Linguist and lexicographer Ben Zimmer analyzes the origins of words in the news. Read previous columns here.
Earlier this month, Tesla CEO
to declare, “Dogecoin is the people’s crypto.” That tweet might seem, well, cryptic, to those not versed in “crypto,” short for “cryptocurrency,” referring to new digital assets developed using cryptographic techniques. Mr. Musk has been championing Dogecoin, a cryptocurrency that started off as a joke in 2013 named after a quirky internet meme dubbed “Doge” starring a Japanese hunting dog. Thanks in part to Mr. Musk anointing it “the people’s crypto,” Dogecoin’s market value has surpassed $6 billion.
“Crypto” is the word of the moment in the investing world and not just because Mr. Musk likes to use it. It appears frequently in financial news, as in CNBC’s headline earlier this week, “Bitcoin surpasses $50,000 for first time ever as major companies jump into crypto.” Business pages are full of the latest on “crypto trading” and “crypto stocks,” though many warn of a “crypto bubble.”
The origins of “crypto” go back to the Greek root “kryptos” meaning “hidden” or “secret.” The root entered Latin as “crypta,” which could refer to an underground vault or burial place hidden from view—the source of the English word “crypt.” Something “cryptic” has its meaning shrouded in mystery.
In religious circles, the “crypto-” prefix was wielded in sectarian squabbles, and it eventually spread to politics.
After Martin Luther died in 1546, controversies broke out in Germany’s Lutheran Church over whether some members secretly subscribed to the doctrines of John Calvin on such matters as the Eucharist and baptism. Lutherans who were suspected of surreptitiously harboring such heterodox views were branded “crypto-Calvinists.”
In religious circles, the “crypto-” prefix was wielded in other sectarian squabbles, and it eventually spread to politics to label people thought to be concealing particular ideologies: “crypto-communist” and “crypto-fascist” both came of age in the 1920s.
Meanwhile, the same “crypto” root played a major role in the study of codes and ciphers. As I discussed in a 2016 column, “cryptography” as the study of secret codes first came into use in the mid-17th century, but it took until the 1920s for “cryptanalysts” like the legendary code-breaker William F. Friedman to develop modern methods of “encryption” and “decryption.”
Cryptographic methods would crash into the world of finance starting in October 2008, when a person (or group of people) using the pseudonym
published a nine-page paper on a cryptography mailing list titled, “Bitcoin: A Peer-to-Peer Electronic Cash System.” “What is needed is an electronic payment system based on cryptographic proof instead of trust,” the author or authors wrote.
In 2009, when transactions in bitcoin were first carried out over peer-to-peer networks, observers felt the need to come up with a new name for this digital currency. The word “cryptocurrency” first appeared on Twitter in September of that year, from a user with the handle @hxn: “this is really interesting: bitcoin, the p2p cryptocurrency.”
“Crypto” as a stand-alone word previously appeared in other kinds of shorthand. In a 1947 speech, Winston Churchill referred to “70 or 80 pacifists or ‘cryptos,’” short for crypto-communists, in the House of Commons. “Crypto” also has been used often as a clipping of “cryptography” among those well-versed in code-cracking. Using a prefix to stand in for a full word can serve as a kind of insider jargon, as when “cybersecurity” gets abbreviated to “cyber.”
It was no surprise, then, that “crypto” would take off in the cryptocurrency crowd when bitcoin and similar assets made headway. New currency exchanges with names like “Crypto X Change” and “Crypto Street” began popping up (and often quickly disappearing). Devotees have envisioned a “crypto revolution,” and now there is a whole new generation of fortune-seeking “crypto kids.” Despite the enigmatic roots of “crypto,” the crypto wave is out in the open.
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Appeared in the February 20, 2021, print edition as ‘Hidden From View, Yet on Everyone’s Lips.’