How Does Cryptocurrency Work?

iStock/Marc Bruxelle
iStock/Marc Bruxelle

In September 2018, the Official Scrabble Players Dictionary added hundreds of new words—one of which was “bitcoin.” Sure, you can get a double letter score for it, but how does cryptocurrency work? And what about the other equally mysterious cryptocurrencies, which have been called everything from the future of money to a pyramid scheme? What is all this fuss about?

THE ISLAND OF YAP

One of the most popular metaphors for how cryptocurrencies work involves the Pacific island of Yap. According to NPR, the residents long ago learned of a distant island with large limestone deposits. The islanders brought back large discs of rock which they eventually turned into a form of currency—not for every day purchases, but for major outlays.

That may sound simple, but it’s not quite that easy. These rocks could weigh as much as a car, so when they changed hands they were rarely actually moved. The society just recognized that “this rock now belongs to person B.”

There’s even a story in which a giant rock brought back to Yap was lost when the boat it was on sank. The islanders dealt with this conundrum by having an oral transaction history, so everyone knew that the rock was not lost. It did have a new owner. In fact, you could argue that they had a kind of public ledger, because everyone knew how many rocks everyone had. Disagreements rarely arose because of the distributed nature of that information. This is akin to one of the most important elements of cryptocurrency: the blockchain.

At its core, the blockchain is just a ledger distributed across a network of computers, which are called nodes. Every time any transaction occurs, the network checks to make sure that it’s a valid transaction and the blockchain gets updated with a new "block," which serves as a permanent record of the transaction. This gets sent to all of the relevant computers—like the Yap islanders telling everyone about the change of ownership of a rock. The block is added to the blockchain alongside a code called a hash.

SECURITY

The hash is essentially a digital fingerprint generated by complex mathematics. This is part of the system’s security, as it takes time and energy to generate these hashes. As Reuters explains, any change to the input creates a new hash. By way of example, they explained that the extremely long novel War and Peace might have a hash like:

a948904f2f0f479b8f8197694b30184b0d2ed1c1cd2a1ec0fb85d299a192a447

While just deleting one comma from the text changes it to:

40115cc2aecc43ea86a7e54be6f7257abff7b43959cd728f06c0c7423039166r

By itself, this is not necessarily secure. But every new block also contains the previous hash as a kind of error check. If someone goes in to retroactively change a transaction (say, by deleting that comma in War and Peace), that block's hash gets updated to a new code. But the next block will have a different hash code on record from the previous block (it will be looking for the old hash, the one beginning with a948—but seeing the new hash, the one starting with 4011), so in theory the nefarious action will be discovered. There are potential ways to cheat this system. A computer faster than the other nodes combined may be able to rewrite blocks fast enough to work, but MIT Technology Review cautioned that even then “success isn’t guaranteed.”

CRYPTOCURRENCY

But cryptocurrencies and blockchains are not synonymous. Similarly to how the internet and world wide web are not synonymous, blockchain is a technology chiefly used for cryptocurrencies, though this may not always be the case. It’s increasingly being examined for use in other fields—and some even argue cryptocurrency is one of the least promising fields.

The crypto in cryptocurrency is a reference to the cryptography used to ensure that the transactions are secure. Up until this stage, it’s not particularly different from any other digital currency—when you send U.S. dollars over the internet, physical dollars are not changing hands. That’s true for any digital currency, of which cryptocurrencies are one.

But there are key differences—including that, traditionally, money is issued by the government or some powerful institution. Cryptocurrencies are created by algorithms. Another important distinction is how ownership is traced. Because there’s nothing physical to a cryptocurrency, the blockchain ledger is used to determine ownership.

There are also more nuanced differences. Because the blockchain ledger has to be transparent, all transactions are public, leading to many suggestions for how to best manage privacy expectations. As another distinction, many cryptocurrencies are limited to a set number—only 21 million bitcoins will ever exist, and it remains unclear what will happen when the final bitcoin is "mined." Contrast that with traditional currency, which can be produced in limitless quantities.

Not everyone is convinced that cryptocurrencies are the future. Speaking to Vox, Nicholas Weaver of the International Computer Science Institute at UC Berkeley explained that miners—the people who create the blocks and get paid for their efforts—are disproportionately powerful and serve as the central agency that cryptocurrencies are trying to avoid. Also, he argues that outside of nefarious purchases (like assassins or illegal drugs), there isn’t a point to cryptocurrencies. Due to price volatility, they don’t fundamentally work as a currency. There’s a famous story about a programmer buying two pizzas for 10,000 bitcoin—a sum that would be worth more than $80 million just a few years later. This volatility, according to Weaver, means that most companies claiming they accept bitcoin aren’t actually accepting bitcoin per se, they just instantly sell it for conventional currency.

Cryptocurrency fans immediately pounced on these comments, arguing that it’s an oversimplification and could be used to argue against other forms of currency as well. No matter what, the debates will continue.

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What is Wassailing, Anyway?

iStock
iStock

It’s easy to think that wassailing is some cozy wintertime tradition that’s fun for the whole family. After all, there’s a jaunty, wholesome Christmas carol about it! But the truth is, if you ever see a minor out wassailing, you may want to call his or her parents.

The word wassail has many meanings. For centuries, it was a way to toast someone’s good health. Before the Battle of Hastings in 1066, English soldiers reportedly sang:

Rejoice and wassail!

(Pass the bottle) and drink health.

Drink backwards and drink to me

Drink half and drink empty.

