The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Solution to Evan Birnholz’s Dec. 4 crossword, “Land of Confusion”

You’re probably aware of the shocking news that The Washington Post Magazine will be ending its run on Dec. 25. It’s hard to know what to say in response other than I’m saddened and upset on behalf of the staff writers and editors and production team that brought it to life. If nothing else, I hope those who have lost their jobs land on their feet somewhere soon. They deserve to for all of their hard work over the years.

If you’re wondering how this decision will affect my crossword going forward, I will almost definitely still be providing puzzles for The Washington Post. Stay tuned for more information on this. I hope to have a definitive answer for you all in next week’s recap.

As “Land of Confusion” by Genesis goes: “This is the world we live in, and these are the names we’re given.” The names you’re given are scrambled countries, circled inside longer phrases:

  • 23A: [Phoenix Mercury star who has won five Olympic gold medals] is DIANA TAURASI, containing a scrambled Austria.
  • 25A: [Musician with the Grammy-winning children’s album “Feel What U Feel”] is LISA LOEB, with a scrambled Laos.
  • 38A: [Deserving of snaps?] is PHOTOGENIC, with a scrambled Togo.
  • 40A: [Solutions for flats] is SPARE TIRES, with a scrambled Eritrea.
  • 61A: [Backyard projectile banned in the U.S. since 1988] is LAWN DART, with a scrambled Rwanda.
  • 65A: [Meaningless show of support] is EMPTY GESTURE, with a scrambled Egypt.
  • 73A: [Jackie Gleason’s role on “The Honeymooners”] is RALPH KRAMDEN, with a scrambled Denmark.
  • 76A: [Anchor’s setting] is NEWS DESK, with a scrambled Sweden.
  • 97A: [Keeping up] is SUSTAINING, with a scrambled Tunisia.
  • 101A: [Either one of Queen Charlotte’s dogs, Phoebe or Mercury, e.g.] is POMERANIAN, with a scrambled Armenia.
  • 114A: [Linguistic relatives] is COGNATES, with a scrambled Tonga.
  • 116A: [Avoided discussion of] is DANCED AROUND, with a scrambled Ecuador.

But that’s not all. The instructions at the top of the puzzle say that if you unscramble the circled words, you can spell out an apt two-word phrase. So list out the countries, and where will you find this secret phrase? In their first letters:

  • Austria
  • Laos
  • Togo
  • Eritrea
  • Rwanda
  • Egypt
  • Denmark
  • Sweden
  • Tunisia
  • Armenia
  • Tonga
  • Ecuador

The resulting phrase is ALTERED STATE, which describes both a state of confusion and literally a state (country) that’s been changed.

I imagine music is a powerful influence on how people in other fields approach their work. I’m usually listening to an eclectic playlist while building grids and writing clues. It certainly helped me here, although I wasn’t even listening to Genesis at the time when I thought of the theme. The song title just popped into my head and from there I went to work.

It helped that ALTERED STATE could accommodate the first letters of countries that could be scrambled. There are only a handful of countries beginning with E, but I needed three of them. There are even fewer countries beginning with D, and only two of them (Denmark and Dominica) turned up phrases with hidden anagrams on Adam Aaronson’s Wordlisted. Dominica had a few interesting possibilities like AMINO ACID and PUBLIC DOMAIN. One other random, neat fact I learned while looking them up: ARGENTINA is an anagram of the Food Network chef INA GARTEN.

One non-theme clue of note: 103D: [Phrase meaning “Forget it,” not “Sorry, we’re out of Ivory and Lava products”] is NO SOAP. I’ve never encountered anyone saying this in the wild, which means it’s either more common in other regions, or it’s fairly outdated. However, I’d only just learned while writing this blog post that the phrase may have originated from an actual lack of soap. That’s because navy recruits during World War I had often complained that they weren’t being provided soap as production of its raw ingredients had been heavily focused on making explosives at the time. So, it became military slang meaning “you’re out of luck.” Even antiquated phrases can have interesting origin stories.

What did you think?