noun, often attributive
ci·​pher | \ ˈsī-fər How to pronounce cipher (audio) \

Definition of cipher

 (Entry 1 of 2)

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
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\ ˈsī-​f(ə-​)riŋ How to pronounce ciphering (audio) \

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

Synonyms: Verb

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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
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Recent Examples on the Web: Noun Dorothy is portrayed as an overambitious figure of fun immersed in her delusion; Leanne is a cipher whose true identity and motivations sustain the mystery of the series. Sophie Gilbert, The Atlantic, "The Filmmaker Who Says M. Night Shyamalan Stole Her Movie," 15 Jan. 2020 The octopus-like diagnostic array in Area 7, a series of sensors designed to monitor the dynamics of the nuclear explosion that took place there, on August 5, 1982, could have been a cipher engraved on the Voyager space probe. Max Norman, The New Yorker, "Emmet Gowin’s Tender Photography of Nuclear Destruction," 7 Nov. 2019 Headstones at three different churches in the Greenwood area claim to mark his resting place — the final riddle of a man whose brief, turbulent life became a cipher nearly as sensational as his songs. New York Times, "Overlooked No More: Robert Johnson, Bluesman Whose Life Was a Riddle," 29 Sep. 2019 The digging Hahamy did—the process of turning a cipher into a human being—will be familiar to any investigative journalist tasked with covering the impact of America’s gun violence epidemic. Lizzie Feidelson, The New Republic, "The Kids Profiling Every Single Child Killed by Guns," 26 Dec. 2019 Season 3 diminishes Elizabeth and, despite being a show that’s about the human behind the crown, makes her an inscrutable cipher. Shirley Li, The Atlantic, "The Crown’s Third Season Puts Elizabeth in the Back Seat," 25 Nov. 2019 Diehl has a somber strength, but his Franz is a bit of a cipher, a sibling to the wandering moodboards played by Ben Affleck, Christian Bale, and Ryan Gosling in Malick’s modern-romance trilogy. Darren Franich,, "A Hidden Life is the full Terrence Malick experience, vital even when it's glacial: Review," 12 Dec. 2019 The third envelope included two sets of code sheets: one that contained a list of ciphers, and another that listed dozens of words along with their encoded abbreviations, a system known as brevity codes. Yudhijit Bhattacharjee, CNN, "How the FBI tracked down 'the spy who couldn't spell'," 1 Nov. 2019 Jules is a cipher, which is kind of the point of the series, but makes her a boring and at times annoying anchor for the show. Kelly Lawler, USA TODAY, "Review: Hulu's 'Dollface' is an offensive caricature of millennial women," 15 Nov. 2019 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

Noun and Verb

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

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Time Traveler for cipher

Time Traveler

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

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Statistics for cipher

Last Updated

14 Feb 2020

Cite this Entry

“Cipher.” Dictionary, Merriam-Webster, Accessed 23 Feb. 2020.

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More Definitions for cipher


How to pronounce cipher (audio)

English Language Learners Definition of cipher

technical : a way of changing a message to keep it secret
formal + disapproving : a person who has no power or is not important


ci·​pher | \ ˈsī-fər How to pronounce cipher (audio) \

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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