What Does ‘Crypto’ Actually Mean?

This article is about crypto. It’s in the title, and the first sentence, yet the topic still remains hidden.

At Hackaday, we are deeply concerned with language. Part of this is the fact that we are a purely text-based publication, yes, but a better reason is right there in the masthead. This is Hackaday, and for more than a decade, we have countered to the notion that ‘hackers’ are only bad actors. We have railed against co-opted language for our entire existence, and our more successful stories are entirely about the use and abuse of language.

Part of this is due to the nature of the Internet. Pedantry is an acceptable substitute for wisdom, it seems, and choosing the right word isn’t just a matter of semantics — it’s a compiler error. The wrong word shuts down all discussion. Use the phrase, ‘fused deposition modeling’ when describing a filament-based 3D printer, and some will inevitably reach for their pitchforks and torches; the correct phrase is, ‘fused filament fabrication’, the term preferred by the RepRap community because it is legally unencumbered by patents. That’s actually a neat tidbit, but the phrase describing a technology is covered by a trademark, and not by a patent.

The technical side of the Internet, or at least the subpopulation concerned about backdoors, 0-days, and commitments to hodl, is now at a semantic crossroads. ‘Crypto’ is starting to mean ‘cryptocurrency’. The netsec and technology-minded populations of the Internet are now deeply concerned over language. Cryptocurrency enthusiasts have usurped the word ‘crypto’, and the folks that were hacking around with DES thirty years ago aren’t happy. A DH key exchange has nothing to do with virtual cats bought with Etherium, and there’s no way anyone losing money to ICO scams could come up with an encryption protocol as elegant as ROT-13.

But language changes. Now, cryptographers are dealing with the same problem hackers had in the 90s, and this time there’s nothing as cool as rollerblading into the Gibson to fall back on. Does ‘crypto’ mean ‘cryptography’, or does ‘crypto’ mean cryptocurrency? If frequency of usage determines the correct definition, a quick perusal of the press releases in my email quickly reveals a winner. It’s cryptocurrency by a mile. However, cryptography has been around much, much longer than cryptocurrency. What’s the right definition of ‘crypto’? Does it mean cryptography, or does it mean cryptocurrency?

Does ‘Crypto’ Mean ‘Cryptography’?

By far, the most convincing argument for ‘crypto’ meaning ‘cryptography’ comes from cryptoisnotcryptocurrency.com. The argument and conclusion are laid bare on a red background and the emoticon of incredulity. ‘Crypto’ does not mean cryptocurrency, it means cryptography. A helpful link to a Google search of ‘cryptography’ reinforces this argument.

Others have weighed in. [sarah jeong], senior writer for The Verge has given her opinion. ‘Crypto’ means ‘cryptography’. [Matthew Green], who teaches cryptography at Johns Hopkins, says this is the hill he will die on.

[Lorenzo Franceschi-Bicchierai] writing for Motherboard, shares this opinion. He’s written about cryptography for a few years now, and is even a fan of [Stephen Levy]’s 2001 book, Crypto. “‘Crypto’ does not mean cryptocurrency.”, says Franceschi-Bicchierai, and he has the evidence to prove it. If you search Google, Merrium-Webster, or even the OED for the word ‘crypto’, there is only one conclusion to be made: ‘crypto’ means ‘cryptography’.

It’s not just journalists and cryptography researchers that say ‘crypto’ stands for ‘cryptography’. [Ian Miers] is a post-doc at Cornell Tech, cryptography researcher, and very interestingly, one of the founders of Zcash, a cryptocurrency. He says, “Crypto means cryptography. Even to whoever coined the term “cryptocurrency.” That’s why they used it. What, did you really think cryptocurrency starts with “crypto” because of the Loch Ness Monster?” A valid point, even if it does invoke cryptozoology.

*cough* Greek Roots *cough*

Antipodes by Jim Sanborn is a famous work of cryptographic art. It makes no references to Bitcoin.

