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

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

The resulting juice is a cipher of a scent; simultaneously traditional and subversive, light and dark, romantic and mischievous. Adam Tschorn, Los Angeles Times, "Chloë Sevigny in full bloom," 3 Sep. 2019 The show shifts from standing circle to ascending rows of chairs, then back to the cipher. Dasun Imanuel, Essence, "Street Dance Evolves From The Subway To Centerstage In The Powerful Performance 'Maze'," 28 Aug. 2019 Because of a confounding set of circumstances, this intriguing target has remained a cipher—at least, until now. Corey S. Powell, Scientific American, "The Hunt Is on for Alpha Centauri’s Planets," 5 Aug. 2019 In addition, Andrej proves more cipher than hero — or even antihero — leaving us emotionally stranded in an unwelcoming world. Los Angeles Times, "Review: ‘Ladyworld’ with Maya Hawke,’ plus Bud doc ‘Kings of Beer,’ ‘Consequences’ and ‘Moop’," 1 Aug. 2019 Additional research into the A5 family of ciphers over the years has turned up other flaws as well. Lily Hay Newman, WIRED, "Hackers Could Decrypt Your GSM Phone Calls," 10 Aug. 2019 With their rich metaphoric ambiguity, gardens have served as ciphers for reflections on nature, the nation and the place of humans therein. J.w.s.w. | Berlin, The Economist, "The variegated symbolism of gardens in art," 1 Aug. 2019 Even the dining room is a cipher: Designed by Lundberg Design, the company that also worked on Mourad and Bluestem Brasserie, the room’s bare concrete walls are decorated with a smattering of anonymous glazed pottery pieces. Soleil Ho,, "At Maum in Palo Alto, a tasting menu that celebrates Korean American classics," 8 Aug. 2019 The report, with its titillating redactions, copious footnotes, mind-numbing legal jargon and endlessly intricate details, dates and code names, is a cipher for fraught political times. Jessica Gelt, Los Angeles Times, "How the Mueller report became a live-theater summer sensation," 20 July 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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Statistics for cipher

Last Updated

26 Sep 2019

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

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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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).


to wander slowly or to speak indistinctly

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