A “chronogram,” derived the Greek words for time (chronos) and letter (gramma), is a sentence or poem in which certain letters have been specially designated, usually by capitalization, as numerals in order to render a date. While chronograms are found in the Hindu and Hebrew traditions, Roman numerals are almost always employed for this purpose in the West. This sort of learned word-play was often found in early books, particularly to give the publication date, but it is also found inscribed on monuments. Oxford is the sort of place you find chronograms. Some examples are given below, but let me offer a few more prefatory words of explanation and criticism first.
An example of a chronogram written in English using Roman numerals is one written about the death of Elizabeth I in 1603:
My Day Closed Is In Immortality
This is an anagrammatic chronogram, where the first letters of each word in the sentence give us a date: MDCIII, 1603. Get it?
Getting the chronogram into correct Roman order is very difficult, and it is more ordinarily the case that the author just tries to get the numbers to add up to the date. So, for instance, a chronogram about the Great Fire of London in 1666:
LorD haVe MerCI Vpon Vs
Note the spelling irregularities in this chronogrammatic quotation from Psalms 123:3. First, all the letters of the chronogram are capitalized (giving the inscription the appearance of a ransom note, to my mind). Next, as often happens even in non-chronogrammatic inscriptions, V is spelled as a U. Last is the unusual I at the end of “mercy,” used simply for chronogrammatic purpose. Okay, so we have the letters LDVMIVV all designated as a chronogram. That’s no Roman date, but it does add up to one: L+D+V+M+I+V+V = 50 + 500 + 5 + 1000 + 1 + 5 + 5 = 1666. Ta-da!
At this point, you are probably wondering to yourself, Hmmm, are these clever or stupid? And are all such clever but stupid employments of the brain (to which I would add sudokus and crossword puzzles) of any genuine use? That’s hard to answer, nor am I the first to ask. In The Spectator (No. 60, May 9, 1711), Joseph Addison dismissed all forms of what he called false wit as examples of “Monkish Ignorance.” As he goes on to say,
As the Monks were the Masters of all that little Learning which was then extant, and had their whole Lives entirely disengaged from Business, it is no wonder that several of them, who wanted Genius for higher Performances, employed many Hours in the Composition of such Tricks in Writing as required much Time and little Capacity.
Addison assigns the chronogram to this category of false wit, and noting the fondness particularly of German scholars for them, writes dismissively,
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. When therefore we meet with any of these Inscriptions, we are not so much to look in ‘em for the Thought, as for the Year of the Lord.
It is true that chronograms are an especial love of the Germans, and a contemporary website dedicated to them can be found with an inevitable “.de” suffix.
Ah but, Mr. Addison, you need not go so far as Germany to find such monumental wastes of time. Addison was a fellow of Magdalen College, and near to it is the lovely winding path called “Addison’s Walk.” In less than a mile’s radius from his path can be seen a few chronograms, as shown below (these I was directed to from Reginald Adams’ Latin in Oxford: Inscriptiones Aliquot Oxonienses ).
1. St. Edmund’s Hall, known locally with affectionate as “Teddy Hall,” is perhaps the oldest academic institution in Oxford. It’s a charming little spot on a narrow street and is often overlooked. Above the front gate can be seen the college’s coat of arms and this inscription, sanCtVs edMVndVs hVIVs aVLae LVX, which translates as, “Saint Edmund, the light of this hall.” The chronogrammatic letters add up thus: C + V + M + V + V + V + I + V + V + L + L + V + X (= 100 + 5+ 1000 + 5 + 5 + 5 + 1 + 5 + 5 + 50 + 50 +5 + 10) = 1246, the year of Edmund’s canonization. It’s a nice, understated inscription with an unforced meaning.
2. By a basement window of Dyson Perrins Laboratory on South Parks Street can be seen this chronogram from 1914, designed by Paul Waterhouse, which reads, baLLIoLensIs fecI hyDatoeCVs. o sI MeLIVs. Translation: “I, Waterhouse of Balliol, made this. Oh, if only it were better!” The numbers, then, are L + L + I + L + I + C + I + D + C + V + I + M + L + I +V = 50 + 1 + 100 + 1 + 500 + 100 + 5 + 1 + 1000 + 50 + 1 + 5 = 1914. I like the fact that Waterhouse translated his name into a Latinized Greek word in order to get the letters D, C, and V, and the self-deprecating last word supplies M, L, I, and V.
3. There’s nothing self-depracating in the chronogram to be seen over the gate of Oriel College’s western campus, which reads, e Larga MVnIfICentIa CaeCILII rhoDes, “From the great generosity of Cecil Rhodes.” Rhodes entered Oriel in 1874, and 25 years later, was given an honorary degree. In 1911, the Rhodes building of Oriel was completed, and hence the chronogram reads, L + M + V + I + I + C + I + C + C + I + L + I + I + D = 50 + 1000 + 5 + 1 + 1 + 100 + 1 + 100 + 100 + 1 + 1 + 1 + 500 = 1911. The statue of Rhodes on the facade is almost life-size, and the pigeons roosting near the inscription give you a sense of how big the letters are. Rhodes has used letters from his own name for the chronogram, and from Larga Munificentia. Yup, big and munificent. Learned, too. Addison would probably roll his eyes.