Saturday, March 21, 2015

MAD linguistic adventures: You say Potrzebie, I say Δᴓʎʎ•

I'm finally reading the original Kurtzman-era MAD comix for the first time (via The MAD Archives, volumes 1-4, in hardcover from DC). In issue #11 Kurtzman introduced the concept of detournment to millions of Americans with "Murder the Husband! / Murder the Story!", in which he recycles a three-page potboiler from a different comic book, then runs it a second time with completely new dialogue. Yes, it was basically a cheap way not to have to draw six new pages of art. It's still genius. In the improved version of the story, the lead character has some much more interesting motivation ("Say, Melvin! How about rowing out to that bottomless spot on the lake?... I'd like to build a BOTTOM on that bottomless spot!") and his friend/victim retains an impressive air of mystery through his use of foreign-language gibberish ("της τελε. ής προεξήρχεν όΣεϐ...КИТАЯ В СОСТАВ ПРОТИВ ДУШEHИЯ Indian gum tickets?")

Kurtzman took the concept and ran with it in his series of "Political Analysis" one-pagers in later issues: announcing in dour prose that the magazine was about to take a turn into sober commentary on important world issues of the day, then dumping the reader into an untranslated page of foreign-language text (Greek in issue #13, Hungarian in issue #14, and Chinese in issue #15). 

 MAD #13 (July, 1954): "Political Analysis - Greece"

MAD #14 (August, 1954): "Political Analysis - Hungary"

 MAD #15 (September, 1954): "Political Analysis - China"

I was curious whether there might be anything of interest there, so I scanned those pages and did optical character recognition. Thanks to Google Translate, I can confirm what we've suspected all these years, that this word salad is all random shit that Kurtzman surely clipped from whatever foreign-language periodicals were at hand in the newsstands of New York City. (The Greek text mentions Truman and the Laity Congress; the Hungarian text is about conductor Fritz Reiner; and the Chinese text is something about military blockades, smelters, and Pearl Buck.) Naturally readers picked up on this and started writing to the editors in foreign languages.

MAD #15 (September 1954), letters page: "I live in ancient Rome, so MAD is often hard to find.")

I got particularly hung up on issue #14 (August 1954) where there's a creature of an entirely different cryptographic stripe: in the "Mad Mumblings" section there's a letter from a reader written entirely in a symbolic cipher. 

The author, "Gene Kelly" of Wagoner, Oklahoma, signed the letter in both ciphertext and plaintext, thus giving away the ciphers for the letters G, E, N, K, L, and Y. Assuming it's a 1:1 alphabetic substitution cipher (which indeed it is), that's more than enough clues to decipher the full alphabet, which the editors clearly did, since they respond to Gene in his own cipher. It's hard to Google the ciphertext since the characters are mostly not available in ASCII, so I went ahead and deciphered the letter (plus some additional letters printed three months later in MAD #17, in which three smart-alecs wrote in using Gene's code). I can't believe no one's put this on the internet yet, but apparently such is the case! So, for the curious, here's the ciphertext and plaintext versions of all the letters:

The cipher key (the letters J, Q, X, and Z were never used)

MAD #14 (August, 1954)

MAD #17 (November, 1954)

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