8 Ancient Writing Systems That Haven't Been Deciphered Yet

The Indus Valley civilization was one of the most advanced in the world for more than 500 years, with more than a thousand settlements sprawling across 250,000 square miles of what is now Pakistan and northwest India from 2600 BCE to 1900 BCE. It had several large, well-planned cities like Mohenjo-daro, common iconography—and a script no one has been able to understand. 

Over at Nature, Andrew Robinson looks at the reasons why the Indus Valley script has been so difficult to crack, and details some recent attempts to decipher it. Since we don't know anything about the underlying language and there's no multilingual Rosetta stone, scholars have analyzed its structure for clues and compared it to other scripts. Most Indologists think it's "logo-syllabic" script like Sumerian cuneiform or Mayan glyphs. But they disagree about whether it was a spoken language or a full writing system; some believe it represented only part of an Indus language, Robinson writes. 

One team has created the first publicly available, electronic corpus of Indus texts. Another, led by computer scientist Rajesh Rao, analyzed the randomness in the script's sequences. Their results indicated it's most similar to Sumerian cuneiform, which suggests it may represent a language. Read the full article for more details.   

The Indus Valley script is far from the only one to remain mysterious. Here are eight others you might try your hand at deciphering.

1. Linear A

In 1893, British archaeologist Sir Arthur Evans purchased some ancient stones with mysterious inscriptions on them at a flea market in Athens. On a later trip to the excavations at Knossos on the island of Crete, he recognized one of the symbols from his stones and began a study of the engraved tablets being uncovered at various sites on the island. He discovered two different systems, which he called Linear A and Linear B. While Linear B was deciphered in the early 1950s (it turned out to represent an early form of Greek), Linear A, above, has still not been deciphered.

2. Cretan Hieroglyphics


The excavations on Crete also revealed a third type of writing system, with symbols that looked more picture-like than those of the linear scripts. Some of these symbols are similar to elements in Linear A. It is assumed that the hieroglyphic script developed into Linear A, though the two systems were both in use during the same time period.

3. Wadi el-Hol script


In the 1990s, a pair of Yale archaeologists discovered a graffiti-covered cliff wall at the Wadi el-Hol (Gulch of Terror) in Egypt. Most of the inscriptions were in systems they could recognize, but one of them was unfamiliar. It looks like an early transition from a hieroglyphic to an alphabetic system, but it hasn't yet been deciphered.

4. Sitovo inscription


In 1928 a group of woodcutters found some markings carved into a Bulgarian cliffside. They thought the marks indicated hidden treasure, but none was found. Word got around and soon some archaeologists had a look. Later, the head of the expedition was executed for being a secret agent for the Soviets in Bulgaria. One piece of evidence used against him was a strange coded message he had sent to Kiev—actually a copy of the cliffside inscription he had sent to colleagues for scholarly input. It is not clear what language the inscription represents. Thracian, Celtic, Sarmato-Alanian, and Slavic are some of the possibilities scholars have argued for. Another suggestion is that it's simply a natural rock formation.

5. Olmec writing

The Olmecs were an ancient Mexican civilization best known for the statues they left behind: the so-called "colossal heads." In 1999, their writing system was revealed when road builders unearthed an inscribed stone tablet. The tablet shows 62 symbols; some look like corn or bugs, and some are more abstract. It has been dated to 900 B.C., which would make it the oldest example of writing in the Western Hemisphere.

6. Singapore stone


There once was a giant engraved slab made of sandstone at the mouth of the Singapore River. It had been there for 700 years or so when, in 1819, workers uncovered it while clearing away jungle trees. A few scholars got a look at it before it was blown to bits in order to make space for a fort to protect the British settlements. The parts that didn’t end up in the river were eventually used for road gravel, though some fragments were saved. The script hasn't been deciphered, but there have been various suggestions for what language it might represent: ancient Ceylonese, Tamil, Kawi, Old Javanese, and Sanskrit.

7. Rongorongo


When missionaries got to Easter Island in the 1860s, they found wooden tablets carved with symbols. They asked the Rapanui natives what the inscriptions meant, and were told that nobody knew anymore, since the Peruvians had killed off all the wise men. The Rapanui used the tablets as firewood or fishing reels, and by the end of the century they were nearly all gone. Rongorongo is written in alternating directions; you read a line from left to right, then turn the tablet 180 degrees and read the next line.

