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Secret Language: Codes, Tricks, Spies, Thieves, and Symbols

Barry J. Blake
Oxford University Press
Publication Date: 
Number of Pages: 
[Reviewed by
Tom Schulte
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Secret Language is a delightful romp over the breadth of language used in any way to conceal, deflect, imply, and suggest. Examples and puzzles showcase fascinating language features from a wide cultural array. Linguist Blake draws on his deep knowledge, not to present anything scientific and precise – and thus dry – but rather to include us in a playful celebration of what can be hidden in human communication.

This is not a mathematical text in any sense. Including only the most basic of combinatorial and binary system facts, this is instead a work about language written and spoken to communicate facts and ideas, not theorems. However, for the inveterate word lover, such as me, drawn to any point of etymological interest or double meaning, this small book is a rich trove. Who holding a fondness of such things cannot be taken with the idea of verbiage attuned to hlonipa (male in-law avoidance) or semordnilaps (monosyllabic palindromes).

Covering a lot of ground at the expense of depth, this book comes close to being an assembly of related trivia. In chapter after chapter, however, Blake steers away from the trite observation to reveal the charm in covert criminal cants that creep into honest language as colloquial idioms and other wonders he has unearthed in a career of linguistic archeology. Secret Language is fascinating and educational. Where else can you read of the subtle distinctions between slang, argot, and jargon?

Tom Schulte teaches mathematics in Michigan and appreciates the beauty of elliptic curve cryptography as well as a clever acrostic.

1. On Being Mysterious
2. From Anagrams to Cryptic Crosswords
3. Talking in Riddles
4. Ciphers and Codes
5. Biblical Secrets
6. Words of Power
7. Words to Avoid
8. Jargon, Slang, and 'Secret Languages'
9. The Everyday oblique
10. Elusive Allusions
11. Finale
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