Saturday 10 October 2009

What is a Nina?

This is the fifth instalment in a series of posts about crossword grids. Previous entries in the series: symmetry, checking, connectivity, pangrams.

A Nina is a special feature of the crossword grid: a word, words or phrase hidden within a pattern of cells in the completed grid.

An example from an Indy crossword: the words STALACTITE and STALAGMITE are concealed vertically, in symmetrical positions.

Nina in Independent 6996 (Mordred)

Why is it called a Nina?

Many think "Nina" is an acronym. It isn't.

The word comes from Al Hirschfeld (1903-2003), American caricaturist, who was famous for hiding his daughter's name "Nina" into his drawings. Wikipedia says:

The name would appear in a sleeve, in a hairdo, or somewhere in the background. Sometimes "Nina" would show up more than once and Hirschfeld would helpfully add a number next to his signature, to let people know how many times her name would appear.

Hirschfeld's artwork is here, I've strained my eyes trying to spot Ninas in the online images. Can you see any? He started the trend in 1945, the year his daughter was born, so look for artwork created post-1945.

Crossword setters then brought Ninas into the realm of crosswords. If you happen to know which publication/setter started the trend, do write a comment about it.

Update (24-Mar-2011): Thanks to Peter Biddlecombe for sharing with me what is possibly the oldest Nina, from the Times crossword of July 1967. Nowadays Ninas occur quite often in the Independent crossword, and occasionally in the Guardian and FT. I haven't yet come across one in the Times, or in any of the Indian crosswords.

There have been Ninas in Indian crossword grids since this article was written. THC 9729 of 1st Jan 2010 was the first. Though rare, there have also been themes and Ninas in the Times crossword.

Ninas and Solvability

As with pangrams, the existence of a Nina is not announced – you'll miss it if you don't actively look for it.

A Nina could help you fill up faster if you catch on to it before filling up the grid, but experience tells me that rarely happens. Ninas are even subtler than pangrams. You generally finish the crossword before the "Ah!" moment of seeing the Nina arrives.

Spot the Nina?

Find the Nina in this grid from another Independent crossword. Post your answer in the comments section. I'll publish comments after two days so that the answer isn't revealed until you've all had a go.

(The Independent is a great crossword by the way. On the challenging side, very innovative. Their daily crossword can be found online here.)

Independent 7150 (Monk) 
                           Independent 7150 (Monk)

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gauri said...

Amazed! Had never heard of the term. Is there a book you recommend that may have all such crossword trivia?

Genuinely fascinating, this series!


Ganesh T S said...

Monty Python's Flying Circus :)

Tony Sebastian said...

Ah the full monty :) awesome

Shuchi said...

Hi Gauri,

Thank you!

I don't know of any books for crossword trivia or about grids. This series comes from my own observations, talking with other solvers and from lots of solving! I recommend two excellent blogs where crossword solutions are discussed - Times for the Times and Fifteensquared. That's where I learnt about Ninas. I learnt about "checking" from Chaturvasi long ago, on the Orkut THC forum.

I blog on Fifteensquared too on Fridays. In case you solve the FT crossword, you might want to visit:

Saw the Nina in the 2nd grid yet?

Vasana said...


maddy said...

Monty python's Flying Circus.

Shuchi said...

@Vasana: You've got 25% of it right...but there's more! Have another try?

Deepak Gopinath said...


Shuchi said...

Ganesh, Tony, maddy, Colonel - Bingo! Congrats!

Vasana - You were almost there!

Shuchi said...

There's a Nina & theme in today's Guardian crossword 24832. It's by Brendan, the compiler with a flair for themed puzzles.

Check it out!

gauri said...

Wow! I looked nice and hard for any random word, and failed to see any. And now that the answer is given, it looks SO obvious! This is addictive :)


Jon88 said...

Not that anyone asked, but the person who first called such things a "Nina" is compiler Kea, in reference to things secreted in Times 2 grids. Commenters on Tony Sever's T2 blog picked it up, and it spread from there.

Shuchi said...

@Jon88: That's an interesting bit of info. Would you know when the term was first used? If Kea coined it and it spread through blogs then it must be a fairly recent addition to the crossword vocabulary.

I recently wrote about the oldest known Nina from the Times crossword of 1967, but I don't suppose it was called "Nina" at that time.

Anonymous said...

Blimey arn't these cryptic crosswords tough enough without introducing ths sort of too clever by half concept. I'll pass if you don't mind.

Colin Greenland said...

Thanks so much for posting that. I've been doing cryptic crosswords for 40 years and never heard of Ninas until this morning.

Shuchi said...

Hi Colin,

You're welcome. I'm sure discovering Ninas will increase your enjoyment of crosswords :) Ninas show up more often in the Independent and Guardian crosswords, if you solve those do keep an eye out for them.

Anonymous said...

Hi Shuchi,
There are Ninas every day in the Times2 crossword. Ask Peter Biddlecombe.

Michael22alen said...

Chica is girl and muchacha is a synonym. Either is used more than the other depending on which country you're talking about.
They also both have a wonderful variety of uses in the vernacular.
Niña is mainly used for a little girl, baby girl or daughter in some cases and is also leveraged quite a bit in vernacular (teenagers will use niña on their friends etc)

CrosswordZone said...

The stealthy nature of Ninas in crosswords adds an extra layer of challenge and excitement. It's interesting how they have subtly infiltrated various publications. I'll surely be on the lookout for Ninas in my future crossword endeavors.