It may surprise you a little, but sometimes I do like to think about things which aren’t to do with cipher mysteries at all. Today I stumbled upon a short video on situational irony that, just like Alanis Morissette’s song “It’s Ironic”, professed to explain irony by example yet failed miserably. Having said that, perhaps the creator’s inability to explain irony despite setting out to do so is the best example of irony that could be given… but I’ll leave you to decide for yourself.

But that set me thinking about irony punctuation, specifically the reversed question mark ‘⸮’ which your browser may or may not support. And that set me thinking about the 16th century English origins of the modern question mark glyph ‘?’. And that set me thinking about the late mediaeval abbreviation for ‘quaestio’ (‘what’) i.e. ‘qo’ or ‘4o’, where (many typography historians believe) the ‘o’ subsequently migrated down beneath the ‘q’/’4’ to yield the modern question mark shape.

But that reminded me of a decade ago when I was tracing the origins of the ‘4o’ shape seen in the Voynich Manuscript: back then, I stumbled across some late 14th and early 15th century examples of ‘4o’ in legal documents, but have been unable to find any since. In retrospect, I think that what I was looking at were very probably examples of abbreviated ‘q[aesti]o’, i.e. prototypical question marks. In fact, this ‘4o’ glyph pair appears in a number of Northern Italian fifteenth century ciphers, particularly in Milan (but that’s another story).

Yet in Voynichese, the ‘4o’ shape almost always appears at the start of words (which isn’t where question marks go), and at the start of multiple adjacent words such as ‘qokedy qokedy’ etc (which is also not how question marks work). Hence I believe that what we are looking at in Voynichese’s ‘4o’ is a 14th century abbreviation-cum-shape being appropriated and put to some other confusing use within a non-obvious textual system, in just the same way that the Voynich’s ‘aiir’ / ‘aiiv’ family of shapes appears to be a 13th-14th century page numbering abbreviation-cum-shape being appropriated and put to some other confusing use within a non-obvious textual system.

If you can think of a better definition of cryptography, please let me know. 🙂

But while I was idly looking all this up, I noticed several mentions of medieval brackets: apparently, the widely used convention for these was to surround the contents with reversed brackets (i.e. back-to-front relative to modern brackets) and to underline the contents. So, whereas we would write (tum ti tum), a medieval scribe would write )tum ti tum( instead.

Wait just a minute, I thought, I’ve seen these early on in the Voynich Manuscript. Isn’t it the case that what researchers sometimes call “split gallows” enclosing text is simply visually hiding an upside-down medieval bracket set?

Just to be clear, here’s what I’m thinking:-

This visual trick only occurs right at the start of the manuscript (in fact, the above example is from f8v, on the back of the first bifolio). However, I suspect that splitting gallows in this way served to highlight the contents rather than to hide them, and so the encipherer then finessed the cipher system to use other (far less obvious) ways of achieving the same end through the rest of the document. Hence I believe that this was an early experiment in hiding the contents of the split gallows, which morphed into the far less visually obvious horizontal Neal keys (pairs of single-leg gallows, usually placed about 2/3rds of the way across the top line of a page or paragraph).

So… I started out trying to read about irony (and not do Voynich research), and ended up doing Voynich research after all. Is that ironic?

37 thoughts on “On irony, question marks, brackets, and the Voynich Manuscript…

  1. bdid1dr on December 21, 2012 at 5:50 pm said:

    Please Nick,

    Look up the word (latin dictionary) celsus-a-um

    Note how it ties in with this, your latest soliloquy. Yes, I know you aren’t just talking to yourself! 🙂

  2. bdid1dr on December 21, 2012 at 6:18 pm said:

    Roscius-a-um (second half of what appears, to me, to be a greeting honorific.)

  3. Thanks Nick – very interesting.
    Doesn’t Spanish use an initial question mark?

    The bracketed section smight indicate the usual short prayer, holy name, invocation of the Muses etc. whose apparent absence has always bothered me.

    (Rene suggested on the list recently that gallows might be an instruction to rubricate).

