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As crypto technology becomes increasingly pervasive, more and more people will need a working knowledge of cryptocurrency terms.
Let's face it: Cryptocurrency isn't just for geeks anymore. It has absolutely gone mainstream…
A number of Wall Street types, like hedge fund manager Michael Novogratz and Morgan Creek Capital Management CEO Mark Yusko, have become outspoken proponents of crypto investing.
Bitcoin futures are traded on the Chicago Mercantile Exchange.
And blockchain technology, which underpins most cryptocurrencies, is also spreading rapidly.
Major banks like JPMorgan Chase & Co. (NYSE: JPM) and HSBC Holdings Plc. (NYSE: HSBC) – as well as big tech firms like Microsoft Corp. (NASDAQ: MSFT) and International Business Machines (NYSE: IBM) – have integrated blockchain tech into their businesses.
In short, crypto is getting too big to ignore.
That's why we've put together this Money Morning glossary of cryptocurrency terms. It includes terms used by crypto "insiders" as well as technical terms. It also touches on the people and topics key to the history of cryptocurrency.
And we plan to keep it current. In fact, if you have any suggestions for additional terms, put your ideas in a comment at the bottom of this story.
Bookmark this page so that whenever you run across a head-scratching crypto term in a news story, on a company website, or just in a casual conversation, you can look it up here.
Here's the complete list of cryptocurrency terms, in alphabetical order…
The Money Morning Glossary of Cryptocurrency Terms
51% attack or majority attack: a type of attack that involves gaining a majority of the mining power for a particular cryptocurrency. A miner in control of 51% or more of the hash rate can "rewrite" past transactions. The main concern is a malicious attack that would allow a double-spending transaction – the movement of the same crypto to two different addresses simultaneously. In this way, an attacker could steal crypto from other unsuspecting users. However, a majority of miners also can act together benevolently to reverse a very large hack, as happened with Ethereum in 2016.
Address: a long string of letters and numbers (in the case of Bitcoin, 26 to 35 characters) that represents a destination for one or more payments. The network ensures all addresses are unique. Payments received to an address are visible in the public ledger.
Airdrop: cryptocurrency distributed for free based on some particular criteria. For example, to receive some airdrops, you had to prove you owned Bitcoin; how much you received was based on how much Bitcoin you owned. In other cases, airdropped coins are "earned" through tasks such as sharing news or downloading an app. Crypto projects use airdrops to generate interest in a new coin.
Atomic swap: a trade of one cryptocurrency for another made outside of an exchange and without the use of a trusted third party. Instead, it uses the "smart contract" feature built into most cryptos to ensure each party receives their coins (and can't cheat their counterparty). The Lightning Network is a platform that supports atomic swaps.
Bagholder: a person who owns a large quantity of a particular cryptocurrency. Usually used in a negative way.
Bitcoin: The cryptocurrency that started it all launched in January 2009. Trades under the ticker BTC.
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Bitcoin/Crypto ATM: a physical machine similar to a bank ATM where a person can exchange fiat money, such as U.S. dollars, for Bitcoin and sometimes other cryptocurrencies. Coin ATM Radar tracks the locations of crypto ATMs worldwide.
Bitcoin Cash: created in 2017 by a hard fork of the original Bitcoin protocol. The main difference from the original Bitcoin is that it allows for larger-sized blocks in its blockchain (and thus for more transactions). Trades under the BCH ticker.
Bitcoin Core: the name for the full node software that runs the Bitcoin network. Has also become a nickname for the original Bitcoin in the wake of multiple hard forks that have created multiple versions of Bitcoin, including Bitcoin Gold, Bitcoin Diamond, and Bitcoin SV.
Bitcoin.com: a website run by Roger Ver that purports Bitcoin Cash is "the real Bitcoin" and sells both BCH and BTC.
Bitcoin.org: an open-source website created by Satoshi Nakamoto and maintained by the Bitcoin developers. It's dedicated to raising awareness about Bitcoin as well as providing resources and information to general users.
Bitcoin ETF: a Bitcoin exchange-traded fund. A Bitcoin ETF will make it easier for both retail and institutional investors to invest in Bitcoin. Once the SEC approves the first Bitcoin ETF, other cryptocurrency-based ETFs are expected to follow.
Block height: In a blockchain, as the blocks are created sequentially, each block is assigned a number according to its place in the chain. Events like forks can be scheduled to occur at a particular block height, such as 478,559.
