noun, often attributive
ci·​pher | \ˈsī-fər \

Definition of cipher 

(Entry 1 of 2)

1a : zero sense 1a

b : one that has no weight, worth, or influence : nonentity She was nothing more than a cipher.

2a : a method of transforming a text in order to conceal its meaning secret communications written in cipher — compare code sense 3b

b : a message in code The cipher cannot be decoded without the key.

4 : a combination of symbolic letters especially : the interwoven initials of a name coins that bore the cipher of the sultan


ciphered; ciphering\-​f(ə-​)riŋ \

Definition of cipher (Entry 2 of 2)

intransitive verb

: to use figures in a mathematical process all children should learn to read, write, and cipher— M. Pattison

transitive verb

1 : encipher ciphered the letters that passed between the two heads of state

2 : to compute arithmetically ciphered out the sum in his head

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Synonyms for cipher

Synonyms: Noun

aught, goose egg, naught (also nought), nil, nothing, o, oh, zero, zilch, zip

Synonyms: Verb

calculate, compute, figure, reckon, work out

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Examples of cipher in a Sentence


a cipher that can't be decoded She was nothing more than a cipher.


were surprised by how much we had spent on the cruise after we had ciphered out the grand total
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Recent Examples on the Web: Noun

And the show has been (lightly) criticized for turning Budd in to something of a cipher. Chloe Schama, Vogue, "Bodyguard Is the Best Political Thriller Since Homeland," 24 Oct. 2018 The joint logo certainly looks curlier and more ornate than the Duke and Duchess' individual ciphers. Erica Gonzales, Harper's BAZAAR, "How Meghan Markle and Prince Harry's Monogram Compares to Kate Middleton and Prince William's," 31 July 2018 On the other hand, them being ciphers is kind of the point. Todd Vanderwerff, Vox, "Is Westworld moving forward or going in circles?," 18 June 2018 On the page, its words can seem as blunt and cipher-like as notes on a musical staff. Ben Brantley, New York Times, "Review: In an Energized ‘Iceman,’ the Drinks are on Denzel," 26 Apr. 2018 His mother had worked for Army intelligence as a cipher clerk in South Africa during World War II. Robert F. Worth, New York Times, "Can Jim Mattis Hold the Line in Trump’s ‘War Cabinet’?," 26 Mar. 2018 Laurel remains a cipher, a comic type, a star without a name. Jason Zinoman, New York Times, "Imagining the Unhappy Life of Stan Laurel," 1 June 2018 Mike serves as a kind of cipher for this coming-of-age realization in the show. Leah Beckmann, The Cut, "Magic Mike Live: Las Vegas," 21 June 2018 The North Koreans passed the haul to their Russian sponsors, whose various military spy and cipher organs could read U.S. strategic and tactical communications for years afterwards. WSJ, "Pueblo Capture: A Failure of Senior Officers," 5 June 2018

Recent Examples on the Web: Verb

These remnants, signals from an earlier phase of our human condition, have been endlessly ciphered by generations of archaeologists in the Bears Ears region (which is named for twin buttes near its center). Stephen Nash, New York Times, "At Bears Ears in Utah, Heated Politics and Precious Ruins," 25 July 2017

These example sentences are selected automatically from various online news sources to reflect current usage of the word 'cipher.' Views expressed in the examples do not represent the opinion of Merriam-Webster or its editors. Send us feedback.

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First Known Use of cipher


14th century, in the meaning defined at sense 1a


circa 1530, in the meaning defined at intransitive sense

History and Etymology for cipher


Middle English, from Medieval Latin cifra, from Arabic ṣifr empty, cipher, zero


see cipher entry 1

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Statistics for cipher

Last Updated

21 Nov 2018

Look-up Popularity

Time Traveler for cipher

The first known use of cipher was in the 14th century

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More Definitions for cipher



English Language Learners Definition of cipher

: a way of changing a message to keep it secret

: a person who has no power or is not important


ci·​pher | \ˈsī-fər \

Kids Definition of cipher

 (Entry 1 of 2)

2 : a method of secret writing or the alphabet or letters and symbols used in such writing

3 : a message in code


ciphered; ciphering

Kids Definition of cipher (Entry 2 of 2)

: to use figures in doing a problem in arithmetic : calculate

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More from Merriam-Webster on cipher

Rhyming Dictionary: Words that rhyme with cipher

Thesaurus: All synonyms and antonyms for cipher

Spanish Central: Translation of cipher

Nglish: Translation of cipher for Spanish Speakers

Britannica English: Translation of cipher for Arabic Speakers Encyclopedia article about cipher

Comments on cipher

What made you want to look up cipher? Please tell us where you read or heard it (including the quote, if possible).


a soft lustrous wool fabric with mohair

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