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Facile, yes; cipher, no

The City Paper has seen fit to proclaim my estimable colleague Jay Hancock the best columnist in Baltimore, writing: “He’s a facile cipher of the holy grail of finance. ...” While it may be churlish to cavil at the citation, everyone knows that copy editors are churls.

So, where did they get cipher? One of the common meanings of the noun is, The New Oxford American Dictionary points out, “a person or thing of no importance, esp. a person who does the bidding of others and seems to have no will of their own.”* They can’t have meant to say that Jay Hancock is a nonentity. (Can they?)

A cipher can also be a code, and perhaps they meant to suggest that he unlocks the code of finance. And, as a verb, it has an old-fashioned sense of “to do arithmetic.” Perhaps they meant that he can penetrate the arcane calculations of finance. Your interpretations are welcome.

Beyond that, decoding or calculating a grail is, if I have divined their intention, still a mixed metaphor of some clumsiness.

He is, withal, a fine columnist. They got that much right.


*You want to mix it up over a person/their, step outside.



Posted by John McIntyre at 9:37 AM | | Comments (10)


Not only that, but what is this "holy grail of finance" that he is a facile cipher of? El Dorado? A time machine that lets you go back to 1983 and buy Microsoft stock? A Ponzi scheme that never runs out of money?

I still remember watching with shock and awe as Pete Rodino nominated Jimmy Carter for President, referring among other things to his "moral turpitude."

Should have occurred to me sooner. Cipher as a verb means to encode, not decode. My guess: Someone reached for a thesaurus. Dangerous tool.

Did they perhaps mean "decipherer," assuming that's even a word?

As is so often the case, one can only conjecture what the writer's intention was.

"Facile cipher" strikes me as a veiled insult, no matter how you decode it.

The City Paper's use of "cipher" in this particular context was clearly off-base, and makes little sense.

I tend to agree w/ Dahlink's take that it almost comes off as a "veiled insult" directed at Prof. McI.'s colleague, Jay Hancock. The word "facile" can mean not difficult, or hard to achieve, and as our good professor has pointed out, one definition of "cypher" is zero, or a "nonentity'. Not exactly high praise.

Perhaps they were thinking more along the lines of the verb "to decipher", which would make Sun finance columnist Hancock a 'dechiperer', which I gather isn't a legitimate word, but is more appropriate in the context of their 'holy grail of finance' descriptive phrase.*

"Cipher" has a certain mystical, clandestine air about it. But as you indicated, John, in a followup post, rather than meaning to decode, or make clearer, as a verb it means "to encode". Mr. Johnson is clearly not trying to make all-things-financial even more difficult to understand than they already are for his readers, by couching his analysis of 'the market' in cryptic code, or puzzling encoded symbology.

Perhaps the "oracle" of the finance world would be more apropos, (in keeping w/ the mystical guru connotation), although Hancock would likely be the first to point out that predicting future events, or movements in the volatile realm of business and finance is a dicey proposition at best, and dangerous folly at worse.

That sociopathic schemer, Bernie Madoff, was in search of HIS version of the financial "holy grail", but unlike the mythic Jason and his elusive 'fleece', this Ponzi trickster was perfectly content in systematically fleecing hundreds of his trusting investors out of hundreds-of-millions-of-their-dollars. Try to decipher, or make sense out of THAT monumental mess.

*Linda Falco, you clearly beat me to the punch on the coined word, "decipherer".


Cipher has meant both encipher and decipher in its time, though the OED2 calls the latter meaning obsolete, and gives a single quotation (but it is from Shakespeare: "The illiterate that know not how / To cipher what is writ in learned bookes", from "The Rape of Lucrece"). Technically, enciphering is not the same as encoding: a cipher substitutes letters for other letters, a code words for other words, broadly put. Codes need not be secret: cable codes existed primarily to compress telegrams to a smaller and cheaper size, and the modern zipfile uses a systematic but not at all secret encoding of its input for the same purpose.

For me since childhood, "cipher" has been in the same mental drawer as Abraham Lincoln, and I googled to find out why. In his autobiography, Abraham Lincoln wrote: "Of course when I came of age I did not know much. Still somehow, I could read, write, and cipher to the Rule of Three." He uses cipher as a verb meaning "to work with numbers" in a specific way, one that is more about decoding than encoding. Given that the City Paper article refers to finance, I suspect it meant something like this, although the writer might have done better with "cipherer." A facile cipherer would be one who can readily understand and explain the arcana of finance.

Unfortunately, just as with "cipher," the word "facile" also comes loaded with negative connotations amid the positive ones. Besides the intended meaning of "proficient," it also can mean shallow, simple, unimpressive. So I'd say that this writer, reaching for a writerly phrase, has proven to be a facile cipher.

"Facile cipher" sounds snide and smirky. I don't think the f*in' (for you outlanders, possibly CP's most used word) folks at City Paper like Mr. Hancock.

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About John McIntyre
John McIntyre, mild-mannered editor for a great metropolitan newspaper, has fussed over writers’ work, to sporadic expressions of gratitude, for thirty years. He is The Sun’s night content production manager and former head of its copy desk. He also teaches editing at Loyola University Maryland. A former president of the American Copy Editors Society, a native of Kentucky, a graduate of Michigan State and Syracuse, and a moderate prescriptivist, he writes about language, journalism, and arbitrarily chosen topics. If you are inspired by a spirit of contradiction, comment on the posts or write to him at
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