And now the cyber is so big

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From Donald Trump's 9/6/2016 Town Hall in Virginia Beach VA:

Michael Flynn: and- and to stay- to stay on ISIS a little bit because this is a really- I think this is an important topic and it's certainly at the- it's- it's one of the national security threats that our country faces today
you have described at times
different components of a strategy, military, cyber, financial
and ideological could you just expand on those four a little bit

Donald Trump: well that's it and you know cyber is becoming so big today it's become a thing uh something that
a number of years ago a short number of years ago wasn't even
a word and
now the the cyber is so big and you know you look at what they're doing
with the internet
how they're
taking recruiting people through the internet and part of it is the psychology because so many people think they're winning
and uh you know there's a whole
big thing even today psychology where CNN came out with a big poll
their big poll came out today that Trump is winning it's good psychology ((you know))
it's good psychology

What caught my attention in this passage was Mr. Trump's use of the definite article with cyber as a noun: "the cyber". I think that General Flynn probably intended cyber to refer to attacks on cyber infrastructure, or maybe to cyber-espionage — the news has been full of references to "cyber weapons", "cyber warfare", "the cyber threat", "the cyber defense market".

But Trump interprets "the cyber" mean "the internet". I doubt that he's the first person to do that, but I haven't seen it before, and I'm curious to see whether it catches on.

And then I focused on his assertion that it's "something that a short number of years ago wasn't even a word", and decided to check my impressions of the cyber-lexical timeline.

As I thought, it all started with Norbert Wiener and cybernetics. From the Monoskop page on Cybernetics:

In the spring of 1947, Wiener was invited to a congress on harmonic analysis, held in Nancy, France and organized by the bourbakist mathematician, Szolem Mandelbrojt. During this stay in France Wiener received the offer to write a manuscript on the unifying character of this part of applied mathematics, which is found in the study of Brownian motion and in telecommunication engineering. The following summer, back in the United States, Wiener decided to introduce the neologism ‘cybernetics’ into his scientific theory. […] Then forthcoming, the book is mentioned in Shannon 1948 as being related to his paper while "dealing with the general problems of communication and control" (p 627). In contrast to Shannon who did not see the use of information theory for other than engineers and mathematicians, Wiener seeked [sic] to create new interdisciplinary science: "The thought of every age is reflected in its technique. [..] If the seventeenth and early eighteenth centuries are the age of clocks, and the later eighteenth and the nineteenth centuries constitute the age of steam engines, the present time is the age of communication and control."

From the 1948 first edition of  Wiener's Cybernetics, or Control and Communication in the Animal and the Machine:

Thus as far back as four years ago, the group of scientists about Dr. Rosenblueth and myself had already become aware of the essential unity of the set of problems centering about communication, control, and statistical mechanics, whether in the machine or in living tissue. On the other hand, we were seriously hampered by the lack of unity of the literature concerning these problems, and by the absence of any common terminology, or even of a single name for the field. After much consideration, we have come to the conclusion that all the existing terminology has too heavy a bias to one side or another to serve the future development of the field as well as it should ; and as happens so often to scientists, we have been forced to coin at least one artificial neo-Greek expression to fill the gap. We have decided to call the entire field of control and communication theory, whether in the machine or in the animal, by the name Cybernetics, which we form from the Greek κυβερνήτης or steersman. In choosing this term, we wish to recognize that the first significant paper on feed-back mechanisms is an article on governors, which was published by Clerk Maxwell in 1868, and that governor is derived from a Latin corruption of κυβερνήτης . We also wish to refer to the fact that the steering engines of a ship are indeed one of the earliest and best developed forms of feed-back mechanisms.

[The (interestingly different) 1961 second edition of that work can be found here.]

Cybernetics boomed through the 50s and 60s, but then went into an intellectual eclipse for various reasons, as suggested by this Google Book Ngram Viewer plot:

It was partly that the word itself went out of fashion, but it was mostly that the ideas of "control and communication theory" were eclipsed for a while by the rather different set of themes associated with classical AI. As a result of this change in fashion, during the 70s and 80s, people like me could consider themselves as members or sympathizers of the "cybernetic underground" discussed briefly here and here.

Credit for the spread of cyber- into general usage is usually given to William Gibson's introduction of the term cyberspace, referring to the emergent virtual reality of networked computing. The start of his short story Burning Chrome (1982) includes an indirect reference:

It was hot, the night we burned Chrome. Out in the malls and plazas, moths were batting themselves to death against the neon, but in Bobby’s loft the only light came from a monitor screen and the green and red LEDs on the face of the matrix simulator. I knew every chip in Bobby’s simulator by heart; it looked like your workaday Ono-Sendai VII, the “Cyberspace Seven,” but I’d rebuilt it so many times that you’d have had a hard time finding a square millimeter of factory circuitry in all that silicon.

