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Word Play

Word Play

Wordle, the word game with now-ubiquitous green, gray and yellow tiles, went from 90 users in November to more than 2 million in January before creator Josh Wardle sold it to The New York Times. Williams Professor of English Shawn Rosenheim, author of The Cryptographic Imagination: Secret Writing from Edgar Poe to the Internet, spoke to The Philadelphia Enquirer about Poe’s reputation as a puzzle-solving genius, and we wanted to find out more. Here, in his own words, he dives a little deeper into Poe’s—and our—affinity for word ciphers.


My book was on Poe’s relationship to cryptography, which was not unrelated to his interest in word puzzles, word games, cryptics, anagrams, things like that. I’m not a good cryptographer, but I was working on Poe in grad school and had these ideas about how these essays he wrote on cryptography helped spark his invention of the detective story.

Poe got very interested in cryptography and issued a challenge [in a weekly Philadelphia newspaper] to his readers that said, “Anybody can send me in a bit of code or a cipher, and I will decipher it if it’s within the following parameters. If I fail, you get a year’s subscription to the magazine.” It was a huge success, and he got a really-not-deserved reputation as a skillful cryptographer.

Language was often at the heart of [Poe’s writing]. He would sometimes bury acrostics [sets of letters, like the first letter of each line, that spell out a word or phrase] in his poetry. He also came up with a kind of secret treasure map in “The Gold-Bug,” which is the forerunner and inspiration for Treasure Island. Part of the fun is that it’s a map, but it’s encoded. You have to translate words and puzzle out what the clues are in an indirect way, and then you read that into the landscape through your mastery of language. There’s a hidden letter in “The Purloined Letter” that, if it comes out, will threaten the French government. In “Murders in the Rue Morgue,” the first detective story—a genre Poe invented—Dupin, the master detective, solves the murder by realizing there is no human language that corresponds to the language people reported hearing; it must have been an ape.

Poe rewards your attention to language as a thing—language as a set of clues and revelations about social behavior—and also the physical bits of language: treasure maps, puzzles, private letters and various things that drive plots forward.

We have a decayed but residual awareness of the power of words that’s very, very deep in human cultures. Genesis starts with God creating the world through language: Let there be light. In lots of religious traditions, the syllables themselves are sacred and have to be recited in a certain order. In Hinduism, as a way of preserving language, incoming priests would memorize long chunks of Scripture, and then have to memorize it backward. [Word games] play into that sense that words have secrets, and the writer has a secret power over words.

We ordinarily think of language as very transparent. It serves our purposes and comes out of our mouths very easily. But crosswords, which are only about 100 years old, draw our attention to structures of words, deployment of vowels, patterns—core keywords that escape notice fit in beautifully. There’s something about the thinginess of language that all word puzzles play on: Language can be an object. These games turn mostly on written language and on shapes of letters and the pattern-to-letter distribution in different languages, which are different. They make you aware of those building blocks and how they get combined and turned into these words that we use transparently. That kind of heightened sensitivity to language is a modest but recurrent pleasure.

There’s a weird space in Wordle, or in any word game, where something starts to become clear. But it’s not quite clear—you’re feeling your way toward it. And then there’s excitement in the discovery that it’s a G, not an H, and, therefore, your path is right or it needs to be revised. Things like palindromes, acrostics, anagrams—we like the genius of language and the way you can transform things, and Wordle taps into that in some modest way.

Wordle is a thing we can share when so little is shared right now politically, culturally. We’ve got 800 channels and the internet. And that can be quite fragmenting, but Wordle hits that sweet spot. It’s very discreet. You do it in a couple of minutes. It doesn’t tell you what your politics are or anything like that. It’s a universal common denominator.

Regina Velázquez is an assistant editor and senior writer in the Office of Communications.