How Cryptoquotes Work

Chart of the frequency with which each letter is used in the English language.
This chart of the frequency with which each letter is used in the English language may come in handy while solving cryptoquotes. Meanwhile, we discovered that creating cryptoquotes is at least as fun as solving them. See our puzzle below.
HowStuffWorks, 2007

If you open most major Sunday morning newspapers, you'll still find the classic crossword puzzle, but some papers are offering readers other challenging brain games like cryptoquotes, too. Cryptoquotes are word puzzles derived from cryptology, which is the science of secret writing. In today's technology-driven society, cryptology is mostly used to protect personal information like passwords or PINs, but cryptology's history is the stuff of spy movies.

Before modern computers made encryption more sophisticated, people had to rely on other ways of delivering classified information. Cryptograms, which are messages that have been encrypted by substituting a letter, number or other symbol for each letter in the original message, were used successfully to send top-secret information as far back as Julius Ceasar's time, as well as during the Revolutionary War and both World Wars. Cryptograms captured the public's interest and evolved from military technology into entertaining word puzzles. The puzzles have gone in and out of fashion over the centuries, but have continually enjoyed a small following among word puzzle fanatics (and middle school students who pass old-fashioned paper notes in class). However, when author Dan Brown's books "The Lost Symbol" and "The Da Vinci Code" became best sellers, the public's fascination with cryptogram puzzles was renewed, along with its many spin-offs -- including cryptoquotes.


Unlike cryptograms, which can include any message, cryptoquote word puzzles contain either a famous saying or a quote by a famous person. The quote must be translated using a cipher, or a key, in which one letter stands for another. Hundreds of ciphers have been created, but the ones most commonly used in cryptoquotes are known as classical ciphers. They might include simple substitutions -- for example, "How Stuff Works" might be encrypted as "Iad Twcbb Dahgt," where "B" substitutes for "F" and "T" substitutes for "S." Transposition ciphers, in which letters are transposed, are also common -- for example, "How Stuff Works" might be encrypted as "Wkros Fstuf Who."

These ciphers are generally easy to decode for anyone with a pen and a little time on their hands, but it does take a bit of practice and strategy to improve your speed. Read on to learn how to solve cryptoquotes and get some tips for improving your time.


Solving Cryptoquotes

There are many strategies for solving a cryptoquote successfully and improving your time. Syndicated puzzle author Denise Sutherland recommends looking at one-, two- and three-letter words first. Start with any one-letter words, since there are only two words in the English language that are spelled with one letter: "I" and "a." And because all two-letter words include a vowel, thinking about them next is a good strategy, as you may be able to identify or eliminate a few vowels quickly.

Sutherland also recommends looking for words with double letters; for example, "BKKV" could be "feel" or "look." Words with apostrophes frequently end in "S," or they could be a common contraction that ends in "T," like "wouldn't" or "don't." In addition, consider sentences that end with a question mark. Since questions most often begin with "who," "what," "when," "why," "where" and "how," you might be able to decode a few letters right away.


Don't forget that no letter can substitute for itself in a cipher and that the message in a cryptoquote isn't necessarily your only clue to solving the puzzle. Also look at the person to whom the quote is attributed. Many quotes are credited to "Anonymous" or "Source Unknown." Also, think about commonly quoted people, like the Dalai Lama, Martin Luther King or Mark Twain.

As with most brain games, the more you play with cryptoquotes, the better you'll get, and you might even decipher some strategies of your own in the process. If you're really into solving cryptoquotes and other cryptology puzzles, the American Cryptogram Association is a good place to find resources about hundreds of ciphers and tips for solving cryptoquotes. With a mission to put cryptograms in the same league as chess, members get together yearly at a conference dedicated to the hobby of cryptogram puzzles.


Lots More Information

Related Articles

  • American Cryptogram Association (August 24, 2011)
  • Boone, J.V. "A Brief History of Cryptology." Naval Institute Press. 2005.
  • Cook, John. "The Book of Positive Quotations." Fairview Press. 1997.
  • "Random Sequence Generator." (Aug. 26, 2011)
  • Sutherland, Denis, Koltko-Rivera, Mark. "Cracking Codes & Cryptograms for Dummies." Wiley Publishing, Inc. 2010.