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Cyberspace – Podictionary Word of the Day

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William Gibson by FredArmitageThe guy who came up with the idea of a virtual world and named it cyberspace was William Gibson.

In 1982 there was no internet to speak of and computer games were in their toddlerhood.

I say toddlerhood because the game pong had come and gone by then.

Today whole sectors of western society seem to exist in cyberspace.

The term cyberspace is a great coinage but it is built on a slightly older term, cybernetics.

Cybernetics was coined in 1948 by an MIT professor Norbert Weiner. Weiner had worked on missile control systems during World War II.

When you shoot a missile at something your intention is to hit it and so you try to give the missile some means of staying on course. Today we are pretty familiar with feedback loops but Norbert Weiner was one of the guys who began to bring the sophistication of the modern electronics of the 1940s and ’50′s to feedback loops.

Feedback loops were used to control systems and machines. Weiner chose the name cybernetics because what the whole technology was trying to do was to control automated machines. To control machines you need a way to steer them and the Greek word for steer was kybernan. Similarly the guy who did the steering, the helmsman was kybernetes and so was born the term cybernetics.

photo credit_RLE at MITThe Oxford Book of Scientific Anecdotes has a few doozies about Professor Norbert Weiner. He appears to have been the classic absent minded professor.

He’d be so deeply engrossed in what he was reading that instead of looking where he was going he’d march down the hall with one finger tracing along the wall as a kind of feedback loop keeping him on track. Once this technique is reported to have led him in through an open classroom door, around the perimeter of the classroom, back out into the hall, and on along his merry way.

Another time his family had moved house and when he tried to go home he found himself lost. He stopped a little girl on the street and asked for directions to Brattle Street. The little girl was very pleased to guide him home because she was his daughter. He’d been so distracted by his dilemma that he hadn’t noticed who she was.

Yet from his coinage we have cyber-this and cyber-that. I count something like 30 different cyber words including cybrary which is an online collection of reference material.

Curiously a cybrarian isn’t the person who administers a cybrary but instead a person who’s good at helping people look up information on the web.

Of course I’d heard of a cyborg before but I hadn’t until now realized that this was a blending of cybernetic organism.

I think the word cybernation was coined too early and by too technical a source because although it should mean either

  • “to hibernate in cyberspace,” or
  • “a country that exists in cyberspace,”

the dictionary tells me that instead it just means whatever is cybernated has been automated.


Five days a week Charles Hodgson produces Podictionary – the podcast for word lovers, Thursday episodes here at OUPblog. He’s also the author of Carnal Knowledge – A Navel Gazer’s Dictionary of Anatomy, Etymology, and Trivia as well as the audio book Global Wording – The Fascinating Story of the Evolution of English.

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