‘Cyber' is everywhere, but what does the prefix mean and where did it come from?

Posted at 11:18 AM, Oct 14, 2014

A regular feature that decodes popular political phrases and words.

Where we’re hearing it

Cyberwar, cybersecurity, cyberattacks. Today “cyber-this” or “cyber-that” is in the news all the time and usually for pretty scary reasons. Retailers seem to be getting hacked on a daily basis, the federal government’s computers are targeted, and people’s private information is being stolen by criminals using code rather than a gun.

But “cyber” — more of a prefix than a word — hasn’t always been so ominous. In fact, it was quite the opposite back in the 90s when the prefix was sometimes linked up with sex to form “cybersex.”

Where we’ve heard it

Cyber originally comes from the ancient Greek word kubernetikos, which means “good at steering or piloting.” It morphed in French to cybernetique to mean “the art of governing.” With this definition the word cyber began to resemble its modern form.

But it was mathematician and writer Norbert Wiener who pushed “cyber” closer to everyday use with his 1948 book about cybernetics, or how people, animals and machines control and communicate information.

The cyber prefix was propelled into the mainstream in the late 80s and early 90s when a cultural fixation with technology and computers began to dominate pop culture. Science fiction movies such as “Bladerunner” and the novel “Neuromancer” left authors desperate for a way to replace digital — and cyber was perfect because it could morph to any topic. There was cyberpunk, cybertron, cyborg, cybercommunity, cyberchats, cyberbully, cyberlaw, cybserstalker and then, of course, cybersex — which is a virtual sex encounter via computer network.

According to Richard Holdren, a lexicographer at the Oxford English Dictionary, cyber just took off when it became clear it could be used to describe both good and bad things. In an interview with “io9” he said:

At that time you . . . seem to get a mix of positive and negative terms involving the prefix, which possibly reflects the mixed feelings people often have about the opportunities and threats a new technology can bring.

According to Annalee Newitz at “io9” the earliest record of the word cybersecurity came about in 1989, the same year that cyberporn began making the rounds.

What does it mean today?

As mentioned above cyber has become a bit more perilous today. Perhaps it has to do with the fact that the concept of good cyber-sex never lasted past the 90s but cyberattacks have grown in number and intensity. Or it’s the fact that the U.S. government is still struggling to prevent hacks and attacks over the internet. While cyberwarfare once felt like a concept from a far-off, future reality, today it has proved to be very real.