    Otherwise the ‘4o’ if that’s what it is might indicate the usual kind of pedagogical question and answer style. I’ve seen it used still in an introduction to astronomy that was written as late as the eighteenth century – perhaps even early nineteenth – century.

  4. bdid1dr on December 22, 2012 at 1:26 am said:

    Not question marks, but a greeting somewhat along the lines of Honorable Sir,

    Here is the rough draft of the manuscript you ordered to be made for your (son)(daughter)(…..) as part of a wedding gift……

    Sincerely yours…….

  5. Dear Nick.

    I don’t know if this can be useful, but in Spanish interrogative and exclamative sentences bear an open and a close puntuation mark:

    ¿…….? ¡…..!

    In Greek I think they use ; as interrogative question mark.

    The origing of the interrogative symbol may help. It comes from latin word “quaestio”

    quaestio — q……o —– qo —- ? (the “o” becomes the point, and the q becomes the hook)

    Better seen here:


  6. Should be an entry about quotation marks in Keith Houston’s book when it comes out. I don’t see one on ‘Shady Characters’ though.

  7. I looked at the video – poor chap, but the cake looked a bit high cholersterol, wouldn’t you say?

  8. bdid1dr on December 22, 2012 at 6:56 pm said:

    celsusaum : of high rank

    Roscius , Rosiusaum, : name of a Roman gens, most famous were:

    Sextus Roscius, Q. Roscius, and L. Roscius

    I’ve mentioned several times before that the “double-loop gallows” represents the syllable/sound of ell. Yes, the two loopy legs can be stretched apart to be inserted into at least two different words.

    I’ve also mentioned that the ‘c’ and ‘e’ characters differ only in size. If one sees a link between two of these figures, usually one is smaller than the other, so one can see combinations of c-e.

    What is aes-pesh-lly interesting to me is the reference to the Roscius family: That backward-facing “S” is the letter “R”.

    So, what you are seeing/reading is the equivalent of “Honorable Sir Roscius:”

    I am not going to harken to other previous posts which may have drawn the attention of the Bangladeshi. Nick, TomS, and Diane: I do not want to acquire the reputation of being a “party-pooper” or “spoilsport”. I just hope we can give Mr. Neal, Mr. Zandbergen, Mr. Spande, to name a few, some positive feedback.


  9. bdid1dr

    Why would someone send a rough draft? Is that a recorded historical practice? If intended for a nobleman, why encipher it? If it is not enciphered, why is the text not clear Latin? Do you think it is massively abbreviated text?

    I’m a little puzzled – I thought it was your opinion that the text was in Etruscan. Please do start your own blog, so these questions can be asked in a more appropriate place.

  10. Hi Nick, & Voynicheros.
    Words are read from right to left. Great character means ,,H,,.
    Character moves down. ( cHcooS,8ocHo) / ( 8 = d). ( H = E).
    ( seszoctosez) ( seš z Oc, to sež) .
    Are from Ok. it’s are.
    Ok = Vok. ( Vok Rossengerg.) V.R. = jude.

  11. bdid1dr on December 23, 2012 at 1:56 am said:

    Excuse me, Diane and Nick, if I’ve mistaken the conversation about a cake’s fattening factor to be the subject of Nick’s latest offering for our perusal.

    I’ll admit to jumping to too quick and questionable a response to the translation of f8v. Anyway, the plant being described is very similar to what grows in our high desert/mountainous regions–what we call Chrysothamnus nauseosus (Rubber rabbitbrush, gray rabbitbrush). Our variety has yellow flowers. It has many uses for our Native Americans.

    Perhaps our Italian friends may be able to describe a similar red-flowered plant in their high territories?


  12. bdid1dr on December 23, 2012 at 2:14 am said:

    By the way, if that castle which appears at the top of every page of Nick’s blog should be identified, finally, as Hradczany, which ProfZ has tried to inform us is “Rosenberg”, I’ve recently referred you all to the people who had Hradczany built: Rosenberg.