Even if all the experts and journalists in the world agree, it doesn’t make them right. ‘Crypto’ doesn’t mean ‘cryptography’, because ‘crypto’ is a prefix, and can be applied to many words. For example, writers for Vice and Motherboard are cryptofascists because they dictate the use of language to others. Cryptosporidium is a parasite whose spore has a hard outer shell, allowing it to remain outside the body and resist chlorination. It can lie dormant for many months — hidden, if you will. Cryptomnesia, a word with two Greek roots, is a forgotten memory remembered again.

The word ‘crypto’ comes from the Greek word kruptós, meaning ‘hidden’ or ‘secret’. For the past three thousand years ‘Crypto’, or however you spell that sequence of syllables, has meant hidden. ‘Crypto’ is simply a prefix. It does not mean ‘cryptography’, because ‘cryptography’ means hidden writing, and ‘cryptocurrency’ means secret money (or secret Lambos for those most invested in the culture). Think of it as English’s take on German’s compound nouns; words can be appended to each other to derive new meanings.

So what is this article about? An argument over a prefix. No doubt the argument will continue just like our defense of the word hack. But in this case ‘Crypto’ really does mean hidden. ‘Crypto’ has meant hidden since the time of Homer, and it’s not going to change just because of Bitcoin.

70 thoughts on “What Does ‘Crypto’ Actually Mean?

  1. I was just about to snarkily post that words and language exist to communicate ideas, and then caught your jab at the word “hack” at the very end.

    Well played Benchoff….well played…

  2. The idea that you can redefine a prefix for convenience is just stupid and lazy. “Crypto” may be slang for cryptographic but it too will die off as slang usually does.

    1. A prefix doing the job that prefixes are suppose to. Modifiers, and many more as we find other things cryptography can be applied to. Crypto-undies for when your secrets really need to be secret.

  3. “This article is about crypto. It’s in the title, and the first sentence, yet the topic still remains hidden.”

    You can hate on the article all you want, but that’s damn fine wordplay right there. Well played, Brian. Well played.

  4. “Crypto” is just lazy slang and can mean any number of things. It is the kind of thing that labels those that use it as a blend between a cool kid wannabe and a lazy no-good. So if I see an article using the word “crypto” it just flags it as something I can ignore, save time, and move on.

    1. I agree 100% Why was there not this much outcry when “drone” replaced model aircraft or quadcopter? Or when “Robot” replaced remote-control-car-with-a-lawnmower-attached?

      I wish there was… but the reality, as I have come to reluctantly accept it, seems that it is mob rule when it comes to using words and their meaning. That’s why I’d rather talk to a computer than a person. C++, Javascript, and Python understand me, and I understand them.

      1. I was and am still up in arms about drone being used to refer to any R/C aircraft at this point. I tried my best, threw some shitfits and still do. My definition of a drone is something that can fly itself at least some of the time. But now racing quads are “drones”, hexacopters: drones, Northrop Grumman RQ-4 Global Hawk; drone.

  5. I’ve been modded up, but mostly castigated for my “grammar nazi” ways. I’ve had a lot of fun on (other) forums where everyone seems to think they’re the smartest person in the room, but never learned to spell, much less use proper grammar. Brian, your just going to loose you’re mind here, failing to tow the line, and take another tact! Their going to crucify you for attacking their miths. And pointing out that English is not phonetically spelled (and when you use a spiel checker, you rape what you sew0 or at least not uniformly and accusing people of some kind of ‘bonics because it’s obvious they never actually learned to read real books…can go either way – the old guys are with ya, the young ones are insulted….and say if you could figure it out that it’s good enough. No, putting all the interpretive work onto the reader is lazy, insulting, not fair, and leave you illiterates open to any misinterpretation an adversary might want to use against you. Learn up – or there’s no way I think you’re smart at all, much less someone I should pay attention to.

    (As this place is _delightfully_ non-political, I’ll skip what partisanship has done to destroy the meanings of important words so we can’t discuss rationally and instead have to fight what should be our own families – CS Lewis covered it in The Abolition of Man before most here were born. It’s an old dirty trick. Worse than corrupting the meaning of hack.)