Block reward: the amount of cryptocurrency a miner receives for "solving" a block. Often, as is the case with Bitcoin, the rewards are halved at regular intervals ("halving").
Block size controversy: a fight within the Bitcoin community that raged from 2015-2017. One side wished to keep the size of the blocks at 1 megabyte; the other felt that the block size needed to increase to accommodate scaling of the network. The fight ended with the fork of Bitcoin Cash, giving each side the version of Bitcoin it desired. Later, the Bitcoin Cash group had its own split over further increases to the block size, creating Bitcoin SV (Satoshi's Vision) in November 2018.
Blockchain: the public digital ledger of all of a cryptocurrency's transactions, made up of individual blocks of data created either through mining or another process. It secures the transactions on the network and prevents double spending.
Blockchain-as-a-service: a cloud-based service, based on blockchain technology, offered by a company, usually to other companies. Both IBM and Microsoft have blockchain-as-a-service products.
Buterin, Vitalik: the Russian-Canadian computer programmer who created Ethereum. He remains one of the most prominent figures in the cryptocurrency community.
Cloud mining: the purchase or rental of a set amount of crypto mining power operated by another (typically a commercial enterprise such as Genesis Mining.) In this way, a person can mine crypto without owning or operating any mining equipment themselves.
Consensus: on a crypto network, a condition in which all the participants (nodes and miners) agree on the order of the blocks in the blockchain as well as the veracity of the transactions contained in those blocks. This the "normal" state of a properly functioning crypto network.
Cryptocurrency exchange: a business that facilitates the trading of cryptocurrencies for fiat money (such as U.S. dollars), as well as trading between cryptocurrency pairs.
Dapp: decentralized application – a kind of application that runs on a distributed, decentralized network, such as the Ethereum network, rather than a device such as a smartphone or PC. The best-known example is Cryptokitties.
Decentralization: the concept of having no central authority in control of a blockchain (other than the code that governs the system) as well as having dispersed infrastructure (nodes and miners) to prevent having a single point of failure.
Deflationary: a condition in which a currency gains value (i.e., buying power) over time. Some cryptocurrencies, most notably Bitcoin, are designed to be deflationary by gradually constricting the supply until it reaches a hard cap, after which no more coins will be created.
Difficulty: On a proof-of-work network like Bitcoin's, the difficulty is a number representing how much mining power (hashrate) is required to solve a block. The Bitcoin network adjusts the difficulty every 2,016 blocks to try to keep the rate of new blocks steady at one every 10 minutes. As more mining power is added to the network, the difficulty rises. If mining power leaves the network, the difficulty falls.
Dust: very tiny transactions (remember, cryptocurrency can be divided into multiple decimal places) that can clog up a network in large numbers. On networks with fluctuating fees, such as Bitcoin's, the cost to move a dust transaction sometimes can exceed the value of the dust itself. Users should try to consolidate their dust when fees are low.
Ethereum: a cryptocurrency created by Vitalik Buterin in 2015, Ethereum is second only to Bitcoin in market cap and influence. Built as a platform, Ethereum can run as a global, shared computer, making it Turing complete. That makes it capable of running specialized apps, known as dapps. In addition, hundreds of separate cryptocurrencies based on the ERC-20 standard run on top of Ethereum.
Faucet: a website that dispenses tiny amounts of cryptocurrency for free. Visitors earn crypto by playing simple games or performing some other task such as watching videos. Generally not worth the time or the effort.
Fiat currency: Money created by a central bank, such as the U.S. Federal Reserve (U.S. dollar) or the Bank of England (pound sterling). Many cryptocurrency enthusiasts believe fiat currencies will someday fail and be replaced by crypto.
Flippening: the unseating of Bitcoin as the dominant cryptocurrency by another crypto. The term became popular in mid-2017, when Ethereum's percentage of the combined market capitalization of all cryptocurrencies rose to within seven percentage points of Bitcoin's.
FOMO: fear of missing out – this describes the anxiety investors feel watching the price of a cryptocurrency skyrocket while they sit on the sidelines. Typically leads to poor investment decisions (buying at or near the top), but adds fuel to a strong rally.
Fork: changes to the software that runs a blockchain – the software run by miners and people operating nodes – that creates a new version of the cryptocurrency. Soft forks tend to be benign, either used to launch a new crypto project (for example, Charlie Lee used Bitcoin's codebase to create Litecoin) or to fix errors in a cryptocurrency's codebase (no new crypto is created). A hard fork usually creates a new, competing version of a cryptocurrency, such as the Bitcoin Cash fork from Bitcoin. In a hard fork, the resulting two cryptos share a common transaction history prior to the fork. In addition, people who hold any amount of that crypto before a hard fork own equal amounts of both after the hard fork.