  13. Hi, voynicheros,
    Castle = Rosenberg.
    bdid 1dr, info =

  14. bdid1dr on December 25, 2012 at 4:16 pm said:

    Two Christmas Carols from the Wenceslaus family of Bohemia:

    “The Blessed Stork”

    “Good King Wenceslaus (Feast of Stephen”)

  15. bdid1dr on December 25, 2012 at 9:10 pm said:

    Some corrections/amendments re my recent posts:

    Not necessarily “Wenceslas” song writers, but also about the Christmas stories and carols about various “saintly” humans, and animal visitors to Christ’s birthplace. “We Three Kings of Orient ……..

    So, much Czech/Bohemian and Austrian history can be found in various palatial archives as well as monasterial and Papal archives all over Europe (besides Athanasius Kircher’s museum and archive). It was from the remains of A. Kircher’s archive that Mr. Voynich purchased the mystery manuscript. Perhaps if we can find a way around some cipher “road blocks” such an D’Imperio’s publication, we might be further enlightened by Mr. Tiltman’s archives? There must be a huge archive at the NSA (United States) as well as in England (Birmingham?). Yes, I did read online the 40-some-odd page document you referred.

    Nick, I’m hoping we can keep adding new, relevant, info to your various topics and maintain the continuity of various discussions without too many diversionary paths (links) being developed as we proceed.


  16. Interesting. I thought that the “bracket” symbol is the equivalent of the Latin P – enhanced to show paragraph.

  17. bdid1dr on December 28, 2012 at 5:54 pm said:

    Yesterday I skimmed through “The Follies of Science at the Court of Rudolph II” (Harvard Medical Library). What I found particularly interesting was that the Rosenberg family were still living, and were one of the wealthiest and influential. Besides discussion of Hradchin (Hradcany) there was some references to Hrad Karlstejn (Karlstein),

    I’m pretty sure Nick (and maybe Diane?) have already ” been there, done that” but I thought perhaps the rest of us could come up to date. Perhaps the mental doldrums would subside and we would be able to put aside Mary D’Imperio’s sad “recap” of Mr. Tiltman’s and Currier’s efforts.

  18. bdid1dr on December 28, 2012 at 6:30 pm said:

    This “Irony” page is Nick’s attempt to climb out of the post-holiday doldrums (I think — sympathetically). Nick: Note that I’ve actually closed my parentheses here!

    Ellie, those tall, connected-by-loops, pairs of poles are the sound of “ell”. When the poles are stretched apart, but still connected, it very likely being indicated that the “ell” syllable can be inserted again in a word further a l ong in any sentence/description.

    Well, here is my examp l e as I am t al king: Just fo ll ow me by picking up a penc ll and transcribe what I have just typewritten. We l come back.!


  19. Here is my attempt to transcribe each letter:

    c–l–eo aes R o o e–l–c

    One reading could be: Lucius Roscius Otho

    Considering I’m finding many references to what we now identify as Greco/Roman heroes, gods, goddesses, and other minor entities, is it any wonder that our botanical terminology and medical words are beginning to pop up “everywhere” in our V-manuscript?

    Try to work around those “gallows” and ornately curliqued capital “P” letters. The various P combinations I can read are: Palatial Paradise Paragraph….Pelling’s Palace of Politically Correct Presentations. 🙂

  20. bdid1dr on December 30, 2012 at 8:49 pm said:

    Several weeks ago I briefly commented on the “curlicued P” glyphs:

    I forgot to mention that besides those glyphs representing the various “para” “per” “pla” “pra” “pre” “pyre” etc beginning of any words that might come to mind immediately, those same glyphs can be used in such words beginning with “b”:

    ba be bi black bottle buttress….. byre etc.

    PRescription for Plenty of Potanical Beneficial Brieflets for the Priesthood.

