Tag Archives: cryptogram

The hardest cryptogram evurrrr

Champollion doing that weird Napoleonic hand-in-the-vest-for-my-portrait thing

A cryptogram is a puzzle where the letters of words are replaced with ciphers. A cipher is any symbol. To ‘decipher’ a code is to replace the ciphers with the correct letters. I told you the secret to solving cryptograms: you look for a short, common word, like ‘the.’ Young began the process by correctly identifying the word ‘Ptolemy.’

Jean-François Champollion (ZHEHN frahn-SWAH shahm-pōl-YŌN) was the tireless French scholar who broke the hieroglyph code. He started with Young’s discovery and used the Greek words to decipher the hieroglyphic and Demotic versions. He figured out that Ptolemy’s name was a rebus—meaning that those symbols must represent sounds. That was a beginning. He still had years of diligent work ahead of him. Eventually, in 1822 he was able to show that hieroglyphic symbols could stand for things, ideas, syllables or sounds. Demotic symbols stood for syllables or sounds. He’d sorted out how the reader can tell which of those a symbol stands for.

And so, after thirteen centuries of silence, the hieroglyphics could speak again. Nowadays if you put ‘Rosetta Stone’ in your search engine you’ll get ads for a company that teaches foreign languages. The Rosetta Stone was so crucial to solving the hieroglyphics mystery that it’s become a symbol for understanding all languages.


Back to the beginning of The Western Civ User’s Guide to Reading & Writing.