Boustrophedontic cryptogram

In Brief

Among the contents of the drawers in Bloom's desk described in Ithaca are three typewritten letters from Martha Clifford to Henry Flower, and, perhaps on a separate slip of paper, "the transliterated name and address of the addresser of the 3 letters in reversed alphabetic boustrophedontic punctated quadrilinear cryptogram (vowels suppressed)." The cryptic writing is reproduced more or less (in various editions of the novel) as follows: "N. IGS. /WI. UU. OX/W. OKS. MH/Y. IM." Its meaning is fun to decode, but not at all surprising.

Read More

In brief, here is how the code translates, with lower-case letters in the second line indicating parts of the message that have been left out, namely all of the vowels:
N. IGS. /WI. UU. OX/W. OKS. MH/Y. IM
MaRTHa/DRoFFiLC/DoLPHiNS/BaRN
Bloom has "suppressed" the vowels because, as Gifford observes, it "makes a simple code such as this harder to crack, since the patterned frequency of vowel recurrence makes the words relatively easy to spot." In an additional act of subterfuge, he has reversed the order of the letters in Martha's surname, turning Clifford into Droffilc.

The coded letters have been generated by laying out the 26 letters of the alphabet from A to Z, writing below them the same letters arranged Z to A, and substituting Z for A, Y for B, and so forth. The method is dubbed "boustrophedontic" because, in ancient Greece, stone tablets were often covered with writing that began by moving left to right, then moved right to left on the next line (with the letters themselves reversed in appearance, which Bloom does not do), and so on, in the manner of an ox plowing furrows in a field (bous = ox, strophe = turning, don = in the manner of).

In a fanciful turn typical of this chapter, Bloom's boustrophedonic writing is also termed "quadrilinear," apparently because he has inserted forward slashes between the four coded words. Quadrilinear literally means having four lines, but there are only three lines in this line of code. Perhaps the sense is that three lines separate the text into four quadrants?! The text is also said to be "punctuated," because, in every place where a vowel has been removed, Bloom has inserted a period or full stop followed by a space, as would happen at the end of a sentence. Finally, it is described as "reversed," a detail that seems redundant because "boustrophedontic" says the same thing. But perhaps this refers merely to the second word, Droffilc.

As a ruse for concealing clandestine correspondence, all of this is ludicrous. Molly hardly needs to cultivate her codebreaking skills: she already has a sense of what is going on. And if she gained access to the drawer where the coded name and address reside, could she not simply read them from Martha's letters, which are said to lie in the same drawer? The absurdity characterizes Bloom's sense of high secrecy where adulterous feelings are concerned (his wife's approach could not be more different), and it suits the linguistic playfulness of Ithaca, down even to the way its sense of exhaustive exactitude is undermined by details like "quadrilinear" and "reversed." This passage captures some of the wild comedy one finds in the passages in Samuel Pepys' Diary where the author communicates his adulterous exploits in coded language that is both absurdly inventive and self-defeatingly transparent.

There is an alternative to "reversed," the word that appears in the first edition and the Gabler edition, but it brings redundancy of its own. The Odyssey Press editions of the 1930s and the Penguin and Random House texts deriving from the 1960 Bodley Head edition all read "reserved," which, Gifford suggests, could mean "to keep from being known to others." But don't all cryptograms do that?

Different texts also disagree on the spaces between the coded letters. The Gabler edition corrects what appears to be a mistake in earlier texts by inserting a period and space between "WI" and "UU," where the "o" of Clifford belongs. But it does not supply one after "IGS," where the final "a" of Martha belongs. The final Odyssey Press edition of 1939 gets the "a" space right but misses the "o" one. No edition that I have looked at seems to convey Joyce's intention perfectly, so in the text displayed on this website I offer a unique version.

JH 2020
Source: Wikimedia Commons.