wordplay, the crossword column

One Foot on the Ground at All Times

Rebecca Goldstein offers a rollicking puzzle.

A racewalker in a gray-and-orange tank top that says “Japan” in the front crossing the yellow-tape finish line.
Koki Ikeda is a speedwalking champ who led Japan at the I.A.A.F. World Race Walking Team Championships in Taicang, China, in 2018.Credit...Yifan Ding for IAAF — Getty Images

Jump to: Tricky Clues | Today’s Theme

THURSDAY PUZZLE — Have you ever jumped to a conclusion about a puzzle theme and then shocked yourself at your own reaction?

We all have preconceived notions about crossword puzzles and what should or should not be in them. Both constructors and solvers talk about the “Sunday morning breakfast test,” an idea popularized during the tenure of The New York Times’s first crossword editor, Margaret Farrar (although no one is sure whether she actually coined the name). Entries failed the breakfast test if they were considered too unpleasant for solvers working on the puzzle during their Sunday morning fare; off-limit subjects generally related to war, illness or “icky” topics like bodily functions. Merl Reagle, a constructor, explained this idea in the documentary “Wordplay.”

I bring this up because I assume, after having solved a theme entry in Rebecca Goldstein’s crossword, that everyone else would be as shocked as I was that The Gray Lady was running a puzzle about marijuana. It just didn’t seem like a topic that would be ever-so-casually accepted in a New York Times crossword.

Then I said to myself, “You know what? It’s 2023. Pot is legal in some states. I shouldn’t be surprised that someone has made a puzzle about it. Why shouldn’t someone make a puzzle about marijuana?”

So I continued to solve — feeling very hip for having gotten over the initial shock — and it turns out that I’m an idiot and should have known better.

Ms. Goldstein’s puzzle is not about marijuana at all.

It is, however, very clever. You’re just going to have to roll with it. Pun intended.

1A. I had to look this one up, but you have to love a game that tries to sell you a set of plush emotional support fries and has a whole section on its website devoted to drinking.


“What Do You MEME?” has been around since 2016, and there are many varieties and ways to play the game. The basic instructions involve pairing a meme with a caption that each player picks. The funniest caption wins.

16A. The “beef” in the clue “Beef that’s aged?” is not about meat but about a FEUD that has been going on for generations, like the Hatfield and the McCoy conflict.

19A. I hope people keep the name Mort SAHL alive. His surname has appeared in the New York Times Crossword 106 times, and I admire him as one of the first stand-up comedians to address political and social issues.

32A. If you are “Headed in the right direction?” while looking at a map, you are going EAST.

48A. “Ones who know what’s coming?” are SEERS.

51A./58A. I didn’t notice this until after I finished solving, but the “Woman’s name that is a palindrome” is ANA, and if you take that entry out of the answer to 58A (“Pop singer’s nickname that omits 51-Across”), you wind up with ARI.

66A. The “Hexagon that borders two rectangles” is an oblique reference to UTAH, which neighbors the rectangular states of Wyoming and Colorado.

2D. I haven’t used Kayak, so this one fooled me. It’s a veiled capital clue, which places the proper noun at the beginning in order to hide the fact that it would take a capital letter anyway. So “Kayak alternative” is not looking for anything like a canoe. It’s referring to the Kayak travel search engine, and an alternative to that would be EXPEDIA.

27D. “Make-up artists?” are LIARS, because they are skilled at making things up. Note the spelling: If this clue were really about people who apply makeup, there would have been no hyphen.

The entry TUMBLEWEED, which is today’s revealer at 63A, has not appeared in the New York Times Crossword since 1978, but Ms. Goldstein has brought it back in a fun and different way. For me, it brought to mind the old western movies set in a desert town, complete with saloon showdowns and rough-and-tumble cowboys.

The four groups of shaded squares in the grid are the TUMBLEWEEDs, and they are TUMBLing in two ways.

1. Each theme entry rolls when you reach the point where the answer rises up one row and back down to the original row. For example, at 17A, the answer to the clue “Form of racing that requires one foot on the ground at all times” is SPEEDWALKING, which is entered into the grid in a roundabout way:

Credit...The New York Times

2. Each group is TUMBLing in relation to the others. The word WEED rotates 90 degrees from the previous group.

So don’t get your saddles in a twist if you had trouble with this one, my fellow cowpokes. Finish solving, say goodbye to the outwardly gruff yet kindhearted brothel madam and then mount up. We’re going to ride into the sunset, with the TUMBLEWEEDs following us, to a very apt tune.

At some point, before seeing one rolling across the Arizona highway somewhere between Sedona and Phoenix, TUMBLEWEED became a common phrase in my household.

At some other point, I realized that parsing TUMBLE as an anagram indicator for WEED might make a good revealer. To elevate a standard hidden anagram theme, I used this mechanism so that the WEEDs are rolling not only within their entries but also visually throughout the grid.

Happy Thursday!

The New York Times Crossword has an open submission system, and you can submit your puzzles online.

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