by M. Douglas McIlroy
Word Ways, August 1997
Newspaper cryptograms are usually easy to solve. They may get hard when they're made of words with unusual letter statistics. But no matter how hard they are, when you solve them, you can be sure you got the right answer. Cryptograms longer than about 30 letters (known to codebreakers as the 'unicity distance') just don't have two solutions. Or do they?
Short cryptograms with multiple solutions are easy to find. For example, abcdefg hijklmn decodes to thousands of phrases, the most likely being ones like DISPUTE FRANKLY, MODULAR KITCHEN, UNKEMPT HAIRDOS, MARXIST FLUNKEY, NAUGHTY PROMISE or SKETCHY DRAWING.
I call a pair of texts that cipher into each other a 'dual cryptogram' Any pair of the fourteen-letter phrases above is a dual cryptogram. Longer examples can be made by repetition: A ROSE IS A ROSE IS A ROSE to I HURT OR I HURT OR I HURT or NEVER! NEVER! NEVER! to SARAH! SARAH! SARAH! But this dodge won't get you very far. Authentically long dual cryptograms don't show up in wordplay books. Yet they can be made. Perhaps the one below will encourage some new logological activity.
Timid Doe (123 letters)
I'M HERE. TIMID DOE AM I. TOG ME PER HER, RON--HIDDEN; BUT GET YOU ME A VEIL SO I'LL NOT MEET A GAMY FATE--DOOM DOWN AT A DAMN WOOD. YOU, KATZ, MET A HOT EGO. YOU VIED; I SOON LOSE.
(a frightened soul, imagining herself hunted like a deer, askes her friend Ron Katz to find camouflage more complete than that which an acquaintance wears. She commends Katz for facing opposition in circumstances where she would feel certain of defeat.)
AS BOYO, NASAL LEO IS A NEW, SO COY, BOY. YET BALLOT URN WON HER, SO I GOAD ME (ADD TEN). SOON I WISH VINO--LEES LEFT IN, I LIST. FEEL HER JINX, SON. I, BEN, OWE HER GAOL, A MEET DEMO.
(the narrator, Ben, on losing a raffled date to snide Leo, lashes himself and begs for ten strokes more, then turns to cheap drink. Gripped by her spell, he imagines doing further penance in jail to prove his mad devotion.)
This game can even be played with messages consisting of eight seven-letter words:
BARRENS HOLDING GARCONS CONCEAL WALTON'S GYPPING PINNATE GRIFFON
(the wild country hides everything: fugitive waiters and a thieving dog with wiry feather-combed hair.)
HILLARY MENTORS SILVERY VERVAIN; BINDERY SUCCORS CORRIDA SLOGGER
(the President's wife fondly tends medicinal herbs which will help an inept runner who's taken refuge with a Pamplona bookbinder.)
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