The distinctly "anthropomorphic" characters that constitute
these TrueType and bitmap font files are based on the secret
alphabet used by a gang of American criminals in the Sherlock
Holmes adventure "The Dancing Men", first published in 1903.
As Mr. Holmes soon deduced, their puzzle was actually a rather
unsophisticated substitution cipher, i.e. the cryptographic method in
which each character of the normal alphabet is globally substituted
by another discrete (and seemingly nonsensical) sign or image. To use
a modern metaphor: "As if the keyboard had been totally remapped".
From the rather limited information offered by the narrator Dr.
Watson it is difficult even for the most reflective reader to
conclude whether the actual character images were choosen totally at
random, or if there is a logical system behind the bizarre postures of
all those little "dancing men". Indeed, judging by the contemporary
original illustrations, a few characters are not even consistent from one
message to another!
The fact that in this short story only 17 out of the 26 basic
letters of the English alphabet are documented, has naturally led to
deep thought and speculation by Sherlockian scholars everywhere. Over
the years a number of essays and articles on the subject has appeared
in the specialist journals. About 25 years ago a leading Danish
Sherlockian, Aage Rieck Sørensen, privately published what
appears to be the definite analysis of this obscure alphabet. In his
paper Mr. Rieck Sørensen partly derives, partly devises a
coherent icono-semantic system that not only "fill in the white
spots" (i.e. the missing letters) but establishes a pleasingly
symmetric hidden pattern. It is true that the accepted postures for
some of the characters had to be revised to fit the logic of this neat
schema, but all-in-all his solution was satisfying.
This is the font layout, then, on which my typeface Dancingmen is
based. Alterations to the basic character set include the addition of
numerals, the full stop (U.S. = period) <.>, exclamation
<!> and question <?> marks. Also the three letters that
are unique to the alphabets of the Swedish, Norwegian, and (to some
Danish, Finnish, German, Hungarian and Turkish languages, namely the
A and O superscribed by "dots and rings": Å/å,
Ä/ä and Ö/ö (i.e. Mac ASCII numbers 129/140, 128/138,
133/154 and ISO Latin-1/HTML 7-bit ASCII 197/229 [Aring/aring], 196/228
[Auml/auml], 214/246 [Ouml/ouml]) generally corresponding to the
diphtongated vowels spelled AU, AE
and OE respectively in Latin and related languages.
As the Master Sleuth was able to show almost a century ago,
one of the basic features of the original "Dancing Men" cipher was
the curious ortographic rule that all conventional spacing between
words should be omitted (as should capitalisation of initial
letters). Instead, the text-string of each word is terminated by the
insertion of a little flag in the hand of the last "man" of the
string - thereby in effect flagging the hidden interverbal
Accordingly, there are no actual "upper" or "lower" case letters
in the Dancingmen font. In contrast to normal writing rules, all text
should be written with lower case letters (i.e. without using the
shift key), except for the last letter of each word! When the shift
key is pressed that ultimate letter gets the required little flag.
The quickest way to write a message, headline etc with this font
is to first type the text down completely in a common "readable" font
like Geneva (carefully adhering to the writing rules above, of
course), and then finally changing the font to Dancingmen. Now you
have a secret text, guaranteed to puzzle all but the most brilliant
At smaller text sizes, the single size bitmap font used for the
monitor rendering makes the Dancingmen characters rather difficult to
see. 24 points is minimum for decent screen readability.