Genesis block: the very first block of data created in a blockchain.
Halving or halvening: an event in which the block reward given to miners for solving a block is cut in half. Bitcoin has had two halving events so far. The first reduced the mining reward from 50 bitcoins to 25; the second reduced it to 12.5 bitcoins. Only applies to cryptos that use proof of work (POW) system.
Hash rate: the speed at which a computing device (e.g., mining hardware) can convert a set of data into a "hash" – an alphanumeric string of characters. It's described in hashes per second. So a "megahash" is 1 million hashes per second, and a "gigahash" is 1 billion hashes per second. The power of mining hardware is determined by its hash rate – the higher the better. The higher the hash rate of your mining equipment, the more likely you are to solve a block and receive the block reward.
HODL: a term that describes a crypto investor's determination not to sell regardless of price action. A person who does this is called a "HODLER." Originally a misspelling of the word "hold" in a Bitcoin forum post in 2013, it is invoked often by crypto enthusiasts on social media. Also understood to stand for the phrase "hold on for dear life," as derived from the component letters.
Hot wallet or hot storage: a cryptocurrency wallet connected to other networks or the Internet, and thus considered more vulnerable to hackers.
Howey test: a test created in 1946 by the Supreme Court to determine if an investment fits the definition of a security. Using the Howey Test, the SEC views most Initial Coin Offerings as securities – meaning they were sold to the public illegally. The criteria are: 1) whether money was invested; 2) whether the investor has an expectation of profits; 3) whether the invested funds are pooled in a common enterprise; and 4) whether any profits made derive from efforts and operations outside the investor's control.
ICO: stands for initial coin offering – a form of crowdfunding done in which an organization creates a cryptocurrency and then offers a portion of the total for sale to buyers. The money raised is used to fund the project, much as capital raised in a stock IPO is used to fund a new company. Some ICOs were later revealed to be scams that simply stole investors' money. Also, the format used by most ICOs runs afoul of the Howey test, making most of them illegal.
Lambo: short for the Italian luxury sports car brand Lamborghini. Another way of expressing optimism that a cryptocurrency owner will gain enough wealth from rising crypto prices to afford such a car. Often expressed as "When Lambo?" (See moon.)
Lee, Charlie: Lee is the computer scientist responsible for the creation of Litecoin, which he based on the open-source Bitcoin code. His brother, Bobby Lee, founded the Chinese cryptocurrency exchange BTC China.
Lightning Network: a second layer on top of a blockchain network that enables near-instant, low-cost, secure transactions by creating payment "channels." Plans are for the fully developed networks to allow for millions of transactions per second (a credit card system like Visa can process 45,000 per second). When fully developed and deployed, Lightning will solve Bitcoin's scaling issues. Lightning also facilitates atomic swaps between different cryptocurrencies.
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Litecoin: a cryptocurrency derived from Bitcoin's code base by Charlie Lee and released in October 2011. Employs faster block generation times than Bitcoin (2.5 minutes rather than 10 minutes), a larger maximum number of coins created (84 million rather than 21 million), and a different hashing algorithm.
Mining: the process of using hash rate power to solve a math problem, then verifying the most current transactions and adding a block of data to that cryptocurrency's blockchain. Mining is used in cryptocurrencies that employ proof of work, such as Bitcoin. The miner that solves the block receives a mining reward of a set amount of the cryptocurrency being mined. Mining success depends on having hardware with a high combined hash rate.
Monero: This cryptocurrency was designed with a focus on privacy features. It's extremely difficult, if not impossible, to trace transactions on the Monero network.
Moon: a way of expressing optimism that a cryptocurrency's price will skyrocket/is skyrocketing, as in "To the moon!" Another popular variant is "When moon?" (See Lambo.)
Mt. Gox: In Bitcoin's early days, Tokyo-based Mt. Gox was by far the biggest exchange, handling more than 70% of all trading. The name is actually an acronym for Magic the Gathering Online Exchange, as it had started out as a way to trade the digital playing cards for that well-known game. But the exchange was poorly run and subject to hacks – hacks that depleted its reserve of bitcoins. Mt. Gox went dark in February 2014, and days later reported the loss of 850,000 customer bitcoins. About 200,000 bitcoins were later found. But with the case moving slowly through the Japanese legal system, former customers have so far received no compensation.