    ??? 🙂

  21. bdid1dr on December 31, 2012 at 2:38 pm said:

    Item of “Irony”, maybe:

    Nuns’ Book Production in Fifteenth and Sixteenth-Century Italy
    Dissertation-in-Progress by Melissa Moreton University of Iowa:

    I hope this link is still good:

    Ms Moreton discusses the book production of medieval and Renaissance manuscripts — in some 15 monastery/convents, most located in Florence, w/some reference to San Jacopo di Ripoli.

    Fascinating — and illuminating! Ellie, I hope you are following the discussion here (compare with Christine de Pizan’s City of Women?).

    Good morning, all! 🙂

  22. bdid1dr on December 31, 2012 at 3:06 pm said:

    I wonder if the subject glyphs could be a form of colophon. From what I’ve been researching, however, colophons are usually a scribe’s concluding comment/prayer?


  23. bdid1dr on January 1, 2013 at 6:40 pm said:

    Yesterday I was proceeding with my translation of folio 2v, the Water Lily (oa-TL-aom e-ceo- sPec eoS) o-li-li-am-o-aes-am.

    This segment of “cypher” was enough to tell me that this was the water LILY — and that it was NOT the water Lotus. At one time (and until more recent changes in nomenclature) both the water lily and the water lotus shared the same classification of the order “Nymphae”. Apparently Clusius or his teacher Dodoens were first to make prints of the water lily.
    I recently went on a search of the VMs folios to find the Lotus. I’ll be scrutinizing folio 55v. I’ll keep you posted!

  24. bdid1dr on January 2, 2013 at 1:18 am said:

    Folio 8v: Salvia Sclarea — common name “clary” —

    Further partial translation:

    rox ce ox olox eceox oPrece aeam: ….Lamiacea prescription

    ? — 🙂

  25. bdid1dr on January 2, 2013 at 10:44 pm said:

    Nick and Salva:

    Interesting how close we’ve come to identifying the plant which has the so-called “gallows/brackets” on folio 8v:

    The plant is most likely what we call today Salvia Sclarea, which oldest nomenclature (clary) would refer to the use of the plant for treating eye infections (sclerae) by a very strange method: placing a seed from the plant in the corner of one’s eye (to promote watering of the eye and flushing the pus out of the eye.

    It is just your name, “Salva” which led me to this discovery (which I have proceeded to translate).

    bd id 1 dr (whose eyes water from eyestrain, pending cataract surgery) 😉

  26. bdid1dr on January 21, 2013 at 5:30 pm said:

    The only irony I see is the lack of any two-way discussion with my contributions.


  27. bdid1dr: I read every comment left on my site, but don’t generally respond unless I have something useful to add. As far as your whole Kircher-recognized-the-Voynich-and-implicitly-commented-on-it hypothesis goes… while I do understand what you’re proposing, I don’t so far have anything of use to say. As Wittgenstein wrote, “Whereof one cannot speak, thereof one must be silent“.

  28. bdid1dr on January 23, 2013 at 12:46 am said:

    Well, as long as I haven’t “stricken you dumb” with mortification or anything like that. All my life I’ve played with words. I’ve read them before I could speak them properly. Born with cleft soft palate and related inner-ear deformities/hearing impairment, I very early-on learned to read lips and body language. These skills enabled me to be a communications “go-between” whenever my deaf-mute friends needed some translating while dealing with upper-management.

    Occasionally, when I am fully absorbed in some “puzzle/mystery”, I “get out of hand”, so to speak. My apologies to you and friends if I get especially rude or crude!
    You have my full respect and admiration for one of the best “puzzlement” presentations proffered on the WWW !!!


  29. bdid1dr on January 28, 2013 at 5:51 pm said:

    Nick, while I was scanning the pages/folios of Boenicke 408 yesterday I came across an instance of another set of your “ironic” brackets. I scribbled down the folio # and went on my way. I lost the bit of scratch paper! Just thought you might like to do a “double take” for yourself.


  30. bdid1dr on January 29, 2013 at 5:39 pm said:

    Nick: Several months ago while you were planning for your visit to Frascati, I initiated a forum category “Round n’Round”, and referred to the commentary made by Kircher regarding the “castle” Valscorum regni pars – Velitrae.

