Cipher - Etymology of "Cipher"

Etymology of "Cipher"

"Cipher" is alternatively spelled "cypher"; similarly "ciphertext" and "cyphertext", and so forth.

The word "cipher" in former times meant "zero" and had the same origin: Middle French as cifre and Medieval Latin as cifra, from the Arabic صفر ṣifr = zero (see Zero—Etymology). "Cipher" was later used for any decimal digit, even any number. There are many theories about how the word "cipher" may have come to mean "encoding":

  • Encoding often involved numbers.
  • The Roman number system was very cumbersome because there was no concept of zero (or empty space). The concept of zero (which was also called "cipher"), which is now common knowledge, was alien to medieval Europe, so confusing and ambiguous to common Europeans that in arguments people would say "talk clearly and not so far fetched as a cipher". Cipher came to mean concealment of clear messages or encryption.
    • The French formed the word "chiffre" and adopted the Italian word "zero".
    • The English used "zero" for "0", and "cipher" from the word "ciphering" as a means of computing.
    • The Germans used the words "Ziffer" (digit) and "Chiffre".
    • The Dutch still use the word "cijfer" to refer to a numerical digit.
    • The Italians and the Spanish also use the word "cifra" to refer to a number.
    • The Serbians use word "cifra",which refers to any number.Besides "cifra",they use word "broj".

Dr. Al-Kadi concluded that the Arabic word sifr, for the digit zero, developed into the European technical term for encryption.

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