8. Proto-Elamite

Marie-Lan Nguyen via Wikimedia Commons // CC BY 2.5

This ancient writing system was used more than 5000 years ago in what is now Iran. Written from right to left, the script is unlike any other ancient scripts; while the proto-Elamites appear to have borrowed the idea for a written language from their Mesopotamian contemporaries, they apparently invented their own symbols—and didn't bother to keep track of them in an organized way, proto-Elamite expert and Oxford University scholar Jacob Dahl told the BBC in 2012. Around that time, he and his Oxford colleagues asked for help from the public in deciphering proto-Elamite. They released high-quality images of clay tablets covered in Proto-Elamite, hoping that crowdsourcing could decode them. Now a collaboration involving several institutions, the project is ongoing

10 Words & Phrases Coined in Comic Strips

iStock/crisserbug
iStock/crisserbug

Cartoons, comics, and newspaper comic strips might seem like an unusual source of new words and phrases, but English is such an eclectic language—and comic strips have always had daily access to such a vast number of people—that a few of their coinages have slipped into everyday use. Here are the etymological stories behind 10 examples of precisely that.

1. Brainiac

The most famous brainiac is a cold-hearted, hyper-intelligent adversary of Superman who first appeared as an alien in DC Comics’ Action Comic #242, “The Super-Duel In Space,” in 1958. But after releasing his first adventure, DC Comics discovered that the name was already in use for a do-it-yourself computer kit. In deference to the kit, Brainiac was turned into a “computer personality” and became the great villain. As a nickname for an expert or intellectual, his (and the kit’s) name slipped into more general use in English by the early 1970s.

2. Curate’s Egg

Like the curate’s egg is a 19th century English expression that has come to mean something comprised of both good and bad parts. It comes from a one-off cartoon entitled “True Humility” that appeared in the British satirical magazine Punch in November 1895. Drawn by the artist George du Maurier (grandfather of the novelist Daphne du Maurier), the cartoon depicted a stern-looking bishop sharing breakfast with a young curate, who has unluckily been served a bad egg. Not wanting to make a scene in front of the bishop, the curate is shown eating the egg anyway, alongside the caption “Oh no, my Lord, I assure you, parts of it are excellent.”

3. Goon

Goon is thought to originally derive from gony, an old English dialect word once used by sailors to describe cumbersome-looking seabirds like albatrosses and pelicans. Based on this initial meaning, in the early 1900s, goon came to be used as another word for an equally dull-looking or slow-witted person, and it was this that presumably inspired Popeye cartoonist EC Segar to create the character of Alice the Goon for his Thimble Theater series of comics in 1933. But it’s Segar’s portrayal of Alice—as a dutiful but impossibly strong 8-foot giantess—that went on to inspire the use of goon as a nickname for a hired heavy or thug, paid to intimidate or terrorize someone without asking questions, in 1930s slang.

4. Jeep

Jeep is popularly said to derive from an approximate pronunciation of the letters “GP,” which are in turn taken as an abbreviation of “general purpose” vehicle. If so, then jeep belongs alongside only a handful other examples (like deejay, okay, veep and emcee) in an unusual class of words that begin their life as a phrase, then become an abbreviation, and then a whole new word based on the abbreviation—but in the case of jeep, that’s probably not the entire story. According to the Oxford English Dictionary, the spelling jeep was likely influenced by the character Eugene the Jeep, a yellow cat-like animal (that only ever made a jeep! jeep! noise) that also first appeared alongside Popeye in EC Segar’s Thimble Theater in 1936. Jeep was then adopted into military slang during the Second World War as a nickname for an inexperienced or enthusiastic new recruit, but eventually somehow came to establish itself as another name for a specialized military vehicle in the early 1940s and it’s this meaning that remains in place today.

5. Keeping Up With The Joneses

A Keeping Up With the Joneses strip from 1921
A "Keeping up with the Joneses" comic strip from 1921
Pop Momand, Wikimedia // Public Domain

Synonymous with the quiet rivalries between neighbors and friends, the idiom keeping up with the Joneses comes from the title of a comic strip created by the cartoonist Arthur “Pop” Momand in 1913. Based partly on Momand’s own experiences in one of the wealthiest parts of New York, the strip ran for almost 30 years in the American press and even inspired a cartoon series during the height of its popularity in the 1920s. The eponymous Joneses—whom Momand wanted originally to call “The Smiths,” before deciding that “Joneses” sounded better—were the next-door neighbors of the cartoon’s central characters, but were never actually depicted in the series.

