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In­ject­ing cryp­tic fun In Scrab­ble, what let­ter tile are you most likely to draw from the bag? ‘E’, of which there are 12 tiles, more than any other let­ter. The rea­son is clear – ‘E’ is also the most com­mon let­ter used in English, fol­lowed by ‘T’, ‘A’, ‘O’, ‘I’, ‘N’, ‘S’, etc, al­though sub­se­quent tile dis­tri­bu­tions don’t ex­actly re­flect that fre­quency.

In lit­er­a­ture, let­ter fre­quency has played a more dra­matic role in the world of cryp­tog­ra­phy (the science of writ­ing in code). In the 1840s, Amer­i­can author Edgar Al­lan Poe wrote The Gold Bug, in which a se­ries of thrilling events ends with the dis­cov­ery of buried trea­sure. The story in­volves cryp­tog­ra­phy with de­scrip­tion of a method for solv­ing a sim­ple sub­sti­tu­tion ci­pher us­ing let­ter fre­quen­cies. The first line of the cryptogram is: 53‡‡†305))6*;4826)4‡. )4‡);806*;48†8. By analysing that the most fre­quently oc­cur­ring sym­bol ought to stand for ‘E’, the next most fre­quent ‘T’, etc, the line, when de­coded, reads “A good glass in the bishop’s hos­tel in the devil’s seat...”. Poe en­tered the story for a writ­ing con­test and won the grand prize of $100. The story achieved crit­i­cal ac­claim, and Poe’s fame spread world­wide.

More in­ter­est­ing is the lit­er­ary in­flu­ence The Gold Bug ex­erted among his fel­low writ­ers. Robert Louis Steven­son ac­knowl­edged it as be­ing the pri­mary in­spi­ra­tion for his own Trea­sure Is­land, say­ing “No doubt the skele­ton [in my novel] is con­veyed from Poe”.

Soon cryptogram-based word puzzles be­came pop­u­lar in news­pa­pers and mag­a­zines. Wil­liam F Fried­man, Amer­ica’s fore­most cryp­tol­o­gist, be­came in­ter­ested in cryp­tog­ra­phy af­ter read­ing The Gold Bug as a child— an in­ter­est he later put to use in de­ci­pher­ing Ja­pan’s PUR­PLE code dur­ing the Se­condWorldWar.

Co­nan Doyle, too, tried his hand at cryp­tog­ra­phy with The Danc­ing Men, in which a young woman re­ceives a se­ries of threat­en­ing notes con­sist­ing of se­quences of stick fig­ures: the ‘danc­ing men’. Holmes cracks the code and all ends well. The legacy sur­vives: in 2011 Ja­panese font foundry Guten­berg Labo added its own ‘danc­ing men’ to fill in some let­ters miss­ing from the Holmes puz­zle, and have ac­tu­ally cre­ated a down­load­able ‘Danc­ing Men’ font.

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