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.