Multi-sig: short for multi-signature – it means more than one digital signature is required to authorize a transaction. Adds another layer of crypto security. Also can play a role in smart contracts that involve more than two parties.
Nakamoto, Satoshi: the pseudonym used by the person or group of people who wrote the Bitcoin white paper as well as the original code that runs the Bitcoin network. This person or group remains anonymous, as all attempts to uncover Nakamoto's identity have failed. Australia native Dr. Craig S. Wright claims to be Nakamoto but so far has been unable to prove it.
Node: any computer that connects to the Bitcoin network is a node. A computer that maintains an up-to-date copy of the blockchain and is able to verify all the rules of a cryptocurrency is a full node. To run a full node requires a copy of that cryptocurrency's network software. Any type node can also serve as a wallet.
Paper wallet: a piece of paper that contains a private key and a Bitcoin address. Somewhat of a misnomer since a paper "wallet" can't actually store any cryptocurrency.
Peer-to-peer: the exchange of data – or in this case, cryptocurrency – between parties over a network without the need for a third party like a bank. The peer-to-peer concept is also used by file-sharing networks such as Bittorrent.
Pre-mine: when the supply of a cryptocurrency is created in advance of its launch, as opposed to the creation of supply over time by some method such as mining. Frequently used by ICOs.
Private key: a very long password used to unlock your cryptocurrency so you can withdraw it from your wallet to spend, sell, or send to another address. Losing or forgetting your private key means permanently losing access to your crypto. Anyone who gains access to your private key can steal your cryptocurrency.
Proof of stake: an alternative system for securing a network and maintaining a blockchain. In proof of stake, users put up collateral tokens of a crypto (their "stake") in return for becoming a "validator" of its blockchain – the same function as miners in a proof-of-work system. For each block, the network chooses a validator at random to record and verify the data. The chosen validator earns fees for performing that task; the larger the stake, the higher the odds of being selected to validate a block. Ethereum has plans to move to a proof-of-stake system.
Proof of work: As computers mine cryptocurrency, they expend computing power (measured by their hash rate) in an effort to be the first to solve a math problem. The winner verifies the next block in the blockchain and receives a reward. The computing power expended is the "proof of work" that tells the network the winning miner has earned that reward.
Pseudonymous: Most cryptocurrencies, including Bitcoin, are only partly anonymous. Because a cryptocurrency address is simply long string of numbers and letters, it offers some level of privacy. But it is often possible, with some effort, to link those addresses to individuals. Privacy-oriented cryptocurrencies such as Monero have additional code to make it virtually impossible to link addresses to individuals, and are considered truly anonymous.
REKT: a phonetic spelling of "wrecked." This term was borrowed from the online gaming community, where it describes a person who suffered an especially bad beat. In cryptocurrency, it means a severe financial loss: "When Bitcoin crashed in 2018, I got REKT."
Ripple: a source of constant confusion outside of the crypto community (and sometimes within it). Ripple is the company that created the XRP cryptocurrency in 2012. It incorporates XRP into its business of facilitating payments between financial institutions. But XRP should not be referred to as "Ripple," which is a common mistake. And XRP advocates will call you out on it.
Satoshi: the smallest unit of Bitcoin. One satoshi is equal to 0.00000001 bitcoins (one hundred-millionth of a bitcoin). Also referred to as "sats" for short. Named in honor of Bitcoin's creator, Satoshi Nakamoto.
Scamcoin: cryptocurrencies with no real purpose other than to fool investors, thus enriching the coin's creators at the expense of the investors. Most often found among ICOs. Sometimes used derisively by crypto enthusiasts for a coin they dislike, regardless of whether it is an actual scam.
Security token: a cryptocurrency backed by an asset such as gold, real estate, or other investable assets such as ETFs. A security token must comply with the Howey test. Allows for a single physical asset to be subdivided digitally among many owners (one gold could be split into 100 security tokens owned by 100 different people). The initial sale of this variant is called an STO (security token offering). Considered a safer, better-regulated alternative to ICOs.
SegWit: a portmanteau of the phrase "segregated witness," a technology introduced to the Bitcoin protocol in July 2017. By changing how the data is stored, SegWit makes it possible to squeeze more transactions into each Bitcoin block, thus helping to address Bitcoin's scaling problems. SegWit also fixed an issue called transaction malleability, which opened the door to second-layer technologies such as the Lightning Network.
