(n.) a word or phrase in which letters, when interpreted as numbers, spell out a momentous or meaningful date
Add up the six Roman numerals in the phrase ‘expect the Devil’—X (10) + C (100) + D (500) + V (5) + I (1) + L (50)—and you rather fittingly end up with 666.
This is an example of a chronogram, an intricate bit of wordplay defined by the Oxford English Dictionary as “a phrase, sentence, or inscription, in which certain letters, usually distinguished by size or otherwise from the rest, express ... numerical values.”
Take this quote from Psalm 123, that appeared on the title page of a pamphlet published by the English Puritan poet and hymn-writer George Wither in the mid seventeenth century:
LorD haVe MerCIe Vpon Vs
That mishmash of upper and lowercase letters is Wither’s own; read as Roman numerals, all those seemingly randomly-assigned uppercase letters add up as follows:
L (50) + D (500) + V (5) + M (1,000) + C (100) + I (1) + V (5) + V (5) = 1666
And that just so happens to be the year of the Great Fire of London.
In fact, besides their uses in inadvertently summoning the Devil, chronograms are very often used like this as epitaphs or inscriptions commemorating some momentous event. Queen Elizabeth I, for example, has been commemorated with the line ‘My Day Closed Is In Immortality’—the initial letters of which spell out the year of her death, 1603.
When George Villiers, 1st Duke of Buckingham, was murdered in 1628, a Latin reading of his title, georgIVs DVX bVCkInghaMIae, was used to commemorate the date. And an inscription outside St Edmund Hall, one of the oldest academic buildings at Oxford University, reads sanCtVs edMVndVs hVIVs aVLae LVX—a tribute, literally meaning ‘Saint Edmund, Light of this Hall’, to St Edmund’s canonization in 1246.
The word chronogram itself essentially means ‘time-writing’, and is derived from the same roots as words like anachronism and synchronize (Greek chronos, ‘time’), and anagram and diagram (Greek gramma, ‘letter, text’). It’s all very clever, of course, but it’s hard to impress everyone.
In a 1711 edition of The Spectator, the magazine’s founder and editor Joseph Addison singled out chronograms as an example of a kind of “false wit ... that vanished in the refined Ages of the World [but was] discovered ... again in the Times of Monkish Ignorance.” Monks, seemingly with little else to occupy their time, dedicated themselves to composing “anagrams and acrosticks” and other “tricks in writing” that “required much time and little capacity”.
Of chorongrams Addison wrote:
This kind of Wit appears very often on many modern Medals ... when they represent in the Inscription the Year in which they were coined ... For as some of the Letters distinguish themselves from the rest, and overtop their Fellows, they are to be considered in a double Capacity, both as Letters and as Figures. Your laborious German Wits will turn over a whole Dictionary for one of these ingenious Devices: A Man would think they were searching after an apt classical Term, but instead of that they are looking out a Word that has an L, and M, or a D in it.
Not that there’s anything wrong with laboriously searching through old dictionaries, of course.