Today’s word comes to us courtesy of my daughter, who texted me after a class in college to ask, “Have you ever done cyber as a word of the week? Mr. Schulman was just telling us about it! Look it up!” So, having trained my whole family to be so word-of-the-week minded, how could I do anything but obey? 😉
To us today, this word-forming element, usually used as a prefix, means one thing: the internet. Cyber– is reserved for things that live online or promise access to what is online. But…why? Ever pause to think of where this word came from? You’re in for a surprise!
Cyber- was coined by a US mathematician, Norbert Weiner, in 1948. Yep, you read that right. Looooong before the internet as we know it, we had the word. And it was actually coined as cybernetics. I confess I didn’t actually know what that means, not precisely. But upon looking it up, I see that it means now what it was created to mean 80ish years ago: “the theory or study of communications and control.”
Okay. So, knowing that was the starting place, we can see how the internet became THE means of both communication and control.
But let’s trace it back a little further. Why did Weiner choose this word? Best guess is that he based it on the French word, cybernetique, which means “the art of governing.” Makes sense, right? The art of governing IS communication and control. But then, where did the French get the word?
As it turns out, it goes all the way back to Ancient Greek (as so much does). The Greek word is kybernetes and it means “steersman,” or, metaphorically, “a guide.”
So from someone who literally steers and then metaphorically guides, we get the art of steering and guiding a whole people–government. And from governing, we get the study of what allows to govern–communication and control. And from the the means by which we moderns do that so instantaneously, we get anything that has to do with advanced technology.
A quote from New York magazine in 1996 calls cyber “the perfect prefix. Because nobody has any idea what it means, it can be grafted onto any old word to make it seem new, cool — and therefore strange, spooky.”
Yyyyyep. I think we’ve seen that borne out!