• 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: English and other European languages have adopted quite a few Arabic scientific words. Alongside algebra, algorithm, zenith, and azimuth, we find today's Good Word. This word came to Middle English as cifre, borrowed from Old French, which inherited it from Medieval Latin cifra "zero, nothing". Cifra was transliterated from Arabic sifr "zero, empty, nothing", a noun based on the verb safira "to be empty". It was imported to Europe along with the Arabic numeral system that we use today. At first it meant "zero", and was even used to refer to people who are "zeros". But that meaning soon expanded to any number and thence, because the first codes were usually written in numbers, to encoding. (We want to make sure that Ed Pellicciotti can cipher these few words of gratitude to him for suggesting today's Good Word.)
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