Many an Emoticon

Ada Nicolle’s Saturday grid will turn any frown upside down.

A man's hands manipulating a gauge that changes the tone of a kettle drum when it is struck.
Richard S. Horowitz, who joined the Metropolitan Opera orchestra as a timpanist in 1946, adjusting the gauge on the side of a kettle drum in 2008.Credit...Marilynn K. Yee/The New York Times

SATURDAY PUZZLE — This is the fourth crossword from Ada Nicolle for The Times. Three have been themeless, and this one checks all the boxes in a graceful way. There are seven debuts and some surprises, all excellent and diverse in their references. I’m a fan of a puzzle that mingles wholesome slang and snarky Shakespeare quotes. It also has vibrant wordplay and a couple of misdirects, one of which taught me something delightful.

5A. “Pods” leaped to mind when I read this clue, “Groups of whales.” But that meant that 6D, “Like the sound of ‘supercalifragilisticexpialidocious,’ per the song of the same name,” couldn’t be “ATROCIOUS,” and at this point my brain broke a bit. It turns out that groups of whales can also be called herds, plumps and GAMS, a term that can also apply to social groups of sailors and to legs. GAMS has appeared frequently in the Times crossword since 1946, clued with all of these definitions, but this usage is new to me.

l7A. Contemporary slang like this debut provides novelty, even if it doesn’t usually spark my interest or stick in my memory. But I like this expression. It encapsulates cheerful skepticism — the feeling I get when something good might be happening, although I doubt it. “‘That would change everything,’ in internet lingo,” is BIG IF TRUE.

34A. The pun in this clue is a little sparkler that completely went over my head until I looked back at my solve for this post. “It’s a mouthful, frankly,” sounded at first to me like “whole truth,” something spoken forthrightly. When that didn’t fit, I let the crossing letters guide me and glossed right over the end result, HOT DOG BUN. Upon a moment’s reflection, this is where one puts one’s frank, my dear.

37A. “Response to thumb-biting in ‘Romeo and Juliet’” is a reference to the very beginning of the Shakespeare play, and an early, more nuanced version of “you gotta problem?”: DO YOU QUARREL, SIR? This is an excellent phrase, slang from another era that still seems modern to me.

21D. This is a debut entry, although its singular form appeared once before. “Words that form other words when read backward” are SEMORDNILAPS, which have a kinship to palindromes, which read the same forward and backward, of course. As you might have noticed, the singular form, “semordnilap,” is palindromes spelled backward. Martin Gardner, a prolific writer and magician, coined the term.

28D. This is also a debut, a polite phrase that made me laugh when I got it, because I was almost committed to a much sillier option. This “Question before entering a room” is MAY I COME IN?; I thought of “Why am I here?,” although I suppose I say that to myself most often when I’m already in a room, looking for, well, something that I needed a minute ago.

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