You'll Sigh Fer It

Maybe you don’t send telegrams much. I’m not altogether certain where you’d go, at this point, or how the message would be delivered. Telegrams may very well be delivered by email, these days, or, if you yearn for something old-fashioned, by fax. Once upon a time, of course, the telegraph was the best way to send a message across the country, if not exactly at the speed of light, then as fast as electricity, which was fast enough for the folks of the day. Nowadays, I reckon the only telegraphs made are the ones built by home hobbyists who want to play with dry cells and wires.

So you might just think you don’t need a copy of Frank Shay’s Cipher Book, of which I will have a nice, solid copy from 1922 on the Collectors’ table. ($75, please remember to pay at the table.) Frank Shay, a man of many parts, composed his cipher in 1888 and updated it from time to time. It was intended to help out the traveling businessman do one or both of two things:

1. Cut down on the expense of the telegram by cutting the number of words used

2. Keep business dealings a secret from the competition

The cipher consists of two wordlists: one of words, and one of words or phrases used frequently by the traveling salesman. He puts them next to each other in alphabetical order, so to encipher or decipher, you just run your finger down the page until you find the word or phrase you need. Thus, if you want to tell your agent to “Sell for what you can get”, you write “Lobster”. The word “Lockjaw”, however, means, “Sell if on hand”. The salesman, in turn, needs only to run down the cipher list to Lobster or Lockjaw to find out what you mean.

This runs (in cipher) from Aaron to Restinction. From Restiveness to Scobiform are the code words for numbers, and from Scoff to Trappy, he leaves blanks for you to fill in with your most used words for whatever merchandise you deal in, the places you most often deal in, and companies you most often deal with.

It’s fun to read, and must have been fun to put together. How much quantum cogitation did he put in to make sure Fornicating stood for “It must not be done”? And if you want to make some reference to a “Japanese Journey”, the phrase in cipher is “Fritter Froggy”.

But this cipher book is not just a quaint relic of days gone by. It’s a thing you NEED, friend and frog fritterer. Haven’t you ever been told that email is one of the least private forms of communication known? I don’t know how it compares with texting, but no matter. Wouldn’t it reassure you to be able to send your fellow workers, subordinates, or loved ones a message anybody might read but only your intended target could understand? Oh, sure, there’s an app for that, but Frank’s book is something a hacker can’t break. Too low-tech.

And what, you demand, is going to keep your competition or the National Enquirer from buying another copy of Frank Shay’s Cipher Book from me and using it to decipher your messages? Pshaw. Frank thought of that years ago. He has instructions in the book for what to do if someone else has the Cipher Book. Just shift the columns: instead of using the cipher word right across from your meaning, count down three lines for each phrase, or up two, or change the number with each word. In that case, your Japanese Journey can become “Frivolity Frontal”.

Think it over. You, too, could hide little messages to your friends on Facebook, Twitter, or even in your listings on eBay (or Abadie Barytum, as Frank Shay would put it.) 

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