Author Archives: Language Geek

Barnard’s criminal cipher code

Image: The Newgate calendar

Back in the 19th century, long before emails and text messages, people used telegrams for urgent communication. Telegrams were faster than snail mail but were relatively expensive: the longer the message, the greater the cost. Fighting crime demanded fast and secure communication.

To greatly shorten the length of telegrams between police stations, and to ensure secrecy, police in America used a code. Rather than encode each letter separately, Barnard’s code used a single English word to represent a fixed statement about a suspect. This was possible because a description of a suspect is formulaic and typically involves a small set of possible variables.

The code was organised according to the first few letters of each word used. For example, words beginning with cl- referred to clothing:

Suspect was wearing:
Cloak: a black frock coat
Clockwork: a black sack coat
Clothier: a pair of dark trousers

Here’s an example of four words from a police telegram written in Barnard’s code:

Trump, cold, saunter, locomotive

The receiver would use the code book to interpret this as:

The suspect is a sewing machine agent with small hands and a recent gunshot injury. He is likely to be found in a house of ill fame.

Check out the full text of Barnard’s Universal Criminal Cipher Code

Casting a weary eye


Image: Nightmare by Jean Pierre Simon via Public Domain Review

Increasingly, we read of someone being weary of something when what is really meant seems to be that they are cautious of or anxious about something.

The fact that we see this fairly regularly in the mainstream media suggests that the misconception is widespread amongst ordinary English users. The confusion is not helped by the fact that the two words are now indistinguishable in spoken English.

Sometimes a clue as to the intended meaning can be had from the context: if the user says ‘weary from‘ they probably mean tired, if they say ‘weary of‘ it’s possible they mean cautious. The cliche ‘cast a weary eye‘ almost certainly means cautious – as in a recent news broadcast:


Image: TVNZ website

Apostrophe abuse


In the eyes of lovers of the English language, there’s a special place in hell for those who misuse apostrophes.

Apostrophe abuse includes:

  1. Using an apostrophe in front of the final ‘s’ in a plural word. We’ve all seen carrot’s for sale at the greengrocers, right? Interestingly, some apostrophe abusers only do this when the words ends in a long vowel – eg they write carrots but potato’s. Still incorrect but strangely useful as a guide to pronunciation!
  2. Using an apostrophe in the wrong place within a word – eg theyr’e. Criminal.
  3. Not using an apostrophe in a word which should have an apostrophe – eg I bought a bag of the greengrocers carrots.

The worst abusers seem to be just making wild guesses as to where to use apostrophes – eg I bought a bag of the greengrocers carrot’s. You can see them being singled out for special punishment in the image at the top of this post.

More on how to avoid being an apostrophe abuser

Thanks to the Public Domain Review for the image of a 14th-Century illumination for Dante’s Divine Comedy.