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What Is a Chronogram?

G. Wiesen
G. Wiesen

A chronogram is a piece of writing, often as short as a single sentence, in which letters are used to indicate a particular numerical value. This is typically done using a language in which letters can be used to represent numbers, such as Roman numerals in writing that uses these figures. Various letters within a sentence or phrase are typically made to stand out, often through capitalization or bolding. When these letters in a chronogram are combined, usually through addition, then they reveal a number that has some type of significance to the placement or usage of the phrase.

The term "chronogram" was formed through the prefix "chrono-" which is based on the Greek word for "time," and the root "-gram" which comes from the Greek for "letter." It is often interpreted as meaning "time writing" and refers to the common practice of using these numbers to indicate a certain year. Although different languages can be used to create a chronogram, many passages are written in Latin, since the letters used in Latin are also Roman numerals. Other languages with similar symbols, such as English and German, can also be used since letters like "X" and "M" still indicate certain Roman numbers.

Woman holding a book
Woman holding a book

Examples of phrases that were written as a chronogram can be found in many parts of the world, though they have been especially popular for dedications of buildings and on memorials. If a war memorial is constructed in the year 2050, for example, an inscription might be used to dedicate it such as "Made for men and woMen who fought for Liberty." This unusual capitalization would be used to make the initials "MML" stand out, since these three letters are made more prominent. Together, "MML" represent the Roman numerals for 2050, which in this case would indicate the year that the memorial was built.

Tombs and similar markers of remembrance are also frequently created with a chronogram, usually to indicate the year that a person died. The phrase "My Day Closed Is In Immortality" features capital letters that create "MDCIII," the Roman numerals for the year 1603, in which the British Queen Elizabeth I died. This chronogram is often used both to pay tribute to her rule and passing, and to act as a pneumonic device to help people remember the year. Longer or more complicated numbers often require much longer phrases; it can become increasingly difficult to create a sentence that makes sense and contains the necessary numeric indicators.

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