    1. “Brian, your just going to loose you’re mind here”

      On a quiet Minnesota lake, as the morning mists are fading with the night, he gently sweeps his rod behind him and as he feels the weight of the lure has reached its rearmost travel, he swiftly and forcefully swings it forward while releasing the drag on the reel. The lure flies to its target with the gently whizz of the reel as monofilament spools out with it. A quiet “plop” as the lure falls below the water’s surface…

    2. > “… on (other) forums where everyone …but never learned to spell, much less use proper grammar. Their going to crucify you for attacking their miths.

      Cute… I prefer mythes to myths, however.
      But I am the wirst typist. Worst… Sigh… 😔

  6. I use “Crypto”, in and of itself, to refer to the space involved in the transformation of money, wealth, and other economic elements, by the application of distributed ledgers (blockchain, etc…), tokenization, and other elements. I use it alone because then entire space is applying cryptography on top, and to say “Cryptocurrency” is to imply this space is only about the currency side. Crypto, as relating to cryptography to the securing data in a public space. If I really could have pull, I would say Cryptofintech as the space, with Crypto being applied to use of Financial Technology (Fintech). Pardon me if I use it wrong and offend some, but I feel I need to move the talk beyond just cryptocurrency.

    Words do change meaning, as do adjectives. You can look at “token” in the IT space, and it has multiple meanings.

      1. gregkennedy, when you hear “Crypto”, you are thinking of it as shorthand for “Cryptocurrency”. In my case, I realize the technology can be used to have the coins/tokens connected with actual assets, so it is less gambling than you think. To your own, however. You can think of it whatever you will. I think of it differently.

    1. Words DO change meaning, when the use of a new and originally incorrect meaning exceeds the use in the original sense. In the interim, though, it’s annoying as hell. Please stop it.

      1. Two definitions of token :

        1. a thing serving as a visible or tangible representation of a fact, quality, feeling, etc.
        2. a voucher that can be exchanged for goods or services, typically one given as a gift or offered as part of a promotional offer

        The two things (or four depending on how you look at it) in IT that quickly come to my mind are “two-factor/software/security token” and “token ring”, both of which fit those definitions just fine, in my opinion.

        In contrast, Merriam-Webster has six definitions, each with multiple derivatives, none of which fit as nicely to my examples. It was also really sad to see their 1.c. definition: “a unit of cryptocurrency. Bitcoin tokens”. On the one hand backing up Brian; on the other, continuing a new “debate” about another overused term, i.e. token.

        What kind of tokens in IT were you thinking of?

        1. Tokens in programming has a different definition. There is also tokenization, which is connected to this space also, which doesn’t mean applying a token claim on material assets (abstracting something as a value for exchange) but taking data in a database, and turning into a packet for security reasons, so data transfer is safe. I am sure they all relate to some base, but have different meanings. I found this out when I was saying “tokenization” and meaning it different than the tokenization which is used for passing secure data across a network.

      2. Crypto is prefix stuck in front of something to have it refer to the use of cryptography to protect privacy, and other benefits. It is shortened now to crypto, particularly by me, because it is being applied to a LOT of different types of currency and tokenized assets, and the technology behind it. Because of this, crypto gets used to descript the space. For a number, it is shortening for “cryptocurrency”. For myself, I would say “cryptocurrency” if I meant it. However, as I stated, it is developing a much broader use in a context that doesn’t even fit cryptocurrency..

  7. The truth about language is that it is a river. Never stationary, always moving and changing. So if you quote a definition, perhaps you need to add, “Circa 2012” or some such. Language isn’t defined by some authoritative organization. New words are recognized as they move into common use and are added to dictionaries. So arguing that a word should mean one thing, when the general usage is something else is just taking a leak into the wind.

    1. “New words are recognized as they move into common use ”

      Keyword being “new”. Misappropriating words is still not permissible.

      Otherwise I’ll just meatloaf you, blob ding dong. Permutation.

