On September 27, 1822, Frenchman Jean-Francois Champollion, a teacher from Grenoble, announced that he had interpreted the Egyptian hieroglyphics on the Rosetta Stone. The stone bears a decree that was issued in 196 BC. The same decree is written in Demotic script, Ancient Greek, as well as the hieroglyphics. It was discovered by a French soldier serving with Napoleon in 1799 but was quickly obtained by the British who have displayed it in the British Museum since 1802. Plaster casts and lithographs were widely circulated so that experts all over the world could work on the text. The Greek text was cracked first, but it took considerably longer for Champollion’s break-through. The term “Rosetta Stone” is now used to apply to anything that serves as a key to unlocking knowledge, as well as to a popular brand of a language learning program.
Today’s expression, à la clef (ah lah clay) literally means “to the key” and figuratively means “to cap it all.” (Clef can also be spelled clé; the pronunciation is identical.) A key stone is the wedge-shaped center of an arch that keeps the whole thing from falling down. The key to the Rosetta Stone hieroglyphics capped two decades of scholarly search, but Champollion apparently deciphered it rather quickly once he got his hand on a copy. Today, his birthplace is marked with a huge replica of the stone.