It’s Hardly Any Matter at All

MONDAY PUZZLE — Bear with us for a few days, solvers, as Rachel Fabi pedals across a healthy portion of New York State. And congratulations to Phoebe Gordon, who makes her New York Times crossword debut with a light and lovely theme in a clean Monday grid.

As usual, don’t be intimidated when the first few clues are challenging, or by entries that stretch across the whole puzzle! I needed several crossing letters from down entries in the top third to get the first of three span theme entries, which happens to be a puzzle debut.

There’s some neat interplay in the fill today, several clever puns and a nice variety of trivia that is deducible, but not instant recall (for this solver, anyway).

10A. This is a perfect clue for its entry, “Playfully make fun of.” I ran a gamut of words through my mind — “mock,” “gibe,” “jeer” — but they were all meaner-spirited than RAZZ, as in the type of “raspberry” one blows when delivering a Bronx cheer. (At 13D, I had “peel” instead of ZEST at first, which slowed me down and made me briefly consider “carp” for this spot.)

36A. One would hope that, of all the possible answers for “You might hit them near traffic lights,” the only thing any of us hit is BRAKES.

51A. This “Muse of history” is also a crossword stalwart — those two vowels at the end of CLIO are useful for constructors. You’ll see her sisters Erato and Thalia fairly often; Melpomene, tragically, has only been in one puzzle so far.

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69A. This is a kitchen pun that Deb Amlen would know immediately (She has almost — almost — assuaged my fears of botulism.) “Jar heads?” are U.S. Marines, idiomatically, but in simpler terms they are just LIDS.

8D. This clue is so specific — “2017 coming-of-age film that received nominations for Best Picture, Best Director, and Best Actress” — but 2017 feels curiously long past and I needed a few crosses to remember the solution. The movie itself, LADYBIRD, takes place in 2002 — talk about ancient history!

37D. Because they’re living fossils that were cool before chlorophyll, pollination and seeds evolved, a “Mushroom’s reproductive cell” is a SPORE.

39D. I love the “modern” component of this clue, “Modern convenience at many movie theaters.” The fourth dimension? Screens the size of skyscrapers? No, the humble CUPHOLDER (I do remember seats with holder-less armrests in the movies, but I’m not sure what century that was.) This entry combines with 4D, SPIT TAKES, to make me think of the dentist.

There are three theme entries today, all idioms clued with a relevant occupation. Though they’re all familiar; two are more common, I think, and each made me wonder about their actual origins.

The topmost theme entry is the least well known, in my opinion. 17-Across, “In a state of confusion, as in math class?,” solves to a numerical saying: AT SIXES AND SEVENS. I’d heard this expression but had never used it, and I was surprised that it dated to the 1300s (talk about ancient history!). Originally, the numbers were a reference to a risky decision in a high-stakes game of dice; over time, they came to mean a more general waffling between non-numeric options.

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The middle theme entry, 40-Across, is clued with a dance reference, “Very rapidly, as in a ballet studio?” The answer certainly sounds like it’s referring to jetés and assemblés: LEAPS AND BOUNDS. This idiom also goes back a long way and can refer to any manner of surprisingly rapid progression, such as the growth of corn in the summertime, or a puppy. One early appearance is in a Samuel Taylor Coleridge poem, “Metrical Feet,” as a description of staccato “anapests” (like “assemblé,” coincidentally).

The last theme entry is at 63-Across, “In suspense, as in a tailor shop?”, which solves to a great expression. When I read ON PINS AND NEEDLES, I can practically feel the prickly sensation of a limb regaining circulation, perhaps after too long a period of suspense-filled stillness.

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