• cipher •
sai-fêr • Hear it!
Part of Speech: Noun
Meaning: 1. Naught, the numerical value zero "0"; a person or thing of no value or worth. 2. A message written in a secret code or a secret code itself. 3. An Arabic number.
Notes: If you would like a more impressive way of spelling today's word, you may spell it cypher at no additional cost—and it will look more like a cipher in the second sense itself. This word may be used as a verb meaning (1) to calculate or figure (out) or (2) to encode, to encipher, convert to a secret code of some sort. The first of these meanings is a bit dated and the second is used less often than encipher "to encode", the antonym of which is decipher "to decode".
In Play: Today's word has become ambiguous lately as it assumed the meaning of "an Arabic number", which is a near antonym to its original meaning "zero". Today, we hear it mostly in expressions like this: "The password Quinton wanted was rejected because it didn't contain a cipher." I would assume this referred to any number. I haven't heard the verbal sense of cipher since leaving the South several decades ago, but Mark Twain wrote in Roughing It, "She puzzles her brain to cipher out some scheme for getting it into my hands."
Word History: Today's Good Word was taken letter-for-letter from Old French, where chevron meant "a pair of angled roof rafters". Since this set of rafters looks like an inverted V, other inverted Vs came to be called chevrons. "So what do chevrons have to do with goats?" I hear someone muttering. Well, the word chevron shares the same ultimate source as French chèvre "goat", namely, Latin caper "goat". How were goats associated with angled roof rafters? Some think it is because goats stand with their legs slightly splayed in comparison to cows and horses. Maybe. The herb capers has never been related to goats though the mischievous (even criminal) type of caper does come from the Latin goat word. (We might get Nancy Honeychuck's goat were we to forget to thank her for suggesting today's Good Word. So, we won't: thank you, Nancy.)
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