A US radio station and a US non-profit organisation have received letters that look like code messages. Can a reader decipher them?

Thomas Bosbach, who is known as a great codebreaker to the readers of this blog, has drawn my attention to two cryptograms discussed on Reddit.


A message sent to a radio station

The first one was posted by a Reddit user named chlo3k. Like so often on Reddit, not much background information is available. Almost everything the poster lets us know is contained in the headline: “Sent via mail, no return address, postmarked from Vegas to my college’s radio station. We’ve never received anything like this before.” The message is reproduced in the following.


The poster provided the following transcription:

commission franchise commissary staff
proclaim treaty soveriegn exonage coal jack oak
path whom they came horses heels tumbles backwards highway abandoned travelers provide ankle way fire pillar guide take
presence chief piece bear decisions always inhabitant land fiftieth year liberty family property clan laborers land colony leading city district stat
posts gold silver acacia bands west cubits courtyard numbers judges 2 kings
rings beka shekels wave signet marble oak bronze four corners seam blue cord not swing networks
table of nations tablet portion five times instruction cover top ark break presence all outside curtain lampstand opposite mountain accessories
lexicographical proliferation language insurance policy bonus tributaries conveyance territory electing aggregation exempt quasi expense account membership inductance constituent materals articles defined organized
common fiscal motion fixed discription administrate
chiefly switch make temporary use


A message sent to a non-profit organisation

At about the same time, a user named snowydeschanel published a similar cryptogram on Reddit. He wrote: “I work for a non-profit that provides networking and educational opportunities for attorneys. We were sent this letter a few days ago. No return address.”


The following transcription is provided:

Papyrus swift messengers
Tall smooth commander
In chief in army pharaoh
Annexation prenomen
Deputized supreme. Field
Region surface. Coordinate.
Manage nonproliferation.
Diplomacy expense account
Grant applications yield mark.
Bill submission tax exempt
Church business government
Calendar time chess cards
Condensation composition
Nahum 2 young smoke
Underwrighting highly ordered
Microscopic Judges 9 fire
Thornbush anoint plate
Amorphous queso quasi
Job 4 pots herds sledge
Radio receiver communications
Navigation waves sensing
Applications Ezra I Cyrus
King of Persia rose heads
Postal dealer student
Humanity anthropology
Rail road taxis
V sbyybjrq gur ehyrf


What do these messages mean?

Were both notes written by the same person? In my view, this is very likely. At least, the hand-writings look very similar.

The content of the messages is similar, too. Both consist of meaningful English words (except for the last line of the second message), which do not assemble to meaningful sentences. This is typical for messages encrypted with a codebook that uses meaningful words as codewords. The most widely known ciphertext of this kind is the silk dress cryptogram, an unsolved crypto mystery from around 1900:

Commitment to Costumes, used with permission

While codebook codes were quite popular until the middle of the 20th century, they are hardly used any more today. So, it would be quite a surprise to encounter a message of this kind in a letter written in 2019.

What else could it be? Some modern crypto programs use meaningful words to display hash values (this avoids the user having to deal with hexadecimal numbers). The product GreenShield Mail by my employer cryptovision is an example. Here’s a screenshot:

While such a user-friendly hash-value representation looks similar as the two messages were are dealing with, I see no reason why somebody would write something like this in an anonymous letter.

Does a reader have a better explanation? Can somebody decipher the two messages? Please let me know.

Further reading: How FBI codebreakers found out what “K1, P2, CO8, K5, P2” means

Linkedin: https://www.linkedin.com/groups/13501820
Facebook: https://www.facebook.com/groups/763282653806483/

Subscribe to Blog via Email

Enter your email address to subscribe to this blog and receive notifications of new posts by email.

Kommentare (9)

  1. #1 Magnus Ekhall
    3. September 2019

    The last line is “I followed the rules” encrypted with ROT13

  2. #2 Lance Estes
    3. September 2019

    The rot13 is a requirement of that particular sub reddit and is not intended to be part of the cipher.

