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.
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*
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.