New WSJ column: Word on the Street

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For the past couple of years I've been writing a language column for The Boston Globe (and before that for The New York Times Magazine). Now I'm starting a new language column for The Wall Street Journal, called "Word on the Street." Each week I'll be focusing on a word in the news and examining its history. First up, cyber, which is showing up with increasing frequency as a noun.

From the column:

Director Michael Mann's latest action thriller is, at least tentatively, titled "Cyber." Mr. Mann is on to something: While "cyber" has been around for a few decades as a prefix and an adjective relating to computer networks, it has taken on a new life as a stand-alone noun, especially among military and intelligence types who use it as shorthand for "cybersecurity." [...]

This new spin on "cyber" trickled all the way up to the commander in chief. Last year, Barack Obama told graduates at the U.S. Air Force Academy that "we will maintain our military superiority in all areas—air, land, sea, space and cyber." At the Naval Academy, as the Navy Times reports, midshipmen will be able to major in "cyber" (short for "Cyber Operations") this coming fall.

Mr. Obama's formulation of "air, land, sea, space and cyber" holds the key to why "cyber" is succeeding as a 21st-century noun. Military power used to be deployed in the traditional arenas of land, sea and air, eventually joined by space. Now that list must be augmented as "cyberthreats" become as central a concern as any other for national security. With fears of cyberterrorism looming, "cyber" has, in a way, returned to its dark science-fiction roots. No wonder that Mr. Mann, a purveyor of gritty crime dramas, should find it so attractive.

I have to admit that I'm a bit surprised that cyber is coming back into vogue, now as a noun rather than a combining form. Back in 2006, I raised an eyebrow at "Cyber Monday," then competing with "E-Day" as a name for the post-Thanksgiving online commerce peak, since cyber seemed a bit passé, redolent of Y2K and The Matrix. But as I say in the WSJ column, cyber never really went away in the military and intelligence communities.

There's only so much one can cover in a 650-word column, so I was unable to mention that cyber has had a modest existence as a verb as well. As noted in various sources (e.g., Wiktionary and Merriam-Webster Open Dictionary), the verb cyber has often been used to mean 'to engage in cybersex (with).' But the earliest example I'm aware of isn't sexual: Poul Anderson's 1993 book Harvest of Stars has the line, "His company has cybered his job out from under him." No doubt other science-fiction writers have made use of cyber as a verb, given the sci-fi roots of cyberspace and cyberpunk.

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16 Comments »

  1. Robert said,

    June 28, 2013 @ 7:22 pm

    Unfortunately for me cyber is only associated with people who ask "a/s/l" and "do u cyber". Norbert Wiener is surely spinning in his grave.

  2. Ralph Hickok said,

    June 28, 2013 @ 7:24 pm

    You say that cyber has "returned to its dark science-fiction roots." But surely its roots are in Norbert Wiener's coinage, "cybernetics."

    [(bgz) Yes, as I say in the column (click through to read the whole thing). But the popularity of cyber- as a combining form is surely due to Gibson and other science-fiction writers.]

  3. Jonathon Owen said,

    June 28, 2013 @ 7:39 pm

    The best part about the word cyber is that cybernetics is cognate with govern, giving new meaning to the term Governator.

  4. Rubrick said,

    June 28, 2013 @ 7:48 pm

    Congratulations on the gig — and nice, subtle pun title for the column.

  5. Jonathan Badger said,

    June 29, 2013 @ 1:36 am

    While Gibson is partly to blame for the usage of "Cyber" from his "cyberpunk" fiction, in Eastern Europe Cybernetics itself has had a longer popularity than it had in the West — many post-Soviet departments and institutes of computer science use the term in their titles even today. Apparently back in Stalin's era, cybernetics was as forbidden as genetics there, and as the Eastern bloc realized post-Stalin what they were missing in terms of biology, they felt cybernetics must be equally as important (wrongly as it turned out).

  6. peter said,

    June 29, 2013 @ 8:11 am

    Jonathan — I don't understand your final comment ("wrongly as it turned out"). Are you saying that cybernetics is not as important as biology? That I would contest very strongly. Are you saying that what Soviet scientists missed out on in biology due to Stalin's interference was more important than what they missed out in in computer science due to his interference? That I would have to question, since it is arguable that Stalin interfered negatively in cybernetics at all. Official Soviet criticisms of cybernetics (which was distinguished, by these critics, as a separate discipline from both theoretical computer science and applied computer technology) mostly came after his death.

