Monday, June 18, 2012


Our alphabet code, entered in a notebook when I was 12.

When I was a kid, back in the dark days before Encarta and Wikipedia and all that, we had a couple of sets of encyclopedias. They were great sources of knowledge, as well as interesting snapshots of a given period in time--one set dated from the 60s, another was slightly more recent, though still out of date, so the science items in particular were occasionally unintentionally comical. (You can imagine the example photos they had in the article about "Computer," for example...)

My brother John and I spent many a rainy day or winter evening with those books, either tracing themes from one volume to another, or just reading straight through. Sometimes I'd take a volume to bed with me and fall asleep reading about aardvarks and Albania and the Appalachian Trail. I also liked studying the very first page of those volumes, where they discussed the history of whatever-letter-it-was. most kids, we were also captivated by secret codes. Who wasn't? We came up with various forms of encryption, like the old standard of using a key word to come up with a 26 number alphabet code. Remember that? Basically, you'd pick a random word with no repeated letters, write that out, followed by the remaining letters of the alphabet, and write the numbers 1 through 26 by them. Unless the recipient knew the keyword, it was hard to figure out which numbers meant what.

Keyword Code

But like I said, I also found those historical predecessors to the current alphabet very interesting, and somewhere along the line, we hit upon the idea of using those to make a simple to use and intuitive "code" to use amongst ourselves. It was pretty easy to break, but easy to memorize and fun. Some letters had common predecessors or no very interesting variations, so we had to make up a few letter shapes, but most came straight from older forms. I kept journal entries in code some of the time back then, and even as an older teenager away from home used to write letters to my brother using these letters. Kinda fun.

Encoded - Journal Entry
I used to write portions of my journal entry in code, even if it wasn't really anything secretive...

What sort of codes have you played around with? What did you use them for, and with whom?


Anonymous said...

Fun memories! We got our first encyclopedia in the fifties, the World Book series. When the weather precluded playing outside or it was too late/early I would read them like some people read novels. Every house seemed to have an unabridged dictionary, circa late 1800s, that I would read through as well. Never knew where all those 20 pound dictionaries came from.

I don't know about the girls, but we little boys didn't make up codes. We were too busy with sports and playing cowboys and Indians or war, cap guns and all. (A lot of our parents were WWII vets or still serving.)

We did solve ciphers, though. The local paper had a Jumble puzzle and a cryptogram along with the comics and crossword puzzle page. My grandfather loved those things and he encouraged his six grandkids to try them as each got old enough. When my friends and I discovered the Lord Of The Rings in 7th grade, we started to use the Dwarf runes for "secret" messages. Besides, they looked like Viking runes and my hometown has a strong tradition that Vikings had landed on the island. (Never proved although I wouldn't be surprised.) Neat stuff!

Jeff The Bear

Millie said...

Ahh, the memories! I used to write parts of my journal in the Aurek-Besh alphabet, which (for those less cooler than me) is the Empire's alphabet in Star Wars. I doubt I'd be able to translate any of it now without a key, but it was fun at the time and meant my sister couldn't read my secrets!

(And to confirm the comment above, I am a girl!)

deek said...

Ah, the memories. I played with a lot of secret codes and made up characters. And it wasn't just when I was a kid, as just a few years ago I wrote a little replacement program that would pick up my text and encode it.

I would post that to some friends and they'd have to decode it by hand. To a few, I gave them my decode program, so we could communicate really easily...

Fun stuff!

Joe V said...

"Alvin's Secret Code," by Herbert S. Zinn, was my all time favorite book as a kid. Thanks for reminding me.


Little Flower Petals said...

Sounds like a fun book, Joe! Probably a good one to pick up for nieces or nephews in a few years. I know we read plenty of books including codes, but for the life of me I can't recall any now.

I like the idea of using dwarf runes or Star Wars alphabets. Very cool!