* it was important), and the parallel UTAHANS and OHIOANS it still took me all 4 days to solve this.

      Great meta Matt, a stumper to the very end.

  14. Mutman says:

    I thought this was an excuisite meta and I really needed the extra day to solve. Lower case came immediately, but then stuck. The title ultimately helped me along with Ohioans, Utahans and iDevices. Tried to find upper case letters and then got them all.

    I actually thought answer would be in the lines oif ‘phone booth’ or ‘video store’ but then got the anagram to work for Upper Volta.

    Excellent job Matt!!

  15. Thomas says:

    Didn’t get it at all… but I did submit BURKINA FASO two weeks ago, and that ought to count for something.

  16. Pj says:

    i have to admit that i got the meta at the last minute but only with mostly luck. i had upper volta as a possible 10-letter bygone place, but could not find any clues to an aha! moment. my daughter suggested looking at capitals, so i was off on a search for capital cities of yore which led me to look at all-caps places. I did write down all the answers that started with capitals, but I abandoned that because I had more than 10. i didn’t think about where they crossed. oh, so close. I submitted upper volta because of the “upper case” connection. not feeling an accomplishment though.

  17. Maggie W. says:

    Had the opposite solving experience of most people…took me three days to notice the lowercase letter thing and then about 25 minutes to get the answer. Also tried anagramming CAOHPAUTMA as well as TPPIETYSTH (letters in the 30-something boxes).

    Find of the week: “th*rtysomething” anagrams to “sh*tty mothering.” Well, then!

    Awesome puzzle.

  18. Gnarbles says:


    Congratulations on the upcoming one year anniversary of the new puzzle answer entry page. It has been a great addition to see who has submitted answers, winning streaks, and total answers. Here is a potential upgrade for the next year: a confidence meter. You could add a couple of tick boxes that entrants could check to indicate their confidence in understanding the full meta and submitting the correct answer. Options could range from “I’m sure I nailed it” to “maybe, this might be right” to “wild ass guess”. It would be interesting to see the results for puzzles like this one where a person could just guess Upper Volta as there aren’t many 10 letter place names or like last week where someone could guess “Threes” just based on the answer having six letter (six theme entries). Any upgrades planned in the future? Love your puzzles, please keep them coming.

  19. bananarchy says:

    I find that sometimes with metas, as with this one, my own ignorance actually helps. I know exactly one thing about e e cummings, which came to mind as soon as I filled in his name: that I usually see his name written without capitals. I had to google the other two themers to learn that they fall into that category as well. Had more information come to mind about the poet, I don’t think I would have even known where to start with this one.

    Also, an exquisite meta, imo.

  20. Lorraine says:

    wow, just wow. I never came close. I’m curious for those of you who solved the meta — where, if at all, did the title play into it? I’m not seeing “Livin’ Large” as being particularly germane, until “large” is being used as a substitute for “big case” as opposed to “little case”? That’s the only thing I can think of. Would be curious to know what you think!

    • pgw says:

      The thing you thought of is, I think, the thing that was intended. To me, “large” fairly obviously connoted uppercase. Not, of course, until after noticing the thing about the all-lowercase theme answers.

    • Jason T says:

      As for me, I wasted a lot of time fixating on the three lower-case “theme” answers, and assumed that the challenge was to find a ten-letter bygone place name that was entirely in lower-case. That was a false path, to say the least. But the title bothered me, as it did not seem to fit with a lower-case theme. That’s when I started to take the opposite tack, and consider what I could do with upper-case letters – and after a few false starts and a good night’s sleep, the answer popped out at me – or loomed large, shall we say. So yes, the title was critical in nudging me in the right direction.

  21. Garrett says:

    Like Blanche, I was “red-herringed.” But before I explain the direction I took, I’d like to say that the meta is simply brilliant, and I love it. Ouagadougou Matt!

    So I have never used craigslist, nor visited the Web site, and had no idea it was stylized in lower case. I’ve only ever heard of thirtysomething, have never watched it, nor seen advertisements about it, and also had no idea that it is stylized with lowercase. Never was a poetry fan, and did not know that E. E. Cummings is often stylized as eecummings. (Had I known these, I would have immediately been clued-in by the Ohioans and Utahans fill. I think it would have been obvious to me).

    So here is what I noticed:

    The clue for EECUMMINGS gives us Massachusetts
    The clue for THIRTYSOMETHING gives us Philadelphia
    OHIOANS connotes Ohio
    UTAHANS connotes Utah
    While neither the clue nor the fill for CRAIGSLIST gives a state or city, the fill connotes San Francisco Bay Area because that is where craig's list started.

    So I figured that the “Livin’ Large” title inferred something “big” and that these states or cities implied a nation-wide route of some kind, or a trip on the route, and that would be a large trip.

    It turns out that Amtrak can take you by train from Boston to Philadelphia and then through Ohio to Chicago (Skyline connection), and from there through Utah (Salt Lake City) — among other places — to Oakland California. That is the Bay Area for sure. This is the California Zephyr Train.

    Examining the “Amtrak California Zephyr Route Guide” ( ) I found that a number of former (read: bygone) locations of some historical importance exist along that route!