    In the main, Stalin left the mathematical and physical sciences alone, either because he recognized their value to the military and defence, or perhaps because he did not understand them sufficiently to interfere in their content.

  7. Andrew (not the same one) said,

    June 29, 2013 @ 2:18 pm

    One source of the widespread use of 'cyber' is surely the Cybermen in Doctor Who, who first appeared in 1966, some time before the rise of cyberpunk. If the term is now experiencing a revival, might the new series of Doctor Who be one of the causes?

  8. Rod Johnson said,

    June 29, 2013 @ 3:10 pm

    I think Weiner-stype cybernetics (as, as peter says, "a separate discipline from both theoretical computer science and applied computer technology") is pretty much dead as a would-be separate discipline. Elements of it have been subsumed into various engineering disciplines that are concerned with control, but I think it's fair to say that the claims made for it in the 1940s did not pan out.

    I imagine people who believe in the centrality of cybernetics like to point to ideas involving control, feedback, system dynamics and the like in a variety of fields. But that's not the same as a discipline of cybernetics. I could point to ideas involving language in a variety of fields, but I wouldn't take that to mean linguistics had some kind of central role in the sciences. So "cybernetics is not as important as biology" seems like a pretty reasonable claim to me.

  9. Ken Brown said,

    June 29, 2013 @ 3:42 pm

    There was a minor fashion for cybernetics among the Left in the late 1960s and early 1980s. Associated mostly with Stafford Beer. The Chilean government was working on some cybernetics-inspired projects until Pinochet put an end to them. The idea was to use what we then didn't yet call information technology to allow managers and politicians to control public enterprises while also facilitating real-time democratic input from workers and citizens.

  10. Eorrfu said,

    June 29, 2013 @ 5:32 pm

    The ubiquity of cybercafe as a noun synonymous with internet cafe means it is and was much more common in usage than the post seems to imply. Google ngram: books.google.com/ngrams/graph?content=cyber+cafe%2Cinternet+cafe%2C+cybercafe&year_start=1980&year_end=2000&corpus=15&smoothing=3&share=

  11. marie-lucie said,

    June 29, 2013 @ 9:44 pm

    I think there is still cyberspace, not internetspace.

  12. peter said,

    June 30, 2013 @ 4:55 am

    Marie-Lucie is correct: we talk of cyberspace, not internetspace, and have done so all along. My sense is that the use of cyber in cyber-security, cyberwar, etc, arises directly from the prevalence of cyberspace, and not from earlier or other usages, such as cybernetics.

    Ben Zimmer – Something that your WSJ article does not seem to recognize in discussing the official use (eg, by President Obama) of the word cyber is that the cyber domain is now an officially-declared domain of warfare for the US military, along with the domains of land, sea, air, and space. As an official domain of warfare, it has its own military command, USCYBERCOM. Usage of the word cyber by public and militatry officials thus now has a panoply of official connotations and referents.

  13. peter said,

    June 30, 2013 @ 5:19 am

    I meant to end my comment with: So use of the word "cyber" and its derivatives by public officials such as the US President is deliberate and careful, rather than it being a case of usage "trickling up".

  14. Kate Y. said,

    June 30, 2013 @ 1:43 pm

    Maybe some people are using it that way, but most of the specific examples Zimmer cites do not in fact prove "cyber" to be a noun. "Cyber Monday" follows on after "Black Friday", after all, and any part of speech can become a one-word book title.

  15. Chris Waters said,

    June 30, 2013 @ 3:40 pm

    @Robert: that's an example of cyber being used as a verb. And yes, I agree, as a verb, it is very nearly always a shortening of "cybersex" (the on-line equivalent of phone sex). I'm pretty sure that usage goes back to at least the nineties if not earlier, but since it's mainly found in ephemeral media (chat channels and the like), it may not appear in standard corpora frequently enough to attract notice. Otherwise, I'm sure Ben would have mentioned it.

  16. Jonathan D said,

    July 1, 2013 @ 2:03 am

    I would have said the Obama quote works better with "cyber" short for "cyberspace" rather than "cybersecurity". I'd guess that a lot of the other uses where cybersecurity or security generally are the topic would make sense either way, too.

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