What the Heck Is a Cryptogram?

What the Heck Is a Cryptogram_

Today’s word is “cryptogram”. What is a cryptogram? According to the dictionary definition, it is:

  1. A text written in code.
  2. A symbol or figure with secret or occult significance
Here’s an example of what one looks like:

Why did I pick this word today? Simply because I’ve always been fascinated with them…ever since I was a child and read the Sherlock Holmes story, “The Adventure of the Dancing Men“. Do you remember that story? The American wife communicates with her ex-fiance in pictorial code. Her husband sees one of the messages and hires Sherlock to figure out what’s going on. And, of course, he does. 🙂

In high school, one of my friends and I developed our own secret written language. We knew how to decipher it. We had the code, but no one else did. It was great fun having secret conversations like that. I loved it!

Cryptograms have a long history of being used in espionage and warfare to keep an enemy from discovering strategic plans should a courier be captured. Because it takes quite a bit of time and ingenuity to solve these enigmatic puzzles without access to a key, this form of encryption was very effective in keeping the secrets of both sides of a battle. There was, of course, always the chance that someone might break the code, and it did happen more often than not that one army or the other had a code breaker available.

Many people think that cryptograms are too tough to solve, so they never have tried. Certainly they can be challenging…especially if you don’t have any kind of key, but it’s not really all that difficult to solve cryptograms once you’ve learned a few little tricks. Solving these little puzzles mostly involves applying a little logic and reasoning to figure out the most frequent patterns of sentence construction, along with a tiny bit of trial and error. This, I think, is one of the things I’ve always loved about cryptograms because, while I’m not exactly the most logical person in the world, I am a master at getting trial and error to work in my favor. 🙂

One of the easiest things to do when you start out is to look for single letter words. The only single letter words in the English language are ““I”” and ““a”, so that at least gives you something to work with. And, in the English language “a” is used more commonly than “I”, so you use that as a starting point, changing all the identical symbols in the puzzle to “a’s”, as well.”

Another tip is to look for two identical symbols next to each other within a “word”. The most commonly doubled letters in the English language are ““e””, ““l”, ““t””, “r””, ““s””, ““o””, ““m””, ““n””, and “”p””. In general, the most commonly used letters in the English language are “r”, “s”, “t”, “l”, “n”, and “e” (Wheel of Fortune, anyone?). So all you have to do is look for symbols that occur more frequently than others, and you can make a pretty good guess as to which letters make up the word you are trying to decipher.

Once you’ve figured out a few letters, it should be easier to come up with more, and you can build on your puzzle-solving abilities from there…especially if you’re familiar with basic spelling and word construction rules. After you’ve solved a few cryptograms successfully, you’ll likely get better at it and will be able to do it with increasing speed and ease. And you might just find, as I have, that you really enjoy solving them.

Never solved a cryptogram before? Why not try one today? There are some available for free online. Not a bad way to spend a rainy (or snowy) evening. And don’t forget to share your experiences with cryptograms in the comments below.


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