cipher

1 of 2

noun

ci·​pher ˈsī-fər How to pronounce cipher (audio)
often attributive
1
b
: one that has no weight, worth, or influence : nonentity
It was an odd fact that the financier, a cipher in his own home, could impress all sorts of people at the office.P. G. Wodehouse
Why did the family, I wondered, act as if Rita hardly existed? Was she that much of a cipher?Andrew M. Greeley
2
a
: 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.
3
4
: a combination of symbolic letters
especially : the interwoven initials of a name
coins that bore the cipher of the sultan

cipher

2 of 2

verb

ciphered; ciphering ˈsī-f(ə-)riŋ How to pronounce cipher (audio)

intransitive verb

: to use figures in a mathematical process
all children should learn to read, write, and cipherM. 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

Examples of cipher in a Sentence

Noun a cipher that can't be decoded She was nothing more than a cipher. Verb were surprised by how much we had spent on the cruise after we had ciphered out the grand total
Recent Examples on the Web
Noun
America’s first spies spent the Revolutionary War using ciphers, clandestine courier networks, and invisible ink to correspond with each other and their foreign allies. William J. Burns, Foreign Affairs, 30 Jan. 2024 Ford's soulful, craggy face is the cipher for the lifetime of adventure, physical pain, and loss that Indy has endured. Maureen Lee Lenker, EW.com, 16 June 2023 Studying the science of ciphers, Meiklejohn began to recognize the importance of privacy and the need for surveillance-resistant communications. Andy Greenberg, Ars Technica, 18 Jan. 2024 Somehow 99% of the women and nonbinary people in my life are a delight to purchase gifts for, while the men—cis and trans alike—remain a cipher. Emma Specter, Vogue, 11 Dec. 2023 Like all true movie stars, Song can be something of a cipher in interviews, warm and gracious but also eager, with his toothy grin and reflexive charm, to glide past more probing questions. Patrick Brzeski, The Hollywood Reporter, 3 Dec. 2023 But while Josh and Saul are singing ciphers, Owen and Manus are complex and whole. Sara Holdren, Vulture, 8 Nov. 2023 Because the Devil remains the most potent symbol of radical evil, so too do those legions that serve him remain convenient ciphers for discussing behavior and phenomenon too aberrant, too otherworldly, to be entirely reduced to arid and cold rationality. TIME, 28 Oct. 2023 His rap name is in part a reference to roaming through the New York streets looking for ciphers and battles to hone his skills. Andre Gee, Rolling Stone, 29 Sep. 2023
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, 25 July 2017 See More

These examples are programmatically compiled from various online sources to illustrate current usage of the word 'cipher.' Any opinions expressed in the examples do not represent those of Merriam-Webster or its editors. Send us feedback about these examples.

Word History

Etymology

Noun and Verb

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

First Known Use

Noun

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

Verb

circa 1530, in the meaning defined at intransitive sense

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

Dictionary Entries Near cipher

Cite this Entry

“Cipher.” Merriam-Webster.com Dictionary, Merriam-Webster, https://www.merriam-webster.com/dictionary/cipher. Accessed 1 Mar. 2024.

Kids Definition

cipher

1 of 2 noun
ci·​pher ˈsī-fər How to pronounce cipher (audio)
1
: the symbol 0 meaning the absence of all magnitude or quantity : zero see number
2
a
: a method of changing a message so as to conceal its meaning
b
: a message in code

cipher

2 of 2 verb
ciphered; ciphering -f(ə-)riŋ How to pronounce cipher (audio)
1
: to use figures in calculating
2
: to change (a message) into cipher
Etymology

Noun

Middle English cipher "zero," from Latin cifra (same meaning), from Arabic ṣifr "empty"

More from Merriam-Webster on cipher

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