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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 9 may be a different word.[1]



cipher (plural ciphers)

  1. A numeric character.
  2. Any text character.
    • 1614, Walter Ralegh [i.e., Walter Raleigh], The Historie of the World [], London: [] William Stansby for Walter Burre, [], OCLC 37026674, (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; a device; a monogram.
    a painter's cipher, an engraver's cipher, etc.
  4. A method of transforming a text in order to conceal its meaning.
    The message was written in a simple cipher. Anyone could figure it out.
    • 1724, [Gilbert] Burnet, [Gilbert Burnet Jr.], editor, Bishop Burnet’s History of His Own Time. [], volume (please specify |volume=I or II), London: [] Thomas Ward [], OCLC 863504080:
      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.
  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. A hip-hop jam session.[2]
  10. The path (usually circular) shared cannabis takes through a group, an occasion of cannabis smoking.
  11. Someone or something of no importance; a nonentity
  12. (dated) Zero.


  • (numeric character): number, numeral
  • (method for concealing the meaning of text): code
  • (cryptographic system using an algorithm):
  • (ciphertext):
  • (a grouping of three digits in a number, especially when delimited):
  • (design of interlacing initials): monogram
  • (fault in an organ valve causing a pipe to sound continuously):
  • (hip-hop jam session):
  • (path that shared cannabis takes through a group):
  • (someone or something of no importance): (person): nobody, nonentity, see also Thesaurus:nonentity; (thing) nonentity, nothing, nullity
  • (obsolete: zero): naught/nought, nothing, oh, zero

Derived termsEdit

Related termsEdit



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, Thomas Carlyle, Past and Present, book 2, ch. IX, Abbot Samson
      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.
    • 1890, Emily Dickinson, T. W. Higginson; M. L. Todd, editors, Poems by Emily Dickinson, First Series, Boston: Roberts Brothers, 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. ^ https://web.archive.org/web/20060213154654/http://rapdict.org/Cipher Rap Dictionary. Retrieved 30 November 2005.