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Alternative forms[edit]


14th century. From Middle English cifre, from Old French cyfre, cyffre (French chiffre), ultimately from Arabic صِفْر (ṣifr, zero, empty), from صَفَرَ (ṣafara, to be empty). Doublet of zero. Sense 8 (a fault in an organ valve) may be a different word.[1]



cipher (plural ciphers)

  1. A numeric character.
    Synonyms: number, numeral
  2. Any text character.
    • 1614, Walter Ralegh [i.e., Walter Raleigh], The Historie of the World [], London: [] William Stansby for Walter Burre, [], →OCLC, (please specify |book=1 to 5):
      This understanding wisdom began to be written in ciphers and characters and letters bearing the forms of creatures.
  3. A combination or interweaving of letters, as the initials of a name.
    Synonyms: device, monogram
    a painter's cipher
    an engraver's cipher
    • 1834, L[etitia] E[lizabeth] L[andon], chapter XXIV, in Francesca Carrara. [], volume I, London: Richard Bentley, [], (successor to Henry Colburn), →OCLC, page 290:
      Just then, an attendant to whom the Queen had whispered returned; and taking a small case from her hand, Anne produced a bracelet somewhat similar to the very one with which Francesca had parted, excepting that it had her cipher, surrounded by a wreath of fleurs-de-lis. "Louis, will you offer this to Mademoiselle Carrara?"
  4. A method of transforming a text in order to conceal its meaning.
    Synonym: code
    The message was written in a simple cipher. Anyone could figure it out.
    • 1724, [Gilbert] Burnet, edited by [Gilbert Burnet Jr.], Bishop Burnet’s History of His Own Time. [], volumes (please specify |volume=I or II), London: [] Thomas Ward [], →OCLC:
      His father [] engaged him when he was very young to write all his letters to England in cipher.
  5. (cryptography) A cryptographic system using an algorithm that converts letters or sequences of bits into ciphertext.
    a public-key cipher
  6. Ciphertext; a message concealed via a cipher.
    The message is clearly a cipher, but I can't figure it out.
  7. A grouping of three digits in a number, especially when delimited by commas or periods:
    The probability is 1 in 1,000,000,000,000,000 — a number having five ciphers of zeros.
  8. (music) A fault in an organ valve which causes a pipe to sound continuously without the key having been pressed.
  9. (music, slang) A hip-hop jam session.[2]
    • 2011, “The World Is Listening”, in The Journey Aflame, performed by Akua Naru:
      They say no girls in the cipher, so I rock solo
  10. (slang) The path (usually circular) shared cannabis takes through a group, an occasion of cannabis smoking.
    Synonym: rotation
    • 1993, “Midnight”, performed by A Tribe Called Quest:
      As the night seemed darker, cops is on a hunt / They interrupt your cipher, and crush your blunt
  11. Someone or something of no importance.
    Synonyms: nobody, nonentity, nothing; see also Thesaurus:nonentity
    • 1724, [Gilbert] Burnet, edited by [Gilbert Burnet Jr.], Bishop Burnet’s History of His Own Time. [], volumes (please specify |volume=I or II), London: [] Thomas Ward [], →OCLC:
      There he was a mere cipher.
  12. (dated) Zero.
  13. Eggcorn of siphon.

Derived terms[edit]

Related terms[edit]



cipher (third-person singular simple present ciphers, present participle ciphering, simple past and past participle ciphered)

  1. (intransitive, regional, dated) To calculate.
    I never learned much more than how to read and cipher.
    • 1843 April, Thomas Carlyle, “ch. IX, Abbot Samson”, in Past and Present, American edition, Boston, Mass.: Charles C[offin] Little and James Brown, published 1843, →OCLC, book II (The Ancient Monk):
      For the mischief that one blockhead, that every blockhead does, in a world so feracious, teeming with endless results as ours, no ciphering will sum up.
    • a. 1887 (date written), Emily Dickinson, “[Book IV.—Time and Eternity] (please specify the chapter or poem)”, in Mabel Loomis Todd and T[homas] W[entworth] Higginson, editors, Poems, First Series, Boston, Mass.: Roberts Brothers, published 1890, →OCLC, page 115:
      So I must baffle at the hint / And cipher at the sign, / And make much blunder, if at last / I take the clew divine.
    • 1979, Octavia Butler, Kindred:
      Can you cipher too—along with your reading and writing?
  2. (intransitive) To write in code or cipher.
  3. (intransitive, music) Of an organ pipe: to sound independent of the organ.
  4. (obsolete) To decipher.


  1. ^ Cipher. (n.d.). In the New Oxford American Dictionary.
  2. ^ Rap Dictionary. Retrieved 30 November 2005.