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Example cryptogram. When decoded it reads: "Style and structure are the essence of a book; great ideas are hogwash." -Vladimir Nabokov

A cryptogram is a type of puzzle that consists of a short piece of encrypted text.[1] Generally the cipher used to encrypt the text is simple enough that the cryptogram can be solved by hand. Frequently used are substitution ciphers where each letter is replaced by a different letter or number. 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.

Other types of classical ciphers are sometimes used to create cryptograms. An example is the book cipher where a book or article is used to encrypt a message.

The Cryptogram is also the name of the periodic publication of the American Cryptogram Association (ACA), which contains a large number of cryptographic puzzles.

History of cryptograms[edit]

The ciphers used in cryptograms were not originally created for entertainment purposes, but for real encryption of military or personal secrets.[2]

The first use of the cryptogram for entertainment purposes occurred during the Middle Ages by monks who had spare time for intellectual games. A manuscript found at Bamberg states that Irish visitors to the court of Merfyn Frych ap Gwriad (died 844), king of Gwynedd in Wales were given a cryptogram which could only be solved by transposing the letters from Latin into Greek.[citation needed] Around the thirteenth century, the English monk Roger Bacon wrote a book in which he listed seven cipher methods, and stated that "a man is crazy who writes a secret in any other way than one which will conceal it from the vulgar." In the 19th century Edgar Allan Poe helped to popularize cryptograms with many newspaper and magazine articles.[3]

Well-known examples of cryptograms in contemporary culture are the syndicated newspaper puzzles Cryptoquip and Cryptoquote, from King Features.[4]

In a public challenge, writer J.M. Appel announced on September 28, 2014, that the table of contents page of his short story collection, Scouting for the Reaper, also doubled as a cryptogram, and he pledged an award for the first to solve it.[5]

Solving a cryptogram[edit]

Cryptograms based on substitution ciphers can often be solved by frequency analysis and by recognizing letter patterns in words, such as one letter words, which, in English, can only be "i" or "a" (and sometimes "o"). Double letters, apostrophes, and the fact that no letter can substitute for itself in the cipher also offer clues to the solution. Occasionally, cryptogram puzzle makers will start the solver off with a few letters.

Other crypto puzzles[edit]

While the Cryptogram has remained popular, over time other puzzles similar to it have emerged. One of these is the Cryptoquote, which is a famous quote encrypted in the same way as a Cryptogram. A more recent version, with a biblical twist, is CodedWord. This puzzle makes the solution available only online where it provides a short exegesis on the biblical text. Yet a third is the Cryptoquiz. This puzzle starts off at the top with a category (unencrypted). For example, "Flowers" might be used. Below this is a list of encrypted words which are related to the stated category. The person must then solve for the entire list to finish the puzzle. Yet another type involves using numbers as they relate to texting to solve the puzzle.

The Zodiac Killer sent four cryptograms to police while he was still active. Despite much research and many investigations, only one of these has been translated, which was of no help in identifying the serial killer.[6]

Crypto puzzles in literature and pop culture[edit]

Fiction novels featuring cryptograms include The Davinci Code by Dan Brown and complex biblical cryptograms in Decoding the Phoenix by MD TChaves. In non-fiction, The Mammoth Book of Secret Codes and Cryptograms: Over 600 Mystery Codes to Be Cracked! by Elonka Dunin and many other crypto games reached mainstream prominence following the success of movies such as The Davinci Code and National Treasure: Book of Secrets starring Nicolas Cage.

See also[edit]


  1. ^ Danesi, Marcel (September 22, 2010). "Cryptograms and the Allure of Secret Codes". Psychology Today. Retrieved June 11, 2017.
  2. ^ Sutherland, Denise w/Koltko-Rivera, Mark (2009). Cracking Codes and Cryptograms For Dummies. John Wiley & Sons. ISBN 978-1-1180-6847-2.
  3. ^ "Edgar Allan Poe and cryptography: Are there hidden messages in Eureka?". Retrieved 2017-09-28.
  4. ^ "Games and Puzzles | King Features Weekly Service". Retrieved 2018-01-19.
  5. ^ "A Challenge," Hoosier Topics, (Cloverdale, IN) Sept 29, 2014
  6. ^ "The obsessive amateur code-breakers hoping to crack the Zodiac killer's cipher". Retrieved 2017-09-28.