Business in cyber

Posted by on September 13, 2011

The month of September is dedicated to online English here on Macmillan Dictionary Blog. We start the discussion with Stan Carey‘s exploration of the word cyber.

____________

Cybercafé, cybercrime and cyberspace are familiar words in our modern vocabulary, household terms now that so many households are online. The cyber- prefix has become synonymous with computers, particularly the Internet, but its original meaning is somewhat different, and it might easily not have risen to productive prominence at all.

The first cyber word in English was cybernetics, introduced in 1948 by the mathematician Norbert Wiener in a book by that title. It comes from the Greek kybernētēs, meaning steersman, guide, governor, and was originally used to describe the comparative study of control and communication systems in machines and living creatures.

Cyber- was soon adopted in other technological fields and came to have futuristic connotations: of exciting advances in how we communicate, and of new ways of being and interacting. As Internet availability surged in the 1990s, cyber words appeared and spread rapidly. Wiktionary has a very long list of them (see ‘Derived terms’, click ‘show’ if necessary), many of which failed to gain significant currency.

In some cases, the tidier e- prefix superseded cyber-, as in cybercommerce, which never caught on, and e-commerce, which did. But many cyber words are still going strong. Cyborg (from cybernetic + organism) remains popular thanks to pop cultural use and perennial interest in robotics and synthetic biology, while cyberbullying and cyberterrorism unfortunately show no signs of disappearing.

Cyberspace, one of the first and most celebrated cyber words, is still used sometimes to refer to the Internet. It was coined by writer William Gibson for his famous cyberpunk novel Neuromancer. In an interview with the Paris Review, Gibson described the first time he saw a computer small enough to carry, and he realised: “Everyone is going to have one of these … and everyone is going to want to live inside them”. He needed a name for the world inside and between computers – the virtual, computer-mediated environment that people would share:

So the first thing I did was sit down with a yellow pad and a Sharpie and start scribbling – infospace, dataspace. I think I got cyberspace on the third try, and I thought, Oh, that’s a really weird word. I liked the way it felt in the mouth – I thought it sounded like it meant something while still being essentially hollow.

It’s an anecdote to savour. There aren’t many well-known words whose origins can be pinpointed so definitively.

Comments (4)
  • You have me searching out all my old William Gibson books (last seen when I got to read them for an MA course back in the early 90s). It’ll be interesting to reread them now that most of us live part of our lives in cyberspace. I think you’ll find, though, that Gibson first used the term ‘cyberspace’ in ‘Burning Chrome’ (1982). Yeah, I know … nerd much?

    Posted by help4ielts on 13th September, 2011
  • help4ielts: Thanks for your comment, and especially for the correction! It was a careless mistake on my part. I haven’t read Burning Chrome, but I will try to. I agree: it’s interesting, and strange, to revisit past ideas of what the internet would be like; and who’s to say what shapes it will take in ten or twenty years’ time?

    Posted by Stan on 13th September, 2011
  • [...] at Johnson discussed language speed, while at the Macmillan Dictionary Blog, Stan Carey chronicled cyber- words, and Michael Rundell questioned preserving words that are [...]

    Posted by This Week’s Language Blog Roundup | Wordnik ~ all the words on 16th September, 2011
  • [...] “Business in cyber” is about the history and spread of the productive cyber- prefix, including a report from writer William Gibson on how he coined cyberspace. The cyber- prefix has become synonymous with computers, particularly the Internet, but its original meaning is somewhat different, and it might easily not have risen to productive prominence at all. [...]

    Posted by Grammar and sticklers « Sentence first on 5th October, 2011
Leave a Comment
* Required Fields Notify me of follow-up comments via email