Sharding: a process of slicing up a large blockchain into smaller pieces to make it easier for the network's nodes to manage. Instead of each node storing the entire blockchain, it need only process a part of it. Sharding allows less powerful computers to participate in a cryptocurrency network and aids scaling. Sharding is expected to be implemented on the Ethereum network by 2021.
Silk Road: an online market on the dark web (invisible to search engines like Google) that the FBI shut down in 2013. On Silk Road, people could use Bitcoin to buy and sell legal products as well illegal drugs.
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Smart contract: a "self-executing" contract that uses cryptocurrency as both the defining and the enforcement mechanism. The contract executes when the software determines that the conditions set forth in the code (and agreed upon by the participants) have been met. Once executed, the smart contract is recorded as part of that cryptocurrency's blockchain database – thus creating a permanent record of the contract.
Stablecoin: a cryptocurrency designed to have constant value relative to some other asset or group of assets. Most stablecoins are pegged to the U.S. dollar, though some are pegged to gold or other commodities. In theory, the administrators of a stablecoin should hold an amount of the pegged asset equal to the value of all the units of that stablecoin. So if there are 10 million units of a stablecoin backed by the U.S. dollar, the administrators should have $10 million in an account to back it.
Token: the actual "coin" of a cryptocurrency. There are three basic types: a utility token, which provides access to a product or service offered by the company that created it; a security token, which represents an asset; and an equity token, which represents ownership in a company (like a share of stock does).
Transaction fee: a payment associated with a cryptocurrency transaction. Fees usually go to those who maintain the network (in the case of Bitcoin, miners get the fees). Fees can vary widely depending upon the cryptocurrency, but are usually very small.
Trustless: a quality of most cryptocurrencies in which no party need trust another, a product of having no central authority. With crypto, the network processes a transaction and writes it into the blockchain (the digital ledger) for all other nodes to verify. This eliminates the need for a trusted third party such as a bank to process and verify transactions.
Turing complete: a programmable system capable of solving any computational problem. Some cryptocurrencies, such as Ethereum, are considered Turing complete – programs (known as Dapps) can be executed on the network itself.
UTXO: unspent transaction output – how a network tracks cryptocurrency ownership. Each time a person receives crypto into their wallet, it creates a new UTXO in that amount. All of the UTXOs in a wallet, and the amounts of crypto they represent, adds up to how much crypto that wallet holds in total.
Ver, Roger: One of the earliest investors in Bitcoin, Ver became a tireless evangelist for the cryptocurrency and earned the nickname "Bitcoin Jesus." Since siding with the faction that advocated for the Bitcoin Cash fork in 2017, Ver has maintained that Bitcoin Cash is the "real Bitcoin."
Wallet: a software program or hardware device that receives and stores cryptocurrency. Moving or spending the stored crypto requires the user have their private key. See hot wallet, hardware wallet, paper wallet, cold storage.
Whales: people or institutions who hold and trade large amounts of cryptocurrency. It is widely assumed that whales manipulate crypto prices.
Winklevoss, Tyler & Cameron: Twins who became known for suing Mark Zuckerberg for stealing the idea for Facebook from them while all three attended Harvard University. The "Winklevii" invested part of their $65 million settlement into Bitcoin, and have since founded a crypto-related enterprise, the Gemini Exchange. Their Bitcoin holdings are believed to exceed $1 billion.
Wright, Dr. Craig S.: an Austrian-born computer scientist who claims to be Bitcoin's creator, Satoshi Nakamoto. However, Wright has failed to prove that he has control of any Bitcoin that Nakamoto is known to have mined. Wright remains a controversial figure who also helped drive the creation of the Bitcoin "Satoshi's Vision" (BSV) hard fork, which he maintains is the "real Bitcoin."
XRP: see Ripple.
About the Author
Dave has been a journalist for more than 35 years, including 18 spent at The Baltimore Sun. He has worked as a writer, editor, and page designer at different times in his career. He's interviewed a number of well-known personalities - ranging from punk rock icon Joey Ramone to Apple Inc. co-founder Steve Wozniak.
Over the course of his journalistic career, Dave has covered many diverse subjects. Since arriving at Money Morning in 2011, he has focused primarily on technology. He's an expert on both Apple and cryptocurrencies. He started writing about Apple for The Sun in the mid-1990s, and had an Apple blog on The Sun's web site from 2007-2009. Dave's been writing about Bitcoin since 2011 - long before most people had even heard of it. He even mined it for a short time.
Dave has a BA in English and Mass Communications from Loyola University Maryland.