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Ciphers, Cants And Cults: The Secret Languages Of Secret Societies

How secret societies, cults and other groups throughout history have used secret languages and codes to communicate.
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Ciphers, Cants And Cults: The Secret Languages Of Secret Societies

Sghr hr z rdbqds bncd.

This might look like gibberish, but it’s actually a hidden message that can be solved using a simple shift cipher (or Caesar cipher). In this example, the letters have all been shifted one place to the left, so in order to decode the message, you just need to shift them 1 letter to the right. So, “s” becomes “t,” “g” becomes “h,” and so on. If you decode the message above using the cipher, you’ll find that it reads: “This is a secret code.”

If you’re like us, you were very into that little exercise. Humans have always been fascinated with secret codes and languages, and they appear frequently in books, movies and television shows. From the code-breaking adventures in the National Treasure series and Dan Brown novels, to the argot used in A Clockwork Orange, these secret forms of communication bring linguistics into the mainstream.

These fictional examples didn’t arise from thin air — they were inspired by the secret languages and codes utilized throughout history by secret societies, marginalized groups and even cults. Sometimes their motives were noble, and in other cases, more sinister machinations were at play.

Cracking The Codes Of Secret Societies

A secret society is an organization or club whose activities, and often very existence, are concealed from non-members. Sometimes membership involves a specific dress code, certain behaviors (or restricted behaviors) and a vow of secrecy. And with the secrecy comes the need for a clandestine form of communication — namely, a secret code.

Perhaps the most well-known “secret” society is Freemasonry. Evolving from the stonemason guilds of the Middle Ages, the Freemasons are the largest secret society in the world (although they don’t necessarily consider their organization a secret). Masonic lodges (local chapters of the organization) often use what’s called the Pigpen Cipher to encrypt messages. In fact, many people refer to it as the Freemason Cipher. The cipher uses a simple grid with dots, so that each letter of the alphabet corresponds to a specific symbol. An example of the standard Pigpen Cipher is in the image below.

secret languages pigpen cipher
Image: Crypto Corner

Each letter is replaced by the corresponding symbol in the cipher, so an “E” would be written as a square, and an “N” would be written as a square with a dot in the middle. For example, the word “hello” is encrypted as the following:

char(72)char(69)char(76)char(76)char(79)

Another secret society that used a cipher to create secret messages was the Great Enlightened Society of Oculists, an 18th-century German offshoot of the Freemasons. The Oculists created their own cipher, which came to be known as the Copiale Cipher. It’s worth reading the fascinating story of the ancient writing experts and forensic linguist who used machine translation to crack the code.

Staying Under The Radar With Secret Languages

Cants, also known as argots or anti-languages, are languages or collections of slang words and phrases used by people who want or need discretion. You may have heard of Thieves’ Cant, secret slang used by criminals in 1600s Great Britain to communicate without being detected by the police. Many of the words used in Thieves’ Cant have made it into the modern English lexicon, including “shoplifter,” “sham,” “rat” (informant) and “rascal.”

Then there’s Polari, a cant spoken by the gay community in England in the 19th and 20th centuries to protect themselves from persecution by law enforcement and society at large. In Polari, bona meant “good,” dolly meant “pretty” and drag meant “clothes,” which carried over to its modern use in reference to drag queens. You can learn more about some of history’s most interesting cants in this article.

Using Language To Influence And Control

Americans love to read, watch and listen to stories about cults. Something about the secrecy and the power dynamic involved intrigues us — and perhaps frightens us. But a cult leader can only be successful if they know how to use language to influence, and often control, their followers. While this may simply mean speaking English in a persuasive and powerful way to brainwash followers, in some cases, it goes beyond that.

The Unification Church, a religious cult founded by Reverend Sun Myung Moon in the 1950s, created its own jargon words and phrases, like “True Parents,” “love bombing” and “crazy for God.” This cant, of sorts, served to further brainwash the cult members and make them feel like they were part of something bigger.

Another example of how cults use language comes in the form of glossolalia, or speaking in tongues. While this is a known phenomenon in certain Christian churches, it’s also a technique used by cults, like The Way International. In this religious cult, speaking in tongues is considered a sign of salvation and encouraged among members.

For those who are unfamiliar with glossolalia, it’s defined as “utterances approximating words and speech, usually produced during states of intense religious experience … the tongue moves, in many cases without the conscious control of the speaker; and generally unintelligible speech pours forth.” Speaking in tongues is not exactly speaking a secret language or using code words, but it’s still a mysterious way to connect with others.

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