If you are the kind of amateur word-lover who is still in mourning over the passing of William Safire, or who readily employs “anagram” as a verb (“[In the Middle Ages] some people believed that a person’s character or fate could be discovered by anagramming his or her name.”), or who knows that “sotadics” is a synonym for palindromes, then you will immediately fall acronym over hexagram in love with Barry Blake’s survey of all the tricky and elusive stunts that words can pull, Secret Language, originally published in 2010 and now appearing in a handy trade paperback edition.
With the precision, ingenuity and clarity he employs throughout the book, Blake uses Chapter 1 to outline his remit, and it’s a wide one, comprising not only sheer cerebral linguistic hijinks (challenges to the reader are included), but also literary wordplay and the use of secret languages for war and crime, politesse and revenge. “This book describes ways in which people choose to be oblique in their use of language as a system of communication and situations in which they are constrained from indiscriminate direct communication.”
This extensive ambit allows Blake to delve into fascinating arcana from folklore, magic, myth, medicine, history, and literature. The reader will be endlessly fascinated by learning of such bizarre practices as impressing ritual phrases onto bread which would then be fed to rabid dogs as a cure. Cockney slang, French thieves’ argot, Indonesian ceremonial verse forms — all the ways in which humanity has employed language to achieve “the everyday oblique” will astonish you.
Blake’s reach extends right up to the present, as he chronicles the internet’s “leetspeak” and delves into Ian Rankin detective novels for examples of continuing florid and clever coinages and expressions. He illustrates how many of our daily verbal usages are remnants of a more mysterious past. Although hewing to a purely scientific perspective, he is not condemnatory of irrational, superstitious motives, but recognizes that all human impulses have their valid role in shaping our discourse.
But despite Blake’s thoroughness and wide erudition, there are some curious lacunae here: no mention of the Codex Seraphinianus; the Voynich Manuscript; fictional languages such as Klingon and Elvish; the Kryptos sculpture at the CIA HQ in Virginia; telegraph-era business code books such as the World-Wide Travelers’ Cipher Code; the Hypnerotomachia Poliphili; Finnegans Wake; Kit Williams’s Masquerade and its imitators; or idioglossia, the secret language of twins. But these omissions merely point to the width and depth of Blake’s topic, which is co-extensive with all human activities, and so, appetite whetted by Blake’s feast, the appreciative reader will be able more confidently to search out additional ways in which language cloaks its true meanings from those not intended to hear its message.
Paul Di Filippo’s column The Speculator appears monthly in the Barnes & Noble Review. He is the author of several acclaimed novels and story collections, including Fractal Paisleys, Little Doors, Neutrino Drag, and Fuzzy Dice.