The Continuing Evolution of Cyber
I don’t think there is another word in the English language that provokes as much of an emotional response from information security professionals as much as ‘cyber’. In fact, half of the people who just read that last sentence are like yeah, but cyber is not a word it’s a prefix. (The other half probably just started giggling.) Unfortunately for them Merriam-Webster and the Oxford English Dictionary have both recently listed cyber as a stand-alone word as an adjective with the definition ‘of, relating to, or involving computers or computer networks’ which to me is an extremely broad definition. The Cambridge, Macmillan and Longman dictionaries all still lists cyber as a prefix but I am sure they will upgrade it to full word status soon. Can official use as a noun, the cyber, be far behind?
Cyber is generally understood to have originated in the Greek word ‘?Uß???????’ or ‘kybernetes‘ which originally meant helmsman, as on a ship, which came to mean ‘to steer’ and eventually ‘to govern’. Norbert Wiener chose this word when, in 1948, he entitled his book Cybernetics or Control and Communication in the Animal and the Machine It was Wiener’s work on the automatic aiming and firing of anti-aircraft guns during World War II that caused Wiener to investigate information theory. This was the first documented use of the word ‘cybernetics’ in English.
It took a few years but the use of cyber as a prefix eventually started to gain more widespread use. In 1960 the term cyborg, a contraction of ‘cybernetic organism’ was coined by Manfred E. Clynes, and Nathan S. Kline, in their paper Cyborgs and Space published in Astronautics. (The book Cyborg published in 1972 by Martin Caidin became the inspiration for The Six Million Dollar Man TV series.) Also in 1960 Raytheon built a computer they called the Cybertron. (Cybertron of course become the home planet of the Transformers in 1984.) In 1964 Dr Bertram Thomas coined the word Cybernocracy in a speech he gave at the dedication for a Xerox research facility, a term later used by census protestors in Germany in the 1980s. The sixties also saw first use of terms like cyberculture, and cybernaut. The TV show Dr. Who created cybermen in 1966.
The creation of the word ‘cyberpunk’ is often credited to science fiction writer Bruce Bethke in his short story by the same name in 1980. This gave rise to the explosion of the cyberpunk genre throughout the rest of the eighties However, according to author Pat Cardigan she heard the term ‘cyberpunk’ on the radio in 1979. She said that the DJ she was listening to said “There’s some cyberpunk for you” after playing Gary Numan’s Cars.
First use of ‘cyberspace’ is often credited to William Gibson in his short story Burning Chrome in 1982 and his novel Neuromancer in 1984. However, it was Danish artist Susanne Ussing and her partner architect Carsten Hoff who first used the term ‘cyberspace’ in 1968. They used the term to describe open and adaptable spaces as opposed to computer networks. However, Ussing’s use in 1968 has an almost exact opposite meaning than what Gibson inferred in his use of the word in 1982. As Gibson correctly points out in this tweet and this one, it would have been almost impossible for him to have been influenced or have any knowledge of earlier uses of the word, especially from a small art installation in Germany fifteen years prior. It was Gibson’s use of the word cyberspace and the meaning that he attributed to it that popularized the term and complimented the rising cyberpunk culture. This is what really kickstarted the use of ‘cyber’ as a prefix to describe just about anything. In fact author Douglas Adams probably has the most esoteric use of the ‘cyber’ prefix up until that point coining the term ‘cybercubicle‘ in his book Life the Universe and Everything (pg 82) in 1982.
By the early 1990’s cyber as a prefix was being appended to just about anything including cybersex. The term cybersex saw its first use in 1991 in the book Virtual Reality by Howard Rheingold. By 1997 academics where beginning to research so called cybersex addiction. In contrast we see the term ‘cyberwar’ make its first appearance in the Chicago Sun-Times in 1992. Your own personal environment would determine which term ‘cybersex’ or ‘cyberwar’ was more dominate. People involved in government, foreign policy or the military would have more exposure to ‘cyberwar’ while people who hung out in online chat rooms would have more exposure to ‘cybersex’.
By 1995 usage of ‘cyber’ as a standalone verb was fairly common. The phrase ‘to have cyber‘ in relation to cybersex was shortened into ‘to cyber’ where the noun became a verb and eventually just ‘cyber’. According to Google Trends usage of cybersex peaked sometime in 2004 and has been declining ever since to become pretty much even with the usage of cyberwar today.
By 2015 the term cyber had become so common that CBS created a spinoff of its CSI franchise known as CSI: Cyber starring Patricia Arquette. The show was panned by critics and viewers alike and was cancelled after just two seasons.
Today the Oxford English Dictionary has over twenty five entries containing cyber including as a stand alone adjective. Despite the lack of their presence in the dictionary people keep making up cyberwords. For example ‘cyberterminated‘ was recently posted to a widely read blog. Even respected outlets such as The New York Times will arbitrarily create cyberwords. In a recent twelve-hundred-word article The Gray Lady used cyber ten different times; four as a stand alone word and six as prefixes to other words including cyberstrikes, cybertools, cyberconsulting, cyberweapons, cyberattacks, and cyberoperators. Of which only cyberattack is currently listed in the OED.
Language changes over time, word definitions morph as people use them. In most cases that change takes time, a lot of time, generations even. But in some cases, as with cyber, that change can happen almost instantly. In fact, the change in cyber seems so rapid that in some cases the specific definition may be misunderstood depending on context. To prevent such confusion, it may be better to attempt to substitute other words and not prepend cyber to everything. Not to mention that cyber appears to be currently way over used as the 10 uses in twelve hundred words by The New York Times will attest.
If the word (or the prefix) cyber bothers you at all, or makes you giggle like a teenage school kid, it is time to get over it. Despite the rapidly changing and overly broad definition Cyber is part of the lingua franca of government and policy makers the world over. No matter how much you want it to mean or infer only cybersex it now means just about anything and everything else. There is even a twitter account, @cybereveryword, that does nothing but prepend cyber to every word in the dictionary. Information security is now known as cybersecurity. Even the current US President has decided that cyber is in fact a noun decrying during his campaign last year that “The cyber is so big.”
The change in cyber isn’t over. Its usage and meaning will continue to morph. Its inclusion in the OED and other dictionaries as a noun seems like a foregone conclusion. While I encourage you to try to limit your use of the prefix and word cyber to prevent confusion and over use The Cyber is here to stay, your puerile humor hopefully not so much.
UPDATE: 2017.05.03 Added citation for ‘cybernocracy’ Thanks to @marasawr for the assist.
UPDATE: 2019.12.11 Added information around the coinage of the word ‘cyberspace’ after William Gibson himself posted comments as to its origin on Twitter.
I am not an etymologist but if you have citable significant uses of cyber not mentioned here please let me know, would love to update this with additional info.