6. Malarkey

Etymologically, malarkey is said to somehow derive from the old Irish surname Mullarkey, but precisely how or why is unclear. As a nickname for rubbish or nonsense talk, however, its use in English is often credited to the American cartoonist Thomas Aloysius Dorgan—better known as “TAD”—who first used it in this context in several of his Indoor Sports cartoon series in the early 1920s. But the spelling hadn’t been standardized yet. Once he spelled it Milarkey referring to a place, and in one famous example, depicting a courtroom scene, one of Dorgan’s characters exclaims, “Malachy! You said it: I wouldn’t trust a lawyer no further than I could throw a case of Scotch!” (Dorgan, incidentally, is also credited with giving the English language the phrases cat’s pajamas and drugstore cowboy.)

7. Milquetoast

Taking his name from the similarly bland breakfast snack “milk toast,” the character Caspar Milquetoast was created by the American cartoonist Harold T. Webster in 1924. The star of Webster’s Timid Soul comic strip, Caspar was portrayed as a quiet, submissive, bespectacled old man, whom Webster himself once described as the kind of man who “speaks softly and gets hit with a big stick.” His name has been used as a byword for any equally submissive or ineffectual person since the mid-1930s.

8. Poindexter

When Otto Messmer’s Felix the Cat comic strip was adapted for television in the late 1950s, a whole host of new supporting characters was added to the cast, including a super-intelligent, labcoat-wearing schoolboy named Poindexter, who was the nephew of Felix’s nemesis, The Professor. Created by the cartoonist Joe Oriolo, Poindexter’s name—which was apparently taken from that of Oriolo’s attorney—had become a byword for a nerdish or intellectual person in English slang by the early 1980s.

9. Shazam

Shazam was coined in Whiz Comics #2 in February 1940, as the name of an old wizard who grants 12-year-old Billy Batson the ability to transform into Captain Marvel. The wizard’s name, Shazam, was henceforth also Captain Marvel’s magic word, with which he was able to call on the wisdom of Solomon, the strength of Hercules, the stamina of Atlas, the power of Zeus, the courage of Achilles and the speed of Mercury.

10. Zilch

As another word for “zero,” zilch has been used in English since the early '60s. But before then, from the 1930s onward, it was predominantly used as a nickname for any useless and hopeless character or non-entity or someone who didn't exist. In this context it was probably coined in and popularized by a series of cartoons that first appeared in Ballyhoo humor magazine in 1931, and which featured a hapless unseen businessman character named “President Henry P. Zilch.” Although it’s possible the writers of Ballyhoo created the name from scratch, it’s likely that they were at least partly inspired by an old student slang expression, Joe Zilsch, which was used in the 1920s in the same way as John Doe or Joe Sixpack would be today.

This list first ran in 2015 and was republished in 2019.

16 Words Derived From Animals

iStock/hkuchera
iStock/hkuchera

The origins of words quite often provide a few unexpected surprises, not least when a selection of seemingly random terms like cantaloupe, dandelion, and schlong all end up being descended from the names of different types of animals. From bears and storks to singing wolves and castrated sheep, all 16 of the words listed here have surprising zoological origins.

1. Arctic

Vintage constellation map of Ursa Major
iStock/sergeyussr

The Arctic takes its name from the Greek word for “bear,” arktos. Oddly, the bear in question isn’t a polar bear but the Great Bear, or Ursa Major, the constellation that maintains a prominent year-round position in the northern sky. As a result, the adjective arctic originally referred to the celestial rather than the geographical North Pole when it first appeared in English more than 700 years ago. It wasn’t until the mid-1500s that it first came to be used of the northernmost regions of the Earth.

2. Bellwether

A group of sheep
iStock/badmanproduction

A bellwether is a leader or trendsetter, and in particular a stock or product whose performance is seen as an indicator of the overall strength of a market. In the Middle Ages, however, a bellwether was originally the lead animal in a flock of sheep: wether is an old English dialect word for a castrated ram, and the lead wether in a flock would typically have a bell hung around its neck to help identify it.

