Cryptocurrency Isn’t Crypto

For the love of all things glittery, you guys, here I am with this lovely platform from which to rant about language development around developing technology and what happens? Bruce freaking Schneier blogs about inappropriate language use around developing technology; specifically, that “Crypto” Is Being Redefined as Cryptocurrencies.

I am all aswoon; I’ve been a serious Schneier fan for a really long time. So you can take it to the bank (see what I did there?) when he says,

It is a stupid name.

Woot! Because it is a stupid name. And this is precisely the sort of ridiculous media-propelled distortion that leads to really bad language use (no, not that kind of bad language. The other kind of bad language). And if Bruce backs me up, life is good.

Turns out, Lorenzo Franceschi-Bicchierai (@lorenzoFB) also agrees with me.

As a writer, I try to remind myself every day that words matter. For example, when I write about hackers, I try to keep in mind that the word has a controversial history and can have a certain connotation.

(Gosh, where have we heard that rant before?) He goes on to say,

But this is not just a matter of pedantic semantics. As Green explained, cryptography is starting to matter more and more in meatspace, where regular people live, people who might not know about revived 1990s tech policy controversies. Think of the legal battle between Apple and FBI, or popular and damaging malware like ransomware, which often use cryptographic functions to lock files.

“If people know what ‘crypto’ is, they should know it as a real technology—not as some synonym for Bitcoin,” he said.

So if you care about this, please politely correct people who incorrectly use the word “crypto.” Or maybe make fun of it, as Ryan Stortz, a security researcher in New York suggested. In a chat, he joked that he wants to start trolling people by referring to cryptocurrencies as “Block,” short for “blockchain technologies.”

Honestly, though, whatever it takes. Our constant ally, the Merriam-Webster Online Dictionary, once again comes to the rescue. If you search “crypto” they let you know that it’s an abbreviation for the noun cryptography.

For a word having to do with secrets, "cryptography" has a surprisingly transparent etymology. The word traces back to the Greek roots kryptos, meaning "hidden," and graphein, meaning "to write." "Kryptos" - which in turn traces to the Greek verb kryptein, meaning "to hide" - is a root shared by several English words, including "crypt," "cryptic," and "encrypt." "Krypton," the name of a colorless gaseous element used especially in some fluorescent lamps and photography flashes, also comes from "kryptos." The name was chosen because the gas is rare and hard to find.

There is literally nothing in the word “crypto” that has anything whatsoever to connect it to Bitcoin, other than really sloppy reporting by people who don’t actually understand the technology they’re reporting on.

I think that if we in technology are capable of creating wonderful new things, then we are also capable of stopping and thinking (and perhaps doing a quick search) before using some reductionist, derivative, diminutive name for the wonderful new things we’ve created. Language has power, and the naming of things has power, and we owe it to ourselves and to the people who use these technologies to be clear.


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