I sat in a pew in a church in West Beirut, listening intently. The Eastern Catholic Mass was in Arabic, with parts of the liturgy intoned in Syriac—a descendent of Aramaic, the closest thing we have to Jesus’ vernacular. Only during the homily was I able to zero in on recognizable Arabic words—numbers, a few nouns, pronouns, connectives—and identify verb and adjective endings where I didn’t know the meaning of the root. It was an exercise whose intellectual mood was annihilated when the congregation rose to chant the Nicene Creed in Arabic, which was simultaneously opaque and exotic and uncanny to my ear, yet decipherable from its sequence in the Mass. Ritual made it almost transparent.
It was only afterward that my hosts explained it was Pentecost Sunday—the feast commemorating the descent of the Holy Spirit on the Apostles, manifested in their sudden, marvelous ability to proselytize in foreign languages. Theologically, this was the mystical resolution to the calamity of Babel—that failed attempt to touch heaven, which resulted in the inception of mutually incomprehensible languages. A punishment.
I had no Pentecostal miracle to report—knowledge of Arabic and Syriac didn’t magically descend on me—but the occasion dovetailed nicely with my previous week’s reading, Secret Language: Codes, Tricks, Spies, Thieves, and Symbols (Oxford; $24.95). It had set me up to think about obliqueness—how and when and why we mask our meanings. Barry J. Blake, a linguist and professor emeritus at La Trobe University, covers a lot of ground in Secret Language, enumerating the small word games we play with raw textual materials (anagrams, lipograms, palindromes, semordnilaps, acrostics) and working up to semantic games (riddles, ciphers). He includes chapters on argots, slang and "the everyday oblique" (humor, seduction, politeness). And while he sets forth numerous motivations for coding, or enciphering, or euphemizing, or just plain circuitousness, he thinks much of it arises from innate superstition: "Belief in the supernatural accounts for some of the strongest constraints on straightforward communication…. In many cultures certain words and phrases cannot be used for fear of offending a god or spirit and inviting retribution, while conversely some words and phrases are thought to have the power to enlist supernatural intervention in the physical world."
Blake would not be surprised to hear that my ritual for warding off fear during air travel is to start a New York Times crossword puzzle (Friday or Saturday’s, preferably) at takeoff. He would probably recommend cryptic crosswords for maximum absorption: their clues "tend to refer to the sequence of letters that make up a word rather than to the meaning. For instance, the clue might be ‘Stop a left in headgear.’ To get the answer, halt, you need to put ‘l’ for ‘left’ inside ‘hat,’ rather than looking for a word that means to block a left (punch) with a hat or a cap." Early producers of cryptic crosswords assumed pseudonyms from the Grand Inquisitors of the Spanish Inquisition. There’s a clear link between modern, anodyne brainteasers and the practices of Kabbalists and priests, like gematria (the study of the numerical properties of words) and notarikon (the search for hidden acrostics in divine texts).
Even today, religious practices may inform our first experience of codes. Prayers are a type of poetry; parables introduce us to metaphor; liturgical rites imbue us with the magic of structures. But even before we learned our prayers, our mothers recited nursery rhymes and sang lullabies, which too are codes: How I wonder what you are. And maybe we also had a foreign language or two in our background—a grandfather we didn’t understand, a mother who code-switched. We carry around with us a primal memory of emerging from the linguistic fog into enlightenment. Playing hide-and-seek with language recapitulates this memory.