In the last two days, Cipher Mysteries has had a spate of (mainly American) visitors looking for things related to the Dorabella Cipher, so perhaps a TV documentary on Elgar has just aired there? Please leave a comment if you happen to know what triggered this mini-wave, I’d be interested to know!

Anyway, it would seem to be time to discuss a recently-proposed solution (it’s #12 on this page) to the Dorabella Cipher by Tim Roberts, whose interesting site you may have seen along the way (George Hoschel Jr’s Voynich “cookbook” solution is there, for example). Here’s his suggested cipher key (rearranged slightly for the CM blog layout):-


Applying this key to the ciphertext yields something like…

P.S. Now drocp beige weeds set in it – bu
re idiocy – one endtire bed! Luigi Ccibu
nud lu'ngly tuned liuto studo two.

…which Tim Roberts interprets as…

P.S. Now droop beige weeds set in it – pure idiocy – one entire bed!
Luigi Ccibunud lovingly tuned liuto studo two.

He adds a number of notes (for example, that “Luigi Cherubini was a famous Italian composer who was admited by Elgar“) and conjectures (“that Dora may have stumbled over the name […] and Elgar was teasing her a little“) to support his key and reading: but I’ll instead be mainly focusing on teasing out my own cipher / cryptological commentary.

Firstly, it should be pointed out that even though there would seem to be 8 x 3 = 24 possible letters in the cipherbet, only twenty of them appear in the (all-too brief) ciphertext. Hence four of the letters in the key phrase here are completely conjectural…

L - D P E N N Y
W R - T I G I C
 O S U - B Y W -

…and so his proposed plaintext omits the letters A, F, H, J, K, M, P, Q, V, X, Z. (Note that in the clever spreadsheet he uses, cell K9’s lookup formula for the “u” in “lungly” has been hacked to read “v”, so revert it to =LOOKUP(K8,$C$5:$D$28) if you plan to use this yourself to try stuff out).

Of course, the oddest factor here is the absence of the letter A. Though George Perec’s (1969) “La Disparition” and its English translation “A Void” are well-known examples of novels without the letter “E”, Perec was actually inspired by Ernest Vincent Wright’s (1939) E-less “Gadsby“: even so, that was still some years later than Elgar. Incidentally, writing constrained by an arbitrary rule is known as a lipogram, and people keep writing them: apparently Adam Adams’ (2008) novel “Unhooking a DD-Cup Bra Without Fumbling” is E-free. Not something Ebeneezer Goode would appreciate… 🙂

Secondly, the way that certain letters within the claimed cipher key recur makes me rather uneasy. “I” appears five times (the last two are removed), “N” appears four times (the last two are removed) while “Y” appears three times (the first and last are removed).

Tim Roberts tries to counter these objections (see here), but I have to say that even if you can get from “LADYPENNYWRITINGINCODEISSUCHBUSYWORK” to “LADPENNY” – “WRITIGIC” – “OSUHBYWK”, it does still seem rather arbitrary to me.

Thirdly, though the “L-DPENNY” set of eight starts out with a nice anticlockwise rotational pattern (U, L, D, R), this clips to clockwise in the second half (UL, UR, DR, DL); similarly, “WR-TIGIC” runs anticlockwise (R, U, L, D) followed by a non-rotational set (UR, DR, UL, DL); while “OSU-BYW-” jumps all over the place (R, L, UL, DL, DR, U, D, UR).

So, even if Dora Penny had been given the correct cipher key, how on earth would she ever have guessed the order of the ciphertext letters to go with it? Yes, short subsections of it are ordered: but why on earth would the letters not have matched the eight natural sequential rotation positions?

