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

Keep scrolling for more

Synonyms for cipher

Synonyms: Noun

Synonyms: Verb

Visit the Thesaurus for More 

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
See More
Recent Examples on the Web: Noun Yet the series’s star may also be its biggest cipher. Sarah Bahr, New York Times, "Feeling a Bit Cramped? ‘Couples Therapy’ May Look Familiar," 16 Apr. 2021 Biden is a Potemkin village cipher fronting for a party that won’t stand up to the socialist-woke madness destroying what was once the freest and most prosperous country in world history. Matt Labash, The New Republic, "An Epic Debate on Trump and True Evangelicalism," 5 Apr. 2021 This is surely so, but the subject demands a colder, less prejudiced eye, one better attuned to detail and less apt to see in the misery of others a cipher for private ordeals or an occasion for the display of virtues. Adrian Nathan West, Washington Examiner, "Smash, Champ, Huck, Porkchop," 4 Mar. 2021 These are sets of numbers that a mathematical algorithm generates for a unique user, encoded with a cipher. Yec, Forbes, "Digital Signature Functionality For B2B E-Commerce," 1 Mar. 2021 In a different, less capable production, Jill could be a cipher, simply there to add a female voice to a mostly male cast. Kelly Lawler, USA TODAY, "Review: HBO Max's AIDS crisis drama 'It's A Sin' is the best show of 2021 so far," 22 Feb. 2021 Levinson and his collaborators seek to make, rather than being a revelatory window into a character that sometimes felt like a cipher. Angelica Jade Bastién, Vulture, "Euphoria Special Recap: Most Girls," 25 Jan. 2021 This assassination game puts you in the shoes of Agent 47, a cipher who plans out kills like a series of puzzles in large locations ripe with opportunity. Washington Post, "The most anticipated games of 2021," 29 Dec. 2020 Months earlier the paper received a cipher from the Zodiac Killer that had 408 characters. Robert Gearty, Fox News, "Zodiac Killer cipher cracked after being mailed to San Francisco newspaper 51 years ago," 11 Dec. 2020 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.

See More

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

Keep scrolling for more

Learn More about cipher

Time Traveler for cipher

Time Traveler

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

See more words from the same century

Statistics for cipher

Last Updated

5 May 2021

Cite this Entry

“Cipher.” Dictionary, Merriam-Webster, Accessed 13 May. 2021.

Style: MLA
MLACheck Mark Icon ChicagoCheck Mark Icon APACheck Mark Icon Merriam-WebsterCheck Mark Icon

Keep scrolling for more

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

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).


Test Your Vocabulary

Star Wars Words Quiz

  • cu jedi training
  • The bounty portion of bounty hunters (such as Boba Fett) comes from a Latin word meaning
True or False

Test your knowledge - and maybe learn something along the way.

Universal Daily Crossword

A daily challenge for crossword fanatics.

Love words? Need even more definitions?

Subscribe to America's largest dictionary and get thousands more definitions and advanced search—ad free!