The History of the Prefix “-Cyber”

Sarah Laughton

2003

 

[Note: I wrote this as the final project for a linguistics class, Structure of English Vocabulary with Adam Albright, Fall 2003]

 

The morpheme “cyber-” is a relatively new prefix coined to describe a new set of things and ideas and has very interesting derivation. “cyber-“ is used as a prefix, usually attached to nouns. It was originally used to form words relating to computers, the culture of computers, information technology, and virtual reality, or denoting futuristic concepts. Later it came to be used more specifically in terms relating to the Internet (OED online). More recently, “cyber” has also come to be used as a free standing word, generally as and adjective, with essentially the same meaning as the prefix form.

The first quotation containing a word using “cyber-“ as a prefix given by the OED is from 1966:   New Scientist 17 Mar. 709/2

“Starting from the fact that computers are already used in income tax administration, he goes on to suggest the coinage of a new word ‘cybernocracy’.” 

Though the next quote given using it is not until 1982 and it doesn’t seem to have become really popular as a productive suffix until the early 90’s.

This prefix appears in a few well established words and is enormously productive being used to form new words, often nonce words and brand names or names of web sites and on-line organizations.

 

Probably the most common and widely known word using “cyber-“ iscyberspacemeaning  “The electronic medium of computer networks, in which online communication takes place; virtual reality.” This word it first noted by the OED as being used in fiction by the cyberpunk author William Gibson in 1982 though The Jargon File says that it was originated by science fiction writer Bruce Bethke and/or by editor Gardner Dozoi. It later came to be used to refer to the real Internet and virtual reality.

 

“Cyberpunk,” is perhaps a somewhat less well known word (outside of geek culture and science fiction fandom, at least). It describes a sub-genre of science fiction “typified by a bleak, high-tech setting in which a lawless subculture exists within an oppressive society dominated by computer technology” (OED online).

 

A more newly coined but widely recognized word is “cybersex” meaning “Sexual activity or arousal through communication by computer.” The OED first notes this word in 1991. This word has also spawned a verb “to cyber” meaning “to engage in cybersex (with someone).”

 

Other examples include “cybercafe, ”a cafe or coffee shop which has computers and/or wireless internet access for it’s patrons the across the internet from) and “cyberculture” meaning “The social conditions brought about by automation and computerization; computers and (in later use) esp. the Internet viewed as a cultural phenomenon.” (OED online. First noted as early as 1963).

 

The OED online

 

The Jargon File jargon lexicon glossary also lists “cybercrud,” defined as:

1.      [coined by Ted Nelson] Obfuscatory tech-talk. Verbiage with a high MEGO factor. The computer equivalent of bureaucratese.

2.      Incomprehensible stuff embedded in email. First there were the “Received” headers that show how mail flows through systems, then MIME (Multi-purpose Internet Mail Extensions) headers and part boundaries, and now huge blocks of radix-64 for PEM (Privacy Enhanced Mail) or PGP (Pretty Good Privacy) digital signatures and certificates of authenticity. This stuff all serves a purpose and good user interfaces should hide it, but all too often users are forced to wade through it.

 

A web search also turned up a huge variety pf unique words and names which use the prefix.

 

Product Names:

 

CyberPatrol (http://www.cyberpatrol.com/) and Cybersitter (http://www.cybersitter.com/) both names of Internet filtering and monitoring programs.

 

Websites:

 

The Cyber Hymnal (http://www.cyberhymnal.org/) A web page of hymns.

 

Cyberdiet (http://www.cyberdiet.com/reg/index.html) a diet company on line.

Cyber-Rights (http://www.cpsr.org/cpsr/nii/cyber-rights/) an organization promoting free speech, privacy and accessibility on in the internet. 

 

The Cyber Museum of Neurosurgery (http://www.neurosurgery.org/cybermuseum/index.html)

 

CyberRentals (http://CyberRentals.com/homepage.html) a vacation rentals site.

 

Mimi’s Cyber-Kitchen Recipes (http://www.cyber-kitchen.com/)

 

 

And perhaps my favorite example: 

Cyber Goats (http://www.cybergoat.com/), a web site about... goats.

 

Terms:

 

“Cyber-Plagiarism”

“”Cyber-plagiarism" is the term used to describe the process by which students either copy ideas found on the Web without giving proper attribution, or the process by which students download research papers from the Web, in whole or in part, and submit the paper as original work. The phenomenon of cyber-plagiarism is affecting Universities around the globe.” (http://www.library.ualberta.ca/guides/plagiarism/index.cfm)

 

“Cyber-terrorism”

The FBI defines terrorism as the unlawful use of force or violence against persons or property to intimidate or coerce a government, the civilian population, or any segment thereof, in furtherance of political or social objectives. Cyber-terrorism could thus be defined as the use of computing resources to intimidate or coerce others. An example of cyber-terrorism could be hacking into a hospital computer system and changing someone's medicine prescription to a lethal dosage as an act of revenge. It sounds far fetched, but these things can and do happen.

(http://www-cs.etsu-tn.edu/gotterbarn/stdntppr/#Define)

 

 The prefix “cyber-“ comes from “cybernetic” through a twisted and not entirely transparent derivation.

The word “cybernetics” meaning “The theoretical study of communication and control processes in biological, mechanical, and electronic systems, especially the comparison of these processes in biological and artificial systems.” comes from Greek kubernetes, “governor”, from kubernan, “to govern.” (The American Heritage). Which notably has nothing at all to do with machines of any kind! The word “cybernetics” is first noted in the OED as being used in 1948. N. WIENER Cybernetics 19 “We have decided to call the entire field of control and communication theory, whether in the machine or in the animal, by the name Cybernetics.”

 

At some point, it is not entirely clear when or how, the word “cybernetic” came to be used to mean something like “consisting of both biological and mechanical parts.”  The word “cyborg” meaning “A human who has certain physiological processes aided or controlled by mechanical or electronic devices” (The American Heritage Dictionary) was formed as a blending of the words “cybernetic” and “organism” is first quoted in the OED as being used in 1960. I am not sure whether the use of “cybernetic” to mean “consisting of both biological and mechanical parts” or “relating to cyborgs” came first and the word “cyborg” was formed from that or if the word “cyborg” was formed first and the new use of the word “cybernetic” was a backformation/appropriation from that. The OED Online does not distinguish this meaning of “cybernetic” and thus does not give quotations for it.

Either way, the word “cybernetic” seems to have been reanalyzed as consisting of two morphemes: “cyber” meaning something like “mechanical, electronic” and “netic” meaning nothing in particular (as far as I can tell). This prefix “cyber” was then used to create new words for things relating to computers etc. and later to the Internet and virtual reality in particular.

 

Works Cited:

 

The American Heritage® Dictionary of the English Language, Fourth Edition Copyright © 2000 by Houghton Mifflin Company. (accessed online via www.dictionary.com)

 

The Jargon File

http://catb.org/jargon/html/index.html

 

The OED online

www.oed.com

Back to Main Writing Page

Home