The Difference Between Monograms & Ciphers
Many seals - and signet rings - exist to allow the owner to stamp their official initials upon a letter or important document to make it known and to confirm from where the correspondence originates. Most people go through life blissfully unaware of the difference between a monogram and a cipher, and really, it isn't exactly life-changing information. That said, at Seal & Scribe, we're sticklers for details and we like to learn all the little bits and pieces that go into all things seals. So when we were looking at some seals with initials recently, we wondered, 'are these monograms, or are they ciphers, and what is the difference between the two?' We had assumed them to be monograms...Oh how wrong we were!
If you're like me, and grew up in a relatively preppy area of the East Coast, you no doubt had, or knew friends who had their initials on necklaces, sweaters, canvas bags, you name it, monogramming was a thing back then, and still is today. But what exactly IS a monogram, and how does it differ from a cipher? Let's take a look, shall we?
Monogram: A design created with letters where each letter provides a key component of the overall design. All the letters are interdependent on each other in that they meld into each other in such a way that if you remove one letter, the other letters cease to exist and the design falls apart. The easiest way to remember the difference is to remember that 'mono' means 'one', as in one design.
Cipher: Is one or more initials - most commonly two to three - that are arranged in such a way that they create a pleasing design (either by being overlapped, entwined, or both), but each letter is separate enough that if you remove one letter, the design will simply be missing a letter but the other letter(s) will still exist on their own.
Interestingly, most of what we refer to today as monograms are really ciphers! More simply put, The Project Gutenberg book Monograms & Ciphers, by Albert Angus Turbayne states:
"A Monogram is a combination of two or more letters, in which one letter forms part of another and cannot be separated from the whole. A Cipher is merely an interlacing or placing together of two or more letters, being in no way dependent for their parts on other of the letters."
Let's look at a few examples. The gold image at the top of this blog shows us extravagant gold letters depicting "AJG". As pleasing as this design may be, one could remove any letter and the rest would remain intact and legible. Therefore, if we removed the A, the J and G would still be intact and readable as such.
Below we have the letters V and R, entwined in such a way that if you removed the V the R would cease to exist, and if you removed the R the V would cease to exist. This is really what a true monogram is - one/mono and gram/something written. In this case a written expression of the initials VR as one design.
Are you with me so far? Let's look at a few examples below that are a bit more complex now. Let's look at the far left middle, RS. If you trace the R and then trace the S, you can see that they are two separate and distinct letters that hook around and through one another to create a pleasing design. This is cipher, because you can remove either letter and the other will still exist on its own.
If we look at the below group, and look at the top row middle and far right, we have two more examples of an RS grouping. In either one, if you remove the S, the R will cease to exist, and if you remove the R the S will cease to exist. These are true monograms.
One of the reasons there is a bit of confusion around what a cipher is and is not, is because there is another meaning to the word 'cipher', as it more commonly is used to refer to secret or disguised way of writing so as to hide secret messages. During war times, for example, cipher specialists are called in to create secret written codes so that messages may be passed back and forth without the enemy being able to read their contents. If one looks at a true monogram, as described above, where two or more letters create a design so entwined that one letter cannot be replaced or the entire design falls apart, one can see where thinking that a cipher, or hidden message might be confused for a monogram because they look like they are a sort of hidden message.
I know, now you can finally sleep well at night knowing the difference between a cipher and a monogram. But more importantly, you can share your knowledge the next time someone mistakenly calls a cipher a monogram! Do you own any jewelry or clothing/accessories with monograms or ciphers? If so, tell us about them in the comments!
Hi – how do you determine the intended order of letters in a cipher? Looking at your example of “AJG” each letter overlaps the other two at some point, so that blows my theory of the most forward letter is the first initial. Thanks!
This is fascinating. Thank you. I disagree, however, about the last box of examples, where you say the top row, far right is a monogram. It seems to me that one could remove either the “R” or the “S” and the other letter would still be intact and identifiable. What do you think?
Thank you for your clear explanation of the difference between the two.
Now, more relevant than ever, upon the accession of King Charkes iii and the publishing of his cypher, many people to whom I have spoken have said “surely that’s a monogram!”, I am now, thanks to your insight, am able to explain the difference.
What a thoroughly enjoyable article, and yes, I will now be able to sleep at night. I have items and accessories of both examples.
This is marvelous! I am a detail and info person too. I loved learning this, and about your studio!
Saving my Pennie’s for one of your pretties.