“A cryptogram is a type of puzzle that consists of a short piece of encrypted text. Generally the cipher used to encrypt the text is simple enough that the cryptogram can be solved by hand. Substitution ciphers where each letter is replaced by a different letter or number are frequently used. To solve the puzzle, one must recover the original lettering. Though once used in more serious applications, they are now mainly printed for entertainment in newspapers and magazines.”
Have you ever solved a cryptogram puzzle? At first it looks pretty difficult. I’ll tell you the secret to solving them: look for the shortest words. Especially words of only one letter—that’ll be either ‘a’ or ‘I.’ Two-letter words will be ‘an, or, to, so, at, of, it, if, is…’ you get the idea. After you solve one or two short words you can more easily guess at the longer ones. If you find ‘a,’ then a 3-letter word ‘A_ _’ may be ‘and, any, are, all’. ‘E’ occurs most often in English, so look for the cypher (the substitute letter) in the puzzle that occurs most often.
If you were a 19th-century British cadet serving in Iran and you wanted to solve the riddle of cuneiform, you’d use that method. Rawlinson was solving a cryptogram. Rawlinson wanted to read the Persian version of Darius’ proclamation. He spoke modern Persian (Farsi). His first step was to look for commonly-used words. For instance, the inscription begins: ‘King Darius proclaims.’ Then Darius repeatedly offers thanks to the god Ahura Mazda. Rawlinson may have started there, and used symbols from those words to figure out the other ones.
Related side note: During World War II, the heroic Englishman Alan Turing cracked the Enigma code used by the Germans to send secret messages. In the biopic The Imitation Game, Turing looked for the words ‘Heil Hitler’ which appeared in every message.
Back to the beginning of The Western Civ User’s Guide to Reading & Writing.