What would you say is the definition of the word “cyber”? It feels, intuitively, like a prefix rather than a word in and of itself. However, here is what the Oxford Dictionaries suggest:
1. ADJECTIVE relating to or characteristic of the culture of computers, information technology, and virtual reality:”the cyber age”
And so, yes, when we think of the word “cyber” we think of it in relation to other concepts and words such as “crime” or “bullying”, or “age” as offered in this dictionary definition (although personally I don’t recall anyone ever using the phrase “cyber age”). Being associated with computers, it is a word that feels modern, and certainly the ideas represented by it are entwined with recent technological advances. However, the actual word and the sound of it derive from ancient Greek. The BBC has taken a look at its history in a brief magazine piece here. The original word – or at least the earliest version we have – is “kubernao” meaning “steer a ship”. This transliterated into Latin, from which an American mathematician derived the word “Cybernetics”. Norbert Wiener developed the concept after working on anti-aircraft guns in World War Two, and rather than being associated with computers it is an idea about exploring regulatory systems be they animal or mechanical.
Science Fiction took up the concept and popularised the association with computers. In 1966 Doctor Who had an unofficial scientific advisor called Kit Pedler. Between him and story editor Gerry Davis they developed Pedler’s concern about spare part surgery – which had recently resulted in the coining of the term “cyborg” – and invented the Cybermen. The connection was entrenched in the Eighties when author William Gibson invented the word “cyberspace” to describe a virtual reality. This was in the novel Neuromancer which, while now dated in its technological references, was massively influential among early internet advocates (see also Neil Stephenson’s Snow Crash).
Intriguingly, for a word with such a long history of evolving meanings the links between them are clear – a helmsman, controlling a vessel, through to the Cybermen and cyborgs under the control of a central program and directive. Perhaps ironically, Gibson simply made up the term because it sounded impressive and didn’t really mean anything. Yet today, its ‘meaning’ is, in most people’s minds, equally clear. Cyber, usually as in the form of a prefix, is taken to mean to do with the internet (as in cyberspace).
Language is, as we all know, constantly changing and it’s intriguing to note that the association with computers and the internet has been further enhanced by a portmanteau, employed simply because of its evocative connotations. A new word has resulted in many more, and slightly altered the original meaning, but that, of course, is what makes language so fascinating!
Rosetta Stone, Global Connects