1520s, "find out, discover" (a sense now obsolete); 1540s, "interpret (a coded writing, etc.) by the use of a key," from de- + cipher (v.). Perhaps in part a loan-translation from Middle French déchiffrer. From c. 1600 in the transferred sense of "discover or explain the meaning of what is difficult to understand." Sense of "succeed in reading what is written in obscure or partially obliterated characters" is by 1710. Related: Deciphered; deciphering.