  3. #3 Richard Bean
    4. September 2019

    I’m reluctant to comment because I know in about two hours Thomas is going to comment with the source book, edition, year, author etc, but that “q…. q….” phrase is fairly unique in that order.

    The “g. a. y.” phrase also seems to be from only one source, a Nature paper in 2015. There’s at most three sources for that.

  4. #4 Richard SantaColoma
    4. September 2019

    Near the beginning, the “Isaiah 18” text has strong similarities to the actual Isaiah 18 of the Old Testament. For this reason I don’t think it is a code, but maybe a mnemonic? Yes I know I have “gone there” a few times, but I do wonder if that is what some of these are… The Somerton cipher, the McCormick one.

    But why someone would send a mnemonic cheat sheet to an attorney non profit, I admit makes no sense. However, “swift messengers”, “ambassadors”, “papyrus”, “tall smooth” for I18’s “people tall and smooth-skinned”, and more, are all in Isaiah 18.

    So off the top of my head, I wonder if this was written by someone giving a talk, in which they were making an allegory to Isaiah 18… relating it to some other issue (political, social, legal, etc.), and these words are meant to help remind them of their speech.

  5. #5 Jerry McCarthy
    England, Europa...
    4. September 2019

    For the first one, “soveriegn” is mispelled, and I don’t think that “exonage” is a word, other than as the name of a band.

  6. #6 x3Ray
    4. September 2019

    @Richard SantaColoma

    It’s more than just Isaiah 18 that references to bible texts:
    Nahum 2 – young smoke
    Judges 9 – fire thornbush
    Job 4 – potsherds sledge (actually found in Job 41)
    Ezra 1 – Cyrus king of persia rose heads

  7. #7 Klaus Schmeh
    5. September 2019

    Brett Zingler via Facebook:
    Been following this on /codes. No progress of note and part of me believes it’s some kind of hoax – like perhaps the recipients are in on it.

  8. #8 Klaus Schmeh
    5. September 2019

    Mak Ro via Facebook:

    Looks like steganography, but without the exact dictionary, I can’t imagine how anyone would even begin to analyze that.

    I’ve seen a steganography generator make…

    It looks similar.

  9. #9 Klaus Schmeh
    7. September 2019

    David Heath via Facebook:
    It’s interesting to note that ‘exonage’ is a very obscure word… I’m not even sure it’s a real word, but it is the name of a band. More likely the source of that word is from a document that talks about financials, though… and it does appear that sometimes the word ‘exchange’ in a PDF is interpreted by optical character recognition as ‘exonage’ in some texts. While that’s still relatively rare, that would fit with the theme of financial terms in close proximity. That may also help to explain some of the other strange misspellings, if they are using a digital library as the source.

    In my opinion, this appears that it could well be a coded message of some sort, probably using a [poor] form of ‘steganography’ (as Mark Ro pointed out), since other very similar messages have been sent to other seemingly random places. Note that, ideally, real steganography should be such that it does not raise eyebrows like this very obviously does. The point is generally to pass a message without anyone realizing that there is a message there, thereby avoiding suspicion or cryptanalysis efforts completely. So I wouldn’t really call this steganography. It’s extremely strange that it would be mailed to these places, though… so it could have been sent as a prank too.

    If I had to guess, snowydeschanel (one post user on reddit, but screen name has posts on other forums) and chlo3k (with a similar post history based on topics and views/opinions) are actually the same person… posting this just for fun. The new snowydeschanel reddit account posted it 3 months ago, and perhaps based on its success and upvotes, chlo3k posted a similar one the following month. Being in college, they are probably learning about steganography and thought it was cool. Many key indicators in the handwriting point towards the same author, further reinforcing this theory: https://i.redd.it/daot4xnl5m631.jpg and https://i.redd.it/6a80q9ctufy21.jpg