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.