  8. “‘Crypto’ is simply a prefix. It does not mean ‘cryptography’, because ‘cryptography’ means hidden writing, and ‘cryptocurrency’ means secret money (or secret Lambos for those most invested in the culture). ”

    And cryptophilia, the love of tombs!

      1. The boob tube! It’s still here, YouTube. You can view it on a flat display.

        Cryptographic-currency. Somehow it appears on screens for a while, and then is hidden.

        My linguistic rant is over the redundant word “backstory”, a story about it’s self.

        1. “boob tube” was a generational re-use too I say. Original use of the “foolish or stupid person” definition to describe in the 60’s what watching too much TV would turn you into; co-opted by the youth in the 80’s to refer to the cable TV or satellite channels that young Johnny wasn’t supposed to watch [or at least not get caught watching].


    1. Before that, wireless radio was just called “the wireless”. I guess people just don’t like the word “radio”. And calling a television receiver “the telly” just doesn’t make sense, but it was out there, too.

  9. > “‘Crypto’ does not mean cryptocurrency, it means cryptography. A helpful link to a Google search of ‘cryptography’ reinforces this argument.”

    Is that the sequel to, “See Spot Run?” So many above, have nailed it. Crypto is a modifier. I was in crypto, cearances and all. This article smacks of, “Iam outta stuff to write about. Oh, like that Jerry guy’s show! An article about nothing…! Genius!” (…said all the 3rd grade grownups watching tv.) Filler more than Fodder.

  10. It’s just that I am disppointed…! Being ex-crypto, I was looking forward to an article about crypto… not an article about articles vaguely about correct word useage/utilization and trademark infringement. See Spot laying there, disappointed.

        1. Isn’t that the modern eBook version of “Dianetics, by L. Ron Hubbard”. With few reading real books and few late night commercials to pimp it to a new generation, you gotta do digital to recruit new converts to the church man.


      1. What is the problem with that word? Every word can be used in the wrong way, some words are more commonly misused that used properly – which then means the definition have switched.

        Cybernetics is a relatively abstract word for parts and the relation of those parts in a control system of any kind.

  11. Hah, I love how up in arms people get about stuff like this. People abbreviate words in ostensibly confusing ways all the time, but so long as there’s context it typically works just fine. Crypto does not need defense against being redefined; it’ll just get re-appropriated to the next semi-confusing topic that enters the popular lexicon.

    Anyway, the ‘crypto’ prefix is a totally valid way to make any word sound cooler. My favorite example is ‘cryptovolcano’ — meaning a volcano of unknown origin. Dr. Evil would be all over that as a secret lab — or, cryptolab if you will.

  12. For those interested, I would suggest the read of “The Code Book: The Science of Secrecy from Ancient Egypt to Quantum Cryptography”, written by Simon Singh. It is a very interesting book which deals about cryptography in a “historic novel” way.

  13. I once made a deparate plea to my superiors not to use the word “cyber” in our advertising. They meant it (as do so many other companies, alas) to refer to “cybersecurity” (ugh). In my crowd, of course, the term “cyber” refers instead to “cybersex”. It is amusing, though, to imagine that bunch of empty suits as having “global reach” in this area of expertise…

  14. Just as an aside from all the deep discussion and new meanings, ‘crypto’, in at least one aspect of the military, has been a term in use for at least 60 years. The crypto techs, or crypto maintenance troops operated or worked on the crypto machines. In all the systems I encountered these were electronic communications enciphering systems. The old military guys will recognize the names KW-26, KW-7, KG-13, KY-3 — all neat stuff to work on back when. Certainly, there are corresponding new crypto systems, and crypto troops to work on them.

  15. I get the arguments for words meanings only being what the people make them. There is no Ministry of English that gets to dictate to us what all our words mean. But.. what about the written word? When words change so quickly who updates all the dead-tree books or even old online pdfs and html pages to reflect the new vernacular?

    Nobody does!

    Popular culture seems to love to remake the meanings of technical words. What’s the result of that? Probably greater confusion and fewer informed people regarding technical subjects.

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