* * * * * * *

OK: it should be clear from the above that I don’t think this is the solution – sorry, Tim. All the same, I think that there is a genuinely good idea here lurking here: which is that perhaps the cipher key is a phrase written down as is (i.e. without any duplicate letters removed). Though impractical for a long plaintext, this might be fine for a short plaintext such as the Dorabella ciphertext. In which case, we have only 16 (8 clockwise + 8 anticlockwise, assuming it matches 1 loops, 2 loops, 3 loops in turn) basic sets of frequency curves to match candidate key phrases to:

5 3 5 2 3 7 4 0 / 11 4 1 2 6 8 1 0 / 8 1 0 7 4 1 0 4
0 5 3 5 2 3 7 4 / 0 11 4 1 2 6 8 1 / 4 8 1 0 7 4 1 0
4 0 5 3 5 2 3 7 / 1 0 11 4 1 2 6 8 / 0 4 8 1 0 7 4 1

Something to think about, anyway! 😮

31 thoughts on “Dorabella latest news…

  1. infinitii on September 19, 2009 at 2:17 am said:

    I may be completely off base here, but Dan Brown’s latest novel “The Lost Symbol” was just released– I don’t read his books myself, but perhaps he had a Dorabella cipher mention?

  2. Alex Powell on September 19, 2009 at 5:17 am said:

    Every now and then I forget that this blog is titled “Cipher Mysteries” and not “Voynich Mysteries”. Any other code is now somehow less exciting.

  3. Tim Roberts on September 19, 2009 at 6:15 am said:

    Thanks Nick.

    There is no doubt as to the essential correctness of the ciphertext/plaintext transcript. See

  4. Hi Tim,

    Relaxing the one-to-one constraint of monoalphabetic solution would probably allow for several trillion Dorabella candidate solutions, of which yours is merely one.

    However, because it fails to have some of the basic properties I would expect (such as using all the vowels, not relying overmuch on contrived spellings, but in particular having some kind of consistent symmetry between the cipher key and the cipher alphabet), I don’t think this is the only one.

    In short, though it’s consistent, it’s probably not correct.

    Cheers, ….Nick Pelling….

  5. Infinitii: unless Elgar was secretly a high ranking mason, Mr Brown’s latest offering is probably a Dorabella-free zone. 🙂

  6. Tony Gaffney on September 20, 2009 at 2:26 am said:

    Having given the correct solution to the ‘Dorabella cipher’ and the ‘Liszt fragment’ well over a year ago I find it amusing to see people still trying to solve it …
    c’est la vie!?

  7. Tim Roberts on September 20, 2009 at 7:21 am said:

    Hi Nick,

    Thanks for publicising this.

    I dont think it’s appropriate (nor do I have the time!) to debate the matter in detail here, so I’ll just for the moment discuss the 1 to 1 correspondence which you expected. Your main objection
    >”Relaxing the one-to-one constraint of monoalphabetic solution would probably allow for several trillion Dorabella candidate solutions, of which yours is merely one.”
    is completely and demonstrably incorrect. It is in fact so vastly improbable as to be beyond the bounds of realistic possibility.

    The mathematics to back up this statement is provided (in very abbreviated form) in the file supplied. But for those averse to mathematics, it is easily demonstrable to the layman: relaxing the constraint, translate even half the code (the first 43 characters, say) in another – any other – (meaningful) way. It is impossible.

    And as extras, the rest make sense, and is relevant musically, and makes perfect grammatical sense; the dot appears exactly where there is a missing character; and a meaningful key results.

    When I say the odds against such an occurrence by chance are quintillions to one, I am not using exaggeration, or hyperbole.

    Further: if you read Elgar’s letters, it conforms beautifully to Elgarese, and it even has wordplay, in the playful use of the pronunciation of the letter ‘D’ (for Dora) on four occasions (“endtire”, “Ccibunud” – Chi-chi-bu-nu-di – Dora was known above everything else for her stutter, “studo” studio, and “Lad” – Lady).

    I must confess, however, that the use of two Ns, two Is, two Ws, and two Ys worried me too until the discovery of the key, which came after the decryption, and which explains exactly why those letters are repeated, and hopefully needs no further explanation!

    Thanks again for your interest in this! Any my apologies to all of your readers who are far more interested in Dan Brown and Voynich!


  8. Tim Roberts on September 20, 2009 at 7:31 am said:

    Sorry, quick postscript: the interpretation of each symbol in any translation must of course remain consistent throughout, or Nick’s statement is trivially true.

