‘Crypto’: Hidden From View, Yet on Everyone’s Lips

Linguist and lexicographer Ben Zimmer analyzes the origins of words in the news. Read previous columns here.

Earlier this month, Tesla CEO Elon Musk took to Twitter 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.

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.”