3. Canopy

A mosquito on skin
iStock/W1zzard

In Ancient Greece, a kanopeion—from konops, the Greek word for “mosquito”—was a chair or couch fitted with a mosquito net over it. As time went by, the name came to apply only to the net rather than the chair, which ultimately gave us the word canopy In the early 14th century. The French canapé is derived from the same root, and refers to the fact that a canapé’s filling sits on top of the pastry in the same way that a person sits on a couch.

4. Cantaloupe

Cantaloupe melons are said to take their name from Cantalupo, an ancient papal estate on the outskirts of Rome where the first European cantaloupes were reportedly grown in the early Middle Ages. In turn, Cantalupo took its name from the Latin words cantare, meaning “to sing” (as in chant and incantation), and lupus, meaning “wolf,” and probably originally referred to a place where wolves could often be heard howling or seen gathering together.

5. Dandelion

Big lion lying on savannah grass
iStock/NiseriN

Dandelion is a corruption of the French dent-de-lion, meaning “lion’s tooth,” a reference to the flowers’ jagged or “toothed” leaves.

6. Dauphin

The title once held by the eldest son of the king of France, dauphin is actually the French word for “dolphin.” From the mid-14th century right up to the early 1800s, two stylized dolphins were depicted on the dauphin’s coat of arms, but precisely why the eldest prince of France came to be identified with a sea creature remains a mystery.

7. Exocet

Close-up of a flying fish against blue and cloudy sky
iStock/swedishmonica

An exocet is a type of marine missile first developed by the French Navy in the late 1960s. Its name is the French word for a flying fish.

8. Formication

Formication is the medical name for a creeping, tingling sensation felt on the skin, similar to pins and needles, which takes its name from the Latin word for “ant,” formica; it literally describes a sensation similar to insects crawling over the skin. As a symptom, formication is associated with a whole range of conditions, from anxiety and general emotional distress to shingles, neuralgia, alcohol withdrawal, Parkinson’s disease, and even mercury poisoning.

9. Harum-Scarum

Meaning “reckless” or “disorganized,” no one is quite sure where the term harum-scarum comes from, but a likely theory is that it is an old dialect corruption of hare and scare, probably in reference to a hunter’s dogs scaring rabbits and hares from their cover.

10. Henchman

A stallion playing
iStock/mari_art

The “hench” of henchman came from hengest, an Old English word for a horse. The term originally referred to a knight or servant who would accompany a nobleman on horseback on long journeys.

11. Pedigree

Although today it is used more generally to mean “lineage” or “heritage,” a pedigree was originally a genealogical diagram, like a family tree, showing relatives and their relations connected to one another by lines drawn from one generation to the next. It was these flat, broad, hooked lines that originally gave the pedigree its name, as scholars in Medieval France thought that they resembled a pied-de-grue—or a stork’s foot.

12. Schlong

Black snake looking at the camera
iStock/RightOne

This derives from the Yiddish word for “snake,” shlang. Say no more.

13. Sniper

Dating back to the early 19th century, a sniper was originally someone who literally shot snipe. The birds have long been considered one of the hardest types of game to shoot due both to their speed in flight and their nervous disposition, making it necessary to shoot at them from a distance rather than risk disturbing them by moving closer.

14. Sturdy

European Song Thrush deep in winter snow
iStock/rekemp

Nowadays, sturdy is used to mean “robust” or “solid,” but when it first appeared in English way back in the 14th century it was used to mean something more along the lines of “unruly” or “unmanageable.” Its precise origin is unclear, but at least one theory claims it comes from the Latin word for “thrush,” turdus, as thrushes apparently once had a reputation for eating leftover and partly fermented grapes at wineries. This would make the birds behave frenziedly and drunkenly, and it is this bizarre behavior that initially inspired the word—the saying soûl comme une grive, or “as drunk as a thrush,” is still used in French today.

15. Tragedy

Tragedy probably has one of the most peculiar etymologies in the entire English language: it derives from a Greek word, tragoedia, literally meaning “goat song.” Why? Well, one theory claims it comes from actors in Ancient Greece dressing in furs and animal hides to portray legendary animals (like goat-legged satyrs) in performances of dramas and tragedies, but the true origin of the word remains a mystery.

16. Treacle

Treacle—the British word for molasses, or else a byword for anything overly sentimental and sweet—first appeared in English in the early 1400s, when it was originally used as a word for a medicine or antidote used to treat snakebites. In this context it comes from therion, a general Ancient Greek word for any wild animal.

This list first ran in 2014 and was republished in 2019.

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