  9. Tony: though I would heartily agree that your proposed solution is the best to date, I would be unsurprised if a better one came along (eventually)…

    Tim: I suspect you have made a category error in your statistical assessment here. If we were looking at a polyalphabetic ciphertext (where the correct cipherkey magically unlocks a superficially disordered series of letters), then I would agree with you – but we are instead looking at a highly ordered, monoalphabetic-like ciphertext, which will always have a large number of near-solutions. Adding some free interpretation of what constitutes a plaintext word yields a massive number of solutions: my “trillions” figure wasn’t hyperbole, it was an actively thought-out estimate.

    If your solution had (a) applied a cipher key phrase to a regular ordering of the cipher alphabet (rather than picking and choosing ordered fragments), (b) not required any substantial misspellings or unknown words, and (c) not required any arbitrary letter reduction rules, then I would have assessed the number of potential solutions as being only hundreds or less. Please don’t get me wrong, I do think this could very well be a positive step in the right direction – but I don’t think it’s the end of the path for the Dorabella Cipher, sorry.

  10. Tony Gaffney on September 20, 2009 at 10:13 am said:

    The phrase ‘the blind leading the blind’ keeps springing to mind –

    I really like this segment of Tim’s solution … ” – pure idiocy – ”

    Funny how the subconcious mind works …

  11. In reply to ‘Infinity’, yes you are correct. It appears on pager 164 in Dan Brown’s book The Lost Symbol; hence the recent interest. That is the reason that I am looking at the Web page.

  12. I just have a simple question, has anyone ever translated it to music, musical notes? I pulled up a few of Elgar’s musical scores and overlayed it and looks alot like some of his work? I do not write music and this may be an oversimplistic observation but it cannot hurt to ask. I don’t know if it would then translate to some linguistic form or if it was merely an ensemble for Dora’s pleasure. Other than that it reminds me of doodling I used to do in music class between connecting the dots or lines of the notes. Anyway that is my question and my $.03.

  13. It’s certainly an idea which gets mentioned from time to time – for example, I mentioned it in reply to one of the comments to this Dorabella post here.

    However, the short answer is that people have already tried this but without producing anything remotely approaching anything musical. The fact that, 30 years later, Elgar appears to have re-used the same cipher alphabet as a cipher would seem to be a pretty good indication that this is (indeed) a cipher!

  14. Farmerboy on November 25, 2009 at 8:48 am said:

    I read Adam Adams’ (2008) novel “Unhooking a DD-Cup Bra Without Fumbling” which is as you say is E-free and also contains a whole host of curious ciphers too including a novel (potential) way to solve the CIA Krytos. It made me laugh too.

  15. With a recommendation like that, I’ll have to put it on my Christmas list. 🙂

    Errrm… here’s hoping Father Christmas reads Cipher Mysteries! 😮


    Hey dude. Promisses are Promisses


    -The Cybermacht

  17. Stan Clayton on January 8, 2010 at 5:19 pm said:

    does my effort to decode the Beale Treasure code hold any promise
    83 = 11
    1629 = 18 +11 = 29 + 5 = 34 = H
    48 = 12 +18 = 30 + 5 = 35 = I
    94 = 13 +12 = 25 + 5 = 30 = D
    63 = 9 + 13 = 22 + 5 = 27 = A
    132 = 6 + 9 = 15 + 5 = 20 = T
    16 = 7 + 6 = 13 + 5 = 18 = R
    111 = 3 + 7 = 10 + 5 = 15 = O
    95 = 14 +3 = 17 + 5 = 22 = V
    84 = 12 +14= 26 + 5 = 31 = E,
    Any responce will encorage me to divulge more of my decodes,its quite simple realy the keys are in the preceeding nymber, if you double or treble the added digits,you get decodes like IN THE COUNTY OF BEDFORD JOINTLY OWNED and ON THE BALCONY,
    I believe Allan Poe is the originator of this game similar to crossword puzzles where one clue solved gives a clue to answer the next,there may be something buried as a prize,i have the name and plot letters of a grave but no cemetry,if ive managed to get these i expect others to do better,

  18. Diane on March 6, 2010 at 2:44 am said:

    Just how young was she? How bright? How many languages did she have?

    Has anyone tried heating the page to see if half the letters were written in onion juice? Now invisible ink is what my kids would think was fun!

