The Ubiquitous Ottendorf Cipher

I realize this may not be part of your everyday experience. But at my house, the Christmas festivities frequently involve a treasure hunt. Usually this begins with a clue wrapped in a box to decoy the receiver. One clue leads to another, and sooner or later comes the Ottendorf cipher, which is sometimes called a book cipher.

So far, the kids have always figured out the clues and found their gifts. I'm not sure what would happen if they got totally stumped. I guess I'm not too worried about that; they're smart kids.

I digress. Let's get back to the cipher.

A book cipher, or Ottendorf cipher, as I prefer to call it, is accomplished by using a book or some other publication as the key to resolve clues that are set out in a series of numbers. A three-digit clue would generally represent a letter. Using this blog as the key, “1-2-6” would be the letter “z.” It is the first paragraph, second word, sixth letter. If it was using a book, it would represent a word, because the page would be the first part, then the paragraph, then the word. A four-digit clue would be the way to get letter clues from a book.

This type of cipher can be as elaborate or simple as the writer's patience allows. It can also spell out a riddle, which is my preferred style. The one big drawback is it absolutely has to be the exact text. A good source is really important. I have been known to use the display Bible at church, placards on monuments, and signs in parks as the keys for Ottendorf ciphers. I've never given the key for free. My victims have to figure that out from some other kind of riddle or clue.

I don't have any big reason for sharing this other than it is, I'm told, a peculiar tradition. In other words, people think I'm weird. That's okay. I started making the kids treasure hunts for their gifts when we had a very tiny gift budget. It drew out the festivities and added a tremendous degree of fun.

Of course, this whole thing may be a secret message.