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Where does the word cyber come from?

Does the word cyber sound dated to you? Like the phrases Information Superhighway and surfing the Web, something about the word calls one back to the early era of the Internet, not unlike when you ask a person for a URL and they start to read off, ‘H-t-t-p, colon, forward slash…’

But for every quaint use of the term (think of cybermall or cyberbabe), there are plenty of uses that come across as perfectly acceptable, such as cybersecurity or cybercrime. If you have any doubts about the continuing cultural relevance of cyber, consider that this week sees the debut of the fourth spin-off of the American television series CSI, titled CSI: Cyber. But where does that elusive ‘cyber’ come from anyway?


Before there was cyber-anything, there was the field of cybernetics. Pioneered in the late 1940s by a group of specialists in fields ranging from biology to engineering to social sciences, cybernetics was concerned with the study of communication and control systems in living beings and machines. The interest in how systems work is reflected in the etymology of cybernetic, which comes from the Greek word kubernētēs (κυβερνᾶν), ‘steersman’, from kubernan ‘to steer’.

The role played by cybernetics in the growing fields of computer science, biology, and engineering provided the term ‘cybernetic’ a futuristic sheen. It soon became apparent that the shortened combining form cyber- offered people perfect fodder for nonce formations. Starting in the 1960s and continuing into the 1990s, the English language saw a proliferation of temporary or nonce words based on cyber, including cybercubicle, cyberfriend, cyberlover, cybersnob, and even adverbs like cyber-sheepishly. The most lasting word creation of the 1960s, though, was certainly cyborg, which, combining the cyb- of cybernetics with the org- or organism, referred to a man-machine being with the capability of self-adapting to new environments.

Even though the term cyborg originated in a scientific publication, the concept quickly became the province of science fiction; the appearance of cyborg-inspired cybermen on the television show Dr. Who by 1966 and in Martin Caidin’s 1972 novel Cyborg served as the inspiration of the television shows The Six Million Dollar Man and The Bionic Woman.


Even though cyber- had been attaching itself to other words for more than two decades already, the term cyberspace only appeared in 1982, apparently coined by William Gibson in his science fiction novella ‘Burning Chrome’. According to its Oxford English Dictionary (OED) entry, cyberspace is ‘the space of virtual reality; the notional environment within which electronic communication (esp. via the Internet) occurs.’ Although other cyber- formations cropped up, including cyberworld, cyberland, Cyberia (punningly after Siberia), and cybersphere (which is actually attested to earlier than cyberspace), cyberspace remains by far the most popular cyber- term used to refer more broadly to the world of electronic communications, although its popularity peaked in the late 1990s

The emergence of e- and cyber’s negative side

Although cyber- once had a lock on word formations relating to the Internet and new technology, everything changed with the rise of e- in the 1990s and 2000s. Spearheaded by the now-ubiquitous email, the combining form e- has assumed cyber’s highly productive spot in tech word formation, even supplanting previous cyber formations with its own versions. For instance, you probably won’t hear websites batting around the term cybercommerce any longer; they are far likelier to discuss e-commerce or e-currency.

Despite the rise of e- formations, e- has not made much of a dent in forming words that relate to the more negative aspects of the Internet. Terms like cyberwar, cyberattackcybercrime, cyberterrorism, and cyberbullying are more prominent than ever. This may be due to the clearer distinction offered by the term cyberwar versus a formation like e-war, which does not offer the same clarity. News stories like the 2014 hacking of Sony (subsequently connected to North Korea), the recent theft by cybercrooks of $1 billion from 30 different banks worldwide, and cases of bullying and harassment over digital devices and social networks have only heightened the attention paid to these terms.

Given the rise in cybercrimes, it should come as a surprise to no one that CSI is jumping on the boat, which may in fact only elevate the negative connotations of cyber. While in some cases cyber may sound a bit old-fashioned, when associated with digital wrongdoings, it sounds anything but irrelevant.

A version of this blog post first appeared on the OxfordWords blog.

Image Credit: “Virus” by Yuri Samoilov. CC by 2.0 via Flickr.

Recent Comments

  1. Sigfrid Östberg

    And lest we forget, the cyberpunk genre is another negative ‘cyber-‘ with its flair for dystopia.

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