Painting by Erika Pochybova-Johnson.

When we talk about the "roots" of secrecy, we are thinking about the etymological or linguistic precursors to the words we use to talk about secrets and secrecy today. When did the English words we most often use for secrets and secrecy originate? What did they refer to in these early contexts? How have they changed, and to what extent do they still exercise control over what 'counts' as a secret today?

Required Secondary Reading for UMN-TC

Peter Galison, "Removing Knowledge"

  • What terms, concepts, and distinctions does Galison add to those that are offered in this entry? Why are they important or worthy of consideration? (How) are they related to the other concepts listed here?

Kryptos and Steganos

Two of the most common words associated with official secrecy practices today are kryptos and steganos, which refer to two distinct ways to keep information hidden. Kryptos is the Greek prefix to words like "cryptography" and "cryptocurrency" while steganos is the Greek prefix to "steganography."

Although the prefix kryptos is Greek in origin, practices of cryptography are more often attributed to Arabic mathematicians and rulers who employed it to conceal state affairs and secure their official messages. Kryptos is a form of hiding that does not conceal the message from viewers. Instead, it changes the message in such a way to make it unreadable to someone who approaches it without knowing the proper key. Basic cryptography often worked by substituting symbols that would not be known to an ordinary reader. That way, even if a known secret message were stolen, it would remain illegible to those who intercepted it. A famous western example of this strategy of encryption is the Caesar cypher.

In the ancient Arabic context, cryptography was also an application of poetic arts to a context of war and government. Between 1069 and 1092, for instance, poet and King Al Moetamid Ibn Abad employed cryptography by substituting the letters of a secret message with “an ordered set of bird names. Then, he would compose poetry where he would quote the names of birds obtained by the transformation of the message, in the same order.”

Steganography combines the Greek words steganos (covering) and graphein (writing) to signify the characteristic “covering over“ of secret writing. When we think of information that has been encoded in plain sight, or on an inconspicuous surface, that is secrecy as steganography or ‘covered-over’ writing. Micro-dots are a contemporary example of steganography: the secret-keeper changes out outward appearance of the secret message without changing the message itself. Steganography is about putting secrets out of sight, not making them undecipherable.

In Greece, ancient steganography was used for war. A famous example of steganography consisted in engraving a message into stone and then covering the stone slab with wax. A second message was then written in the wax and sent to a second party. Upon arrival, the wax would be melted to reveal the hidden message beneath. The Greek use of steganography also objectified human beings. There are documented records of property-owning Greeks writing hidden messages on enslaved peoples to transmit such secret messages. The historian Herodotus, for instance, recalls the use of steganography by the Persian double-agent Histiaeus. Histiaeus is reported to have tattooed a message inciting rebellion against Darius I upon the shaved head of an enslaved person in his household. Histiaeus then ordered them to allow their hair to grow back before sending the messenger to near-certain death.

Ultimately, steganography concerns an unencrypted message but which is concealed such that it cannot be seen or read. As a final example, consider the technique of letterlocking in the video above, used by Mary Queen of Scots to send a message before her execution.  

Arcanum and Secretum

According to historian and secrecy scholar Eva Horn, the tradition of “secrecy management”  dates to two terms used by the Roman empire: arcanum and secretum. Although these concepts may seem outdated, the logic they describe still informs the way that people and governments imagine the need for secrets and secrecy.

The arc of the covenant sealed away in a massive government warehouse at the end of Indiana Jones and the Raiders of the Lost Ark (1981) is a contemporary example of an arcanum, a secret locked away from visibility or use. 

Arcanum is a term for secrecy that comes from the Latin arca, which means “chest,” “coffin” or “treasury.” As a form of official secrecy, arcanum is the secret that has been locked away and hidden in a container: it is not available because it has been put under wraps and is thus removed (by lid or lock) from visibility or use. Arcanum is also what philosopher Niklas Luhmann describes as a form of political time management. Arcana allow the sovereign to intervene ‘at the right time’ and ‘in the right place’ without the risk of being outmaneuvered.  It survives in the idea that some information cannot be seen or known for the sake of some greater polity. Revealing arcana would be the same as the end of empire. As a kind of secret, the arcanum can be authoritarian, dictatorial, or autocratic. There is no relation between those in the know and those who aren’t because the life of the empire depends upon their remaining absolutely separate.

A settler, panning for gold. Secretum is information as sifted apart through a sieve for the controlled release of information, while maintaining a distinction between those with the valuable 'nuggets' and those without.

Secretum is the Latin root of the word secrecy. It derives from secenere, which means “to exclude, to segregate, to secrete.” Secrets that fall into this category point to themselves as something that has to be sought or found out. Unlike the arcanum, which refers to a specific but hidden piece of information, secretum refers to a relationship between those who suspect and those ‘supposed to know.” It is secrecy as the controlled seepage of information. The Latin noun root of secenere refers to a 'sieve' in which information passes from top to bottom while some nuggets remain stuck at the top. The word “secret” literally refers to our passing awareness that secrets exist even if we do not know what they are or even who might know them. It is the form of information control; whereby concealment and revelation are modes of exercising political power rather than a mode of preventing the “end” of the social order. For example, conspiracy theories are between those in the know and those who don’t; they allude to something known not to be known. That’s the form of the secret, which structures a relationship between a public who is supposed to believe that secret secrets exist, and those who are supposed to know, who have the raw data or facts at their disposal.

Zero and Cypher

The word zero comes from sunya, Sankskrit for ‘void.’ This term migrated into Arabic as sifr, which means ‘empty’ and is the root from which the modern ‘cypher’ (Striphas, Algorithmic Culture). A Babylonian invention, zero’s earliest known function is as a placeholder to symbolize a blank place in the abacus. It was used to distinguish between numbers like 61/3,601/2,160,001 and 61/3,601/216,001 which the Babylonian system of written notation would otherwise represent identically.

From Charles Seife, Zero: Biography of a Dangerous Idea, p.15.

Zero is an exceptional digit, appended to existing number systems to indicate separation or distance between known values. The ancient Greeks “so depised zero that they refused to admit it into their writings, even though they saw how useful it was” (Seife, Zero: Biography of a Dangerous Idea). Zero is an exception to the rule of number because it represents an absence of value. Unlike every other number, zero has no value and does nothing to increase or subtract from them. It is not, for instance, possible to count "zero bananas" or "zero puppies" using the fingers of a human hand. It also has extra characteristics relative to other numbers because it begins the number system.

Secrets likewise symbolize a contradictory quantity. Secrets are uncountable and absent quantities marked by a positive symbol. They are the rhetorical “zero,” of speech, representation, and discourse in at least three ways.

  • Like zero, the names we give to secrets are added or invented terms used to account for a gap in a larger field of knowledge.
  • Secrets and zero are contradictory because they add a symbol to a larger system of symbols (either number or discourse) to signal something that cannot be symbolized.
  • Secrets and zero are "blank" in the sense that they are exceptional but are widely perceived as just another element of a (number or discourse) system.

Required Secondary Reading for UMN-TC

Peter Galison, "Removing Knowledge"

  • What terms, concepts, and distinctions does Galison add to those that are offered in this entry? Why are they important or worthy of consideration? (How) are they related to the other concepts listed here?

Additional Resources

On Letter Locking

Books and Academic Articles

Steganography, Cryptography, and Intelligence

To Cite This Page