November 26, 2004

The Language Log Code

Much of the news these days seems to have been written by a disciple of Thomas Pynchon, working off a caffeine overdose under severe deadline pressure. Yesterday's harvest includes the announcement by Bletchley Park of a possible solution to "the coded message on a garden monument designed and installed at the Anson family’s Shugborough, Staffordshire estate between c1748-1758". The coded message reads "D.O.U.O.S.V.A.V.V.M." and is believed by some to provide a clue to the location of the Holy Grail.

WW2 codebreakers Oliver and Sheila Lawn have identified not one, but rather 48 "promising approaches to cracking the code", supplied by "communications received in emails, letters, books, telephone calls and face-to-face" from a volunteer army of cryptographical irregulars, whose contributions have been organized into a "Premier Codebreakers' League", with named teams. The top of the current league standings, arranged by number of solutions, goes like this:

                              No. of Solutions   Position in League
Knights Templar Academicals           9                1
Arcady Orient                         8                3
Numbers Argyle                        6                7
Batty Brothers Albion                 6                9
Rennes-le-Château Rovers              6                4
Nifty City Shifters                   5                8
Lorn Lovers United                    5                2
Runda Town                            2                6
Maritime Wanderers                    1                5


The Bletchley codebreakers eliminated solutions "whose contributions covered UFO’s and Nostradamus, among others, or whose material arrived surprisingly soon after the challenge had been announced", though the reasons for these prejudices are not explained.

The anonymous author of the most highly-favored analysis has "discovered that the key is actually visible, over and over again, on the monument itself. By careful inspection, he says, the key ‘1223’ is revealed. After anagramming, a plain text message emerges: JESUS H DEFY."

My thoughts almost exactly. I reckon that by chosing among a set of plausible codes and keys, and then anagramming the results, I could make a ten-letter message say something more impressive than this. In my sleep.

Reading this, a chill may run up your spine as you realize that Language Log is an (unencrypted!) anagram for Agelong Gaul, and you contemplate the possible involvement of the ancient and international Gallic conspiracy in suppressing the hidden wisdom of the Knights Templar. The legacy of Philip the Fair lives on. And then again, maybe not.


Posted by Mark Liberman at November 26, 2004 09:13 AM