Belatedly reading down some latter entries in a recent topic on the Crossword Centre Message Board, I discovered that I was being credited with the transfer of the ‘Nina’ concept from Al Hirschfeld to crosswords. Here’s my take on the issue.
Al Hirschfeld (1903-2003, though he just missed his own centenary) was a US caricaturist who specialised in cartoons of Broadway and film. Examples of his work can be found here. He was reputed to draw his cartoons without taking his pen off the paper (or, at least, any more than absolutely necessary). And he liked to include the name of his daughter Nina in the cartoon.
It helps to see it in capitals – NINA – and to imagine the letters disproportionately tall. You get a sequence of close-to-parallel lines which readily lend themselves to deployment as creases, or drapery or cross-hatching. (It wouldn’t have worked half as well if he’d called her Brenda.) A good place to look is where a man is kneeling – there may well be a Nina lurking in the creases of his trousers behind the knee.
I’m pretty certain Hirschfeld didn’t put Nina in all his drawings – at least, I recently acquired a book of pieces by S J Perelman, illustrated by Hirschfeld, and I haven’t found a single Nina. (Admittedly the adjacency of Perelman’s delightful prose is a major distraction.)
In crosswords, a Nina is a sort of hidden message. I’d categorise crossword themes three ways:
- Overt theme: where one answer is referred to in other clues; I’ve done this with operas, dogs, pasta, constellation – OPERA (say) goes in at number 8, and then TOSCA is clued with an 8 somewhere to replace the definition
- Ghost theme: a lot of the answers relate to a given theme – if you spot it, all well and good, but if you don’t then you can solve the puzzle as an ordinary puzzle; I’ve done this with novels by a single author, films by a single director, and so on
- Nina: a message winds its way through the grid, in (say) unchecked letters around the perimeter, or there’ll be a link between answers (multiple pairs of anagrams, say); most recently I used a grid with unchecked letters in the perimeter, while hiding IT’S NOT IN THE PERIMETER – er – not in the perimeter. Again you shouldn’t need to spot it to solve the puzzle, but it’s a bonus if you do.
The exposition above rather suggests I’m in the perfect position to have introduced the term (I certainly knew about Hirschfeld’s practice well before it made the jump to crosswords), but I don’t recall doing so. I’d certainly have echoed any such suggestion however, as the concepts dovetail beautifully.
I do have a suspect in mind, though…