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 cipher (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

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
Recent Examples on the Web: Noun The pages on the left (verso) were written in a cipher. Nikhil Krishnan, The New Yorker, 9 May 2022 As a cipher of pop culture, Hollywood can’t be beat. Jessica Geltstaff Writer, Los Angeles Times, 18 May 2022 After all, the cipher that Wittgenstein employed was both basic and known to his siblings, who used it as children (z is a, y is b, etc.). Nikhil Krishnan, The New Yorker, 9 May 2022 Kawakami gradually reveals the woman beneath the cipher, as Fuyuko is forced to confront the specter of Mizuno, the aloof teenager who took her virginity in a brutal encounter. Washington Post, 5 May 2022 Don't ask me, but some online sleuths have already managed to figure out the cipher in the image. Evan Romano, Men's Health, 7 Mar. 2022 Morse code, Arthur Conan Doyle’s Dancing Men code, the Knights Templar cipher and polyalphabetic substitution ciphers. Washington Post, 5 Oct. 2020 The musicologist Nelly Kravetz discovered that this second musical cipher alludes to the pianist Elmira Nazirova, with whom Shostakovich was besotted at the time. Alex Ross, The New Yorker, 24 Mar. 2022 It may be baked into the actual story, but John’s cipher-like quality, added to the character’s hypothermia and dazed, near-suicidal reluctance for help, sometimes reduces him to more of a prop than a persona. Gary Goldstein, Los Angeles Times, 24 Mar. 2022 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, 25 July 2017 See More

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.

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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Dictionary Entries Near cipher



cipher clerk

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Statistics for cipher

Last Updated

22 Jun 2022

Cite this Entry

“Cipher.” Dictionary, Merriam-Webster, Accessed 4 Jul. 2022.

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More Definitions for cipher


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

More from Merriam-Webster on cipher

Nglish: Translation of cipher for Spanish Speakers

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


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