  19. Student on April 10, 2011 at 9:31 am said:

    I was reading up on the Dorabella cipher for a project and thought of using morse code to somehow decrypt it. Tried and came to a few solution, though they did’nt make sense to me.

  20. escher7 on March 12, 2012 at 8:28 am said:

    The most frustrating thing about Tim is that he states his solution as fact. I too thought I had a solution in my first naive attempts. Since then I have had this thing in my brain while I have read everything from Friedman to Sinkov to Bauer to Kahn. I now know that these forced solutions are nonsense. Also, although all of the standard tests (I.C., Kasiski, Phi etc etc) fail to enlighten, there are some interesting tri and di graphs that repeat. Clearly the answer is there to be found. Remember, this chick, while intelligent, was not a crypto expert and the solution will not be some sophisticated polyalphabetic scheme. It is the obvious that we are all missing.

  21. Robert Housel on May 22, 2012 at 2:33 pm said:

    I am not sure what all the hype is about, I think he was talking about something very specific, no hints yet but I can tell you I think I am on to the really meaning, and your code’s and what someone else has done is wrong, does anyone out there really know what it is they are reading

  22. Robert: nope, there’s nothing much out there on the Dorabella Cipher beyond the stuff I’ve discussed on this site (in my opinion). All contributions to expanding the perspective on this very happily received! 🙂

  23. mark stahley on November 9, 2012 at 1:55 am said:

    I did send this in to the Dora Bella contest. The key to finding it is the word enigma spelled out in sing song (?)
    It helps to think like professor H, Higgens
    ae-m EI uer iy-E, N-e,a A -e, ge-e, em-e, a-I ?( am I your enigma?) and then you can get most of the other letters filled in with this.
    Am I your enigma? In priory Y B I, “EE” eh? A Rene is P=A Y Y in Papa’s P_A’s ? PS a P-A-I-M ?Pa-I ? Ui! (oui)

  24. AlexanderB on December 2, 2012 at 8:06 am said:

    Could it be that the message is not a message at all but a piece of music and that the signs represent notes and their values?

  25. AlexanderB: many musicians (myself included) have looked at this idea, but with rather disappointing results. A good try, though! =:-o

  26. Will King on December 23, 2012 at 4:15 pm said:

    The spate of American interest in the cypher relates to an article in Wired Magazine:

    In case you were still wondering…

  27. My N-gram analysis on Dorabella shows:

    > DH (2*2)
    > IJ (2*2)
    > KL (2*2)
    > JJ (2*2)
    > IP (2*2)
    > GJ (2*2)
    > PF (2*2)
    > PC (2*2)


    My interpretion:
    There is a strong indication that it is encrypted musical notation.


  29. , Rick A. Roberts on March 5, 2014 at 11:08 am said:

    I have posted this on other sites. Here is my deciphered Dorabella Cipher. Using a cipher key listed in article the cipher reads;”BLTACEIARWUNISNFNNELLHSYWYDUOINIEYARQATNNTEDMINUNEHOMSYRRYOUTOEHO’TSHGDOTNEHMOSALDOEADYA”. The message is; “BE IT CLEAR NOW YOU FINALLY KNOW WHY WEDNESDAY IN OUR QUAINT IN HOME SERMONS YOU DON’T SHOOT THE GOOSE THAT LAYS A GOLDEN EGG”. Sir Edward Elgar wrote many famous patriotic march songs such as, “Pomp And Circumstance”. He mentioned, “The Goose That Lays A Golden Egg”, many times. He was very witty and he used puns very often when speaking. I believe my deciphered message of his cipher to be an excellent representation of this.

  30. Pierre on May 10, 2014 at 8:24 pm said:

    Though George Perec’s (1969) “La Disposition” and its English translation “A Void” are well-known examples of novels without the letter “E” […]

    the name of the book is “La Disparition” (the disappearance), not “La Disposition” (the positioning/ placement)


  31. Rick A. Roberts on May 14, 2017 at 7:55 pm said:

    I believe that my proposed solution on 05MAR14 best fits the solution to the Dorabella Cipher. It just makes sense.

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