    The one I went with is Castle Gate, a ghost town located 90 miles south of Salt Lake City, Utah. The name of the erstwhile coal mine and town is derived from a massive rock formation there — two massive and sheer sandstone walls on either side of the Price River, which appear to open like a giant gate as travelers approach it. And here it gets interesting.

    From Wikipedia:

    “The town is most famous for two historic events. On April 21, 1897, Butch Cassidy and Elzy Lay held up an employee of the Pleasant Valley Coal Company in a daylight robbery at the busy railroad station in Castle Gate, making off with $7,000 in gold.

    On March 8, 1924, the Utah Fuel Company's Castle Gate Mine #2 exploded, killing 172 miners. It was the third-deadliest disaster in the history of coal mining in the United States at that time, and remains the tenth deadliest at present.”

    And, of course, that is Butch Cassidy of " Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid," and of the "Wild Bunch" gang. They were the most successful train-robbing gang in history. I'd say they were "livin' large," wouldn't you?

    Other sundry stuff: Butch was born in Utah, and the Sundance Kid in Pennsylvania. Elzy Lay was born in Ohio.

  22. gpagano says:

    Given the nature of joon’s posts, I would have thought this one would be right up his alley :P.

    Still Matt, simple but satisfying as I said before. It’s been a nice year for metas if I do say so myself. Honestly, nailing a little over 80% of them isn’t a bad score at all.

  23. pgw says:

    Just want to add to the shout-outs (shouts-out?) This one was great. I spent plenty of time on “what in the world do these three things have in common (and/or are Utahans and Ohioans also themers)? – then another day of “oh, I get it, but what do I do with that information?” – then finally hit on the right idea, thanks in large part to the iThings and their peculiar capitalization scheme.

    Like others, I tried the “clue starters that would be capitalized even if they didn’t start the clue” idea, which I found particularly red-herring-y thanks to “Rice structure” and “Johns of London” (once solved, the former ends up unexpectedly capitalized, and the latter unexpectedly uncapitalized.)

  24. Scott says:

    I think I am getting stupider as I get older. I used to get the meta answers 60% of the time. Now the percentage is maybe 35%. When I read this blog, I am amazed at Matt’s constructions and I do think they are fair. But I am not sure why I have become so dense!!

  25. Danny says:

    Grr. Noticed that the iPhone crossing with iPad had something to do with that “i” being forced into lowercasedness. Also noticed craigslist, thirtysomething, and e e cummings all being popular “lower case” proper terms. Unfortunately, out of sheer laziness I didn’t bother to go down the road that involved me finding the 10 forced capital letters in this grid.
    This is indeed a beautiful meta, the fact that the answer itself was staring me right in the face makes it that much more of a painful miss.

    September is a new month and I am excited to see what awaits.

  26. Leo says:

    joon, glad to see you stuck with lower case as much as possible in this post!

  27. Ben Bass says:

    Super impressive. Exceptionally elegant. (I was nowhere close to solving it.) Awesome job, Matt.

  28. abide says:

    This meta was indeed faso-nating. I noticed the lowercase theme about 1/3 of the way through so I started entering all letters in lowercase (always solve Week 3 and 4 on paper). Figuring out what to make “large” took a little while, but I started with the theme entries CL TS EEC and gradually found the correct ten letters. Still had to spend some time at One Across but thankfully found A UPPER VOLT about halfway down. Glad to get a geography meta; my vague recollection of Upper Volta was “it’s located in the Russia/Siberia area”.

    • CY Hollander says:

      I, too, had vaguely conflated it with the Volga river before looking it up to confirm that it was a bygone place.

  29. Katie M. says:

    I saw that the long answers were lowercase. Here is what led me to look for upper case letters:
    65 across is symmetrical with 1 across – NONONO – HIGHER! I was sure that was intentional. Was it?

    Like Pj, I wrote down all the upper case letters across and down, and got 20. Consecutively, they are ERATVLOUPPERATVLOUPP. There is UPPER staring me in the face, and then see that I have UPPER VOLTA twice!

    • abide says:

      With a clue like “That’s completely wrong!” (65-A), I originally had that one written in alternating caps (“No! No! No! ).

      • Katie M. says:

        On computer, everything was all caps. But it was telling me, No! No! No!, Higher (not lower).

        • Garrett says:

          Not just on your computer. I always solve my crosswords using all caps because I find the grid fill easier to read than a mixture of cases.

  30. Anne E says:

    Huge advantage this week for the handful of us who always solve in lower-case… I got this meta in about 5 minutes, a week-4 record for me. Very satisfying solve, especially since I’ve been to Burkina Faso!

  31. Jeff G. says:

    I was nowhere near solving this one, but enjoyed it as always. It is amazing how many different ideas Matt comes up with for metas week after week!

  32. Howard B says:

    Got the lowercase commonality fairly quickly (for the week, that is). But nothing after that. Upper Volta would have been my wild guess had I made one, but for no better reason other than the Uppercase hint in the title.
    Nicely done!

  33. Adam Thompson says:

    This took me a few days as well.

    Incidentally, I always fill in crosswords with lowercase letters. Didn’t help any.

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