    What Kircher, at least, was referring to was a bit of Roman history/myth adapted by Shakespeare into his play “Coriolanus”.

    Since then, in several other “Vms” folios, I’ve run across references to various Greek or Roman myths/tragedies:

    Alcyone and Ceyx (Agaricales coprinacae mushrooms)
    Artemis/Diana (protector of young women – mandrake fruit)
    Pyramus and Thisbe (Moracae-Mulberry tree – leaves were food for “silkworm” caterpillar.

    Today, I’ll be backtracking to see if I can find a reference to a classic author who might have been portraying some “irony” which was being “bracketed” by that strange “botanical” sketch. Have you noticed my extravagant use of quote marks?

    Fun! 🙂

  31. bdid1dr on February 6, 2013 at 9:24 pm said:


    I’ve found another instance of the extended “ell” phoneme you are calling “brackets/underlining”. I’ll be going to Boenicke to get the folio #, but for now I’ll try to describe the plant being discussed (perhaps you have the folio # at hand?):

    I’m pretty sure the artist deliberately mixed-up colors, so I’ll describe the plant thusly:

    The entire plant looks like a wine goblet (2-dimensional view). Arising from the interior of the goblet is what appears to me to be pistils and stamens – very exaggerately drawn, and probably misleadingly colored.

    I’ll be checking my hunch for the ID as being the saffron crocus. Just a hunch, for now; I wouldn’t place any bets yet!


  32. bdid1dr on February 7, 2013 at 7:42 pm said:

    To continue my discussion re the “brackets” :Folio 35r –The very first three “syllables” are, I’m guessing, references being made to another mythic pairing:

    Cilicia and Smilax (which I don’t find in “Bulfinch’s Mythology”). Smilax, for example, is an ornamental asparagus. So, far, every “botanical” folio seems to be referring to the various myth-tellers (Ovid etc.).

    The plant illustration may be indicating the saffron crocus (those exaggerated stamens and pistils). I’ve only just begun translating the first set of eight lines of script. I’ll be transcribing the other seven lines of script, which appear on both sides of the plant stem, later today. (The first line of the “stem” paragraph may be identifying the plant by its “Latinized” name “crocosaeum”. We’ll see…..


  33. bdid1dr on February 7, 2013 at 8:06 pm said:

    BTW, we grow crocus sativa in oak half-barrels. I occasionally add a pinch of my home-grown, hand-picked, saffron to my pots of “Jasmine” rice….. and admire the beautiful flowers in a vase on my dinner table.

  34. bdid1dr on February 9, 2013 at 1:03 am said:

    Addendum to saffron discussion:

    A couple of wiki articles mention that for while, in the 15th-16th centuries, Norfolk, Suffolk, and even a town called Saffron Walden had extensive fields of Crocus sativus. Not too far out of your way if you should want to follow up on my offerings of info?


  35. bdid1dr on February 13, 2013 at 4:47 pm said:

    Correction to my references: Crocus and Smilax are the legendary pair. Cilicia is mentioned (in a couple of Wiki-refs) as being very early historic Armenia.

    So, it looks like you, ThomS, and I are on parallel paths as far as possible scribal origins of the Vms. I’m using my same translation “alphabet” on six folios, now. I’m finding classic nomenclature/attributions to various Greek/Roman poets, as well as historic medical practitioners and botanists.

    Fun! 🙂

  36. bdid1dr on March 30, 2013 at 4:01 pm said:


    Were you able to find any information on Saffron-Walden or any other mention of crocus “plantations” in your part of the world? (Vms folio 35r)?

  37. Diane on May 25, 2015 at 1:14 am said:

    Sorry – about rubrication. That was not an original insight by Rene, but he may have forgotten where he’d read it. The suggestion appears first in Mary d’Imperio, and was then developed further (for a while) by ‘Tony Baloney’, writing a series of posts for ‘Ancient Cryptography’. In 2009. The posts are under the heading “Let’s look at the Voynich manuscript”.
    Sorry if I’ve mislead anyone.

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