But, in England, wassail also denoted the alcoholic beverage you imbibed during that toast—an elixir of steamy mulled mead or cider. Sometimes, wassail was a whipped dark beer flavored with roasted crab apples.

Wassail was usually slurped from a communal bowl before, during, and after big events and holidays. It was supposedly on the menu during Lammas Day, a pagan autumnal harvest holiday that involves transforming cornhusks into dolls. It was also imbibed on Twelfth Night, a January holiday that involves lighting a fire in an orchard, dancing, and singing incantations to apple trees in hopes of encouraging a bountiful harvest.

By the Middle Ages, the practice of sharing a giant bowl of wassail—that is, the practice of wassailing—evolved from a holiday celebration to a form of boozy begging. “At Christmastide, the poor expected privileges denied them at other times, including the right to enter the homes of the wealthy, who feasted them from the best of their provisions,” Robert Doares, an instructor at Colonial Williamsburg, explained. The poor would either ask to sip from their rich neighbor’s wassailing bowl or would bring their own bowl, asking for it to be filled. According to Doares, “At these gatherings, the bands of roving wassailers often performed songs for the master while drinking his beer, toasting him, his family, his livestock, wishing continued health and wealth.” The original lyrics of Here We Come a-Wassailing are quite upfront about what’s going on:

We are not daily beggars

That beg from door to door

But we are neighbours’ children

Whom you have seen before.

Not all rich folk were happy to see wassailers at their doorstep. One 17th century polymath, John Selden, complained about “Wenches … by their Wassels at New-years-tide ... present you with a Cup, and you must drink of the slabby stuff; but the meaning is, you must give them Moneys.”

Misers like Selden may have had a point: Since alcohol was involved, wassailers often got too rowdy. “Drunken bands of men and boys would take to the streets at night, noise-making, shooting rifles, making ‘rough music,’ and even destroying property as they went among the wealthy urban homes,” wrote Hannah Harvester, formerly the staff folklorist at Traditional Arts in Upstate New York. In fact, boisterous wassailers are one reason why Oliver Cromwell and Long Parliament passed an ordinance in 1647 that essentially banned Christmas.

By the 19th century, wassailing would mellow. Beginning in the 1830s, music publishers started releasing the first commercial Christmas carols, uncorking classics such as God Rest Ye Merry Gentlemen and The First Noel. Among them were dozens of wassailing songs, including the circa 1850 Here We Come a-Wassailing and dozens of others that are now, sadly, forgotten. As the custom of caroling became the dominant door-to-door pastime, alcohol-fueled begging dwindled. By the turn of the 20th century, carolers were more likely to sing about libations than actually drink them.

But if you’re interested in engaging in some good, old-fashioned wassailing, the original lyrics to Here We Come a-Wassailing are a helpful guide. For starters, ask for beer.

Our wassail cup is made

Of the rosemary tree,

And so is your beer

Of the best barley.

Don’t be shy! Keep asking for that beer.

Call up the butler of this house,

Put on his golden ring.

Let him bring us up a glass of beer,

And better we shall sing.

Remind your audience that, hey, this is the season of giving. Fork it over.

We have got a little purse

Of stretching leather skin;

We want a little of your money

To line it well within.

Screw it. You’ve sung this far. Go for it all, go for the gold, go for ... their cheese.

Bring us out a table

And spread it with a cloth;

Bring us out a mouldy cheese,

And some of your Christmas loaf.

Thirsty for your own wassail? Stock up on sherry and wine and try this traditional recipe from The Williamsburg Cookbook.

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Are There Any Synonyms for the Word Synonym?

iStock.com/netopaek
iStock.com/netopaek

Some of the most frequently used words in the English language must have been created by someone with a devilish sense of humor. The word monosyllabic isn’t one syllable, long is only four letters, lisp is difficult to pronounce if you have a lisp, and synonym doesn’t have any synonyms. Or does it?

The answer to that last question is a bit complicated. Thesaurus.com lists metonym as a synonym of synonym, but their meanings aren’t exactly the same. The Oxford Dictionary of English Grammar defines synonym as “a word or phrase that means the same, or almost the same, as another in the same language.” Metonym, on the other hand, is defined as “a word or expression which is used as a substitute for another word or expression with which it is in a close semantic relationship.” For example, the crown can be used to refer to the queen, and Washington sometimes refers to the U.S. government.

There is another possibility, though: poecilonym. This is probably the closest synonym of synonym, although it’s antiquated and rarely used. David Grambs, a lexicographer for American Heritage and Random House, included it in his 1997 book The Endangered English Dictionary: Bodacious Words Your Dictionary Forgot. The word is pronounced PEE-si-lo-nim, according to Grambs, who pays homage to its obscurity. “Maybe we could all use a few spanking old poecilonyms,” Grambs writes. “Poecilonym? It's an old synonym for synonym that you'll find in these pages. But many words in this dictionary have no real counterparts in today's English.”

Allen’s Synonyms and Antonyms from 1920 also lists poecilonym and another word—polyonym—as synonyms of synonym. However, it says both of these terms are rare. So technically, there are two other words that have the same meaning as synonym, but it’s a tough position to argue when those words are no longer in modern usage.

To add another dimension to this question, some have argued that there are no true synonyms at all, as every single word carries a different shade of meaning. “Even though the meanings of two words may be the same or nearly the same, they almost never are the same in connotation, distribution, and frequency,” according to Dictionary.com. “House and home may be offered as synonyms for each other, but we all know that they are not the same.”

So if you want to start using poecilonym or polyonym in place of synonym, you’d technically be correct—but don’t expect anyone else to know what you’re talking about.

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