cipher

msalmog

Member
German, Israel
How strange that 'cipher' should figure inter alia as 'nonentity', probably because cipher means zero among other things, yet ciphers are also numbers in general, e.g the German 'Ziffer'. How do we explain this phenomenon?
Incidentally, I tried to bring it up in within a general language group on Word Reference Forum, but did not find the suitable one. I even failed to log-in, for some obscure reason.
Anyway, whoever gets this post and has some explanation to offer, pls. do!

Almog
 
  • la grive solitaire

    Senior Member
    United States, English
    Hi Almog,

    So, is your question: Why is cipher translated as nonentity or zero when it can also mean or represent a number? If not, would you clarify?
     

    Tabac

    Senior Member
    U. S. - English
    The Turkish word for 'zero' is 'sifir' (written without dots on the i's), the two vowels sounding much like schwa. Not sure of the source of the word, but it could actually be Turkish, rather than Arabic.

    Edit from another board: Zero Etymology: French or Italian; French zéro, from Italian zero, from Medieval Latin zephirum, from Arabic sifr
    Cipher Etymology: Middle English, from Medieval Latin cifra, from Arabic sifr empty, cipher, zero
     

    panjandrum

    Lapsed Moderator
    English-Ireland (top end)
    Looking at the examples given in the OED, cypher (cipher) appeared in English meaning zero around 1400. To be fussy, it meant the 0, the symbol, the character, not the mathematical concept of zero.

    It seems to have been extended to the other digits over time. A quote from 1640 Of those ten [figures] one doth signifie nothing..and is privately called a Cypher, though all the other sometime be likewise named.

    Cypher, meaning a nonentity, a person who holds a position but has no merit of his own, is recorded from 1579.

    So it seems that the meaning of cypher extended in two ways over the same period of time.
    Originally meaning a symbol with no intrinsic value, it extended to mean a person of no intrinsic value.
    Originally meaning a symbol used to represent zero when writing decimal numbers, it extended to mean a symbol used to represent any of the decimal digits.
     

    msalmog

    Member
    German, Israel
    Hi,
    Thank you all for your valuable contributions. Following the idea that the origin may be Turkish rather than Arabic, I came across an explanation by the late linguist E.Y.Kutscher (of the Hebrew University). He claimed that
    it came into Arabic from India.
    What a long way for a zero, a little nothing, as it were!

    Almog
     

    foxfirebrand

    Senior Member
    Southern AE greatly modified by a 1st-generation Scottish-American mother, and growing up abroad.
    Since nobody took up the topic of cypher and nonentity, I see no real contradiction in the fact that the first word also means number or integer. The phrase "just a number" is also in common use to denote a nonentity-- or the way people are made to feel in an alienated society in which they are all reduced anonymous "cyphers."
    .
     

    swyves

    Senior Member
    UK English, Living in Peru
    "U 0 a 0, but I 0 thee
    O 0 no 0, but O 0 me.
    O let not my 0 a mere 0 go,
    But 0 my 0 I 0 thee so."

    which deciphers to read

    "You sigh for a cipher, but I sigh for thee
    O sigh for no cipher, but O sigh for me.
    O let not my sigh for a mere cipher go,
    But sigh for my sigh, for I sigh for thee so."

    xxxx

    swyves
     

    werrr

    Senior Member
    The concept of zero and cyphers (=digits) came to Europe as integral part of positional notation (place-value notation). Initially, the Arabic word sifr (or its slight national modifications, esp. Latin zephirum) was used only as zero and using of positional notation was called counting (writing, using, ...) with sifrs since zero was the essential and the only new used term.
    The term for zero in vulgar languages was gradually biased to today's form but the phrase counting with sifrs was preserved in (mostly Latin) literature. Because of this divergence, the Latin phrase was gradually identified with counting with cyphers (and consecutively sifrs with cyphers).
     

    panjandrum

    Lapsed Moderator
    English-Ireland (top end)
    swyves said:
    "U 0 a 0, but I 0 thee
    O 0 no 0, but O 0 me.
    O let not my 0 a mere 0 go,
    But 0 my 0 I 0 thee so."
    which deciphers to read

    You love a love, but I love thee
    Oh love no love, but O love me.
    Oh let not my love a mere love go,
    But love my love I love thee so.

    Well really!!

    (Though swyves version is better, this is how I read it first)
     

    maxiogee

    Banned
    English
    I'm nonplussed about the apparent confusion over the various meanings of cipher — when one thinks of it as a symbol for something else, the multiple meanings become plain.
     

    msalmog

    Member
    German, Israel
    Plain? Seems to me that we have come across a hard nut here, unless you are familiar with the mathematical underpinnigs.
    Being an ignoramus in this field, I am most grateful for the contributions that opened my eyes to the complexity of little 'cypher'.
    Almog
     
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