It’s an issue of definitions.  Semiotics, linguists, cryptologists, and the lay public apply the word “code” differently.  I lean more towards a contextual delineation with narrower applications within that context.  For example, there are social conventions that can be considered a code of behavior and I think the word use is perfectly acceptable in that context.  A bit of code or the “source code” is obviously a computer reference and the distinct context does not invalidate social codes of conduct.  I think even Umberto Eco respected the fact that there is no over-arching universal linguistic archetype to establish as the one true meaning of any word.  Communication is a product of society and while there is a mutually interdependent relationship between the two, in the end, humanity uses communication and not the other way around.  Our use of any word changes over time and any attempt to codify (pun intended) the meaning of any word or series of words is actually interfering with the natural selection constantly at work in language.  It opens a controversial allusion to the Endangered Species program when you consider that trying to save some blue-tufted sparrow of wherever is the same thing as trying to preserve the use of queachy, wedfellow or janglesome.

I assume most folks who are debating Morse Code as code or cipher are considering it in the context of cryptology.

Truth be told, it’s neither. It’s an issue of public perception and the convention that developed to call it Morse “code”. Morse code is closer to enciphering in theory but is not actually a cipher and while it is called a code, it’s not actually that either. A cipher involves transforming the message in some way to hide it from unwanted eyes. A code is a shorthand method of communicating via innocuous words, phrases or numbers that can be compared to a pre-existing agreed meaning to allow the message to be uncovered.

Reading further I find that it’s basically a condition of what is generally accepted to be a code versus a cipher. Noth discusses semiotic autonomy but I think we can try a simpler tack since this is probably outside most of our fields of expertise.

I would support a claim that the difference lies in the intent.

Morse code was designed as a rhythmic transmission of telegraphic information and the method is constrained to the limits of early radio technology. It was meant as an electronic means of communication, not as a means to hide information from those trying to read it. It’s in the same category as many other language systems such as Japanese, French, Cyrillic, semaphore and sign language. The intent in these has also been communication, not secrecy. It is possible to work within the confines of a set language type to conceal or hide but the intent of the symbolic language as a whole is communication.

Ciphers are means of distorting or hiding the true meaning of a message so that only select parties (in theory) will be able to view it.

Linguistics and similar disciplines will be able to provide far more refined definitions and explanations but if you’re looking for a quick and dirty answer, that’s the best I think we can hope for as non-experts.

Folks are finding me with this question and in the process of trying to find the answer, I found a little gem that may help broaden the search for the “masking” technique used in K4… let us go, to the wonderful land of semiotics!

Excerpt from Handbook of Semiotics by Winfried Noth:

Kryptos cloaking

I’m interested in his references to “cloaking” mechanisms. Is he referring only to “codes”, or more general methods to distort a message outside of cipher techniques?

Kryptos Fan