verb (used without object)

to use figures or numerals arithmetically.
to write in or as in cipher.

verb (used with object)

to calculate numerically; figure.
to convert into cipher.

Also especially British, cy·pher.

Origin of cipher

1350–1400; Middle English siphre < Medieval Latin ciphra < Arabic ṣifr empty, zero; translation of Sanskrit śūnyā empty
Related formsci·pher·a·ble, adjectiveci·pher·er, noun Unabridged Based on the Random House Unabridged Dictionary, © Random House, Inc. 2019

Examples from the Web for cipher

Contemporary Examples of cipher

Historical Examples of cipher

  • Better be forty-four and yourself, than a cipher belonging to some body else.

  • He had been succeeded by MacMahon, a good, brave man, but a cipher.

    My Double Life

    Sarah Bernhardt

  • He had received an elementary education; could read, write, and cipher.

    The Downfall

    Emile Zola

  • No message in cipher, nor any that is at all questionable, must be sent or delivered.

    The Destroyer

    Burton Egbert Stevenson

  • I told you the truth when I said that the cipher letter was an enigma to me.

    The Crevice

    William John Burns and Isabel Ostrander

British Dictionary definitions for cipher




a method of secret writing using substitution or transposition of letters according to a key
a secret message
the key to a secret message
an obsolete name for zero (def. 1)
any of the Arabic numerals (0, 1, 2, 3, etc, to 9) or the Arabic system of numbering as a whole
a person or thing of no importance; nonentity
a design consisting of interwoven letters; monogram
music a defect in an organ resulting in the continuous sounding of a pipe, the key of which has not been depressed


to put (a message) into secret writing
(intr) (of an organ pipe) to sound without having the appropriate key depressed
rare to perform (a calculation) arithmetically

Word Origin for cipher

C14: from Old French cifre zero, from Medieval Latin cifra, from Arabic sifr zero, empty
Collins English Dictionary - Complete & Unabridged 2012 Digital Edition © William Collins Sons & Co. Ltd. 1979, 1986 © HarperCollins Publishers 1998, 2000, 2003, 2005, 2006, 2007, 2009, 2012

Word Origin and History for cipher

late 14c., "arithmetical symbol for zero," from Old French cifre "nought, zero," Medieval Latin cifra, with Spanish and Italian cifra, ultimately from Arabic sifr "zero," literally "empty, nothing," from safara "to be empty;" loan-translation of Sanskrit sunya-s "empty." The word came to Europe with Arabic numerals. Originally in English "zero," then "any numeral" (early 15c.), then (first in French and Italian) "secret way of writing; coded message" (a sense first attested in English 1520s), because early codes often substituted numbers for letters. Klein says Modern French chiffre is from Italian cifra.


"to do arithmetic" (with Arabic numerals), 1520s, from cipher (n.). Meaning "to write in code" is from 1560s. Related: Ciphered; ciphering.

Online Etymology Dictionary, © 2010 Douglas Harper