But Cyberspace really emerges conceptually in his novel Neuromancer (1984):

THE JAPANESE HAD already forgotten more neurosurgery than the Chinese had ever known. The black clinics of Chiba were the cutting edge, whole bodies of technique supplanted monthly, and still they couldn’t repair the damage he’d suffered in that Memphis hotel.

A year here and he still dreamed of cyberspace, hope fading nightly. All the speed he took, all the turns he’d taken and the corners he’d cut in Night City, and still he’d see the matrix in his sleep, bright lattices of logic unfolding across that colorless void. . . . The Sprawl was a long strange way home over the Pacific now, and he was no console man, no cyberspace cowboy. Just another hustler, trying to make it through. But the dreams came on in the Japanese night like livewire voodoo, and he’d cry for it, cry in his sleep, and wake alone in the dark, curled in his capsule in some coffin hotel, his hands clawed into the bedslab, temperfoam bunched between his fingers, trying to reach the console that wasn’t there.

As is often true with the decomposition of borrowed words, cyber- is an etymologically incorrect resegmentation of cybernetics, whose Greek original is actually built out of κυβερν- (related to Latin gubern- and English govern). But cybernspace? I don't think so.

Anyhow, the OED has some indications of earlier cyber-lexical explorations.  This one seems especially important:

1982   D. Adams Life, Universe & Everything xi. 63   Zaphod had spent most of his early history lessons plotting how he was going to have sex with the girl in the cybercubicle next to him.

But Adams and Gibson were far from the first use the morpheme cyber- to mean something vaguely related to networks and computers:

1966   I. Varshavsky in Path into Unknown 10   A worthy product of a machine upbringing..her little cyberkid.

1966   Observer 9 Oct. 23/5   A cyberman made his first appearance last evening in the new BBC children's serial ‘Dr Who and the Tenth Planet.’

1971   Leonardo 4 193   Adrian Rogoz published a historical study of ‘Cyberarts’ for the 1970 Almanach of the journal ‘Science and Technic’. At present he is researching the field of relations between art and computers.

1975   M. Laver Computers, Communications, & Society 81   When to industrial and commercial automation we add the automation of government, men and women will fall outside the control loops, and we could become redundant ciphers in cyberland.

1978   F. M. Hetzler in Philos. Aspects Thanatol. I. 112   The knowledge given to man via the multimedia, e.g. TV, videotape, microfilm, laser beams, satellite. ERTS-1, film strip, computer, and other cybersphere presentations.

1982   Guardian 16 June (Arts section) 9/2   There are blind men and mad men, cyber-men and bird men. There are insects and clowns, jokers and ogres.

And there are some other mid-80s examples that may have been independent of Gibson:

1986   G. Benford & D. Brin Heart of Comet (1987) iv. 281   She..spent a few hours each day linked to her cyberfriend.

1987   T. Leary Info-psychol. Pref. p. iii,   This new species of Cyber-kids, encouraged by Dr. Spock to think for themselves,..were the first generation to explore and inhabit the Info-World.

1987   N. Spinrad Little Heroes (1989) 160   Blissfully ensconced behind their keyboards and screens.., living, eating, and breathing the ozone air of their beloved cybersphere day and night.

So by the 1980s, cyber-, like the networked digital worlds it conjured up, was in the air

In addition to these combining forms, the OED also has an entry for cyber the adjective, glossed as "Of, relating to, or involving (the culture of) computers, virtual reality, or the Internet; futuristic", and cited from 1992. There's no entry yet for cyber the noun — but the usage seems inevitable, though the next step might be some ironic echoes of the Donald's "the cyber".

Update — I wasn't the only one to be struck by this passage in the Virginia Beach town hall meeting. I originally saw it quoted here, in an article that focused on other aspects of the meeting, but there have also been some cyber-specific reactions, e.g. Philip Bump, "Donald Trump doesn’t have much of an opinion on this new-fangled ‘cyber’ thing", Washington Post 9/6/2016.


  1. D-AW said,

    September 7, 2016 @ 7:31 am

    This got me wondering whatever happened to "cybersex" and the verb "to cyber". Turns out I'm not the first – this guy gives a good history w/ quots from Richard Holden (OED staff) and Ben Zimmer:

  2. Rodger C said,

    September 7, 2016 @ 7:45 am

  3. bkd69 said,

    September 7, 2016 @ 7:46 am

    For completeness' sake, the 'cyber-' family also includes 'cyborg,' a contraction of 'cybernetic organism,' further abbreviated to 'borg.' the 'cy-' prefix was cribbed for the Cylons in Battlestar Galactica's first go-round.

  4. Ben Zimmer said,

    September 7, 2016 @ 7:52 am

    My first Wall Street Journal column, in June 2013, was on "cyber" as shorthand for "cybersecurity." (If paywalled, you can get to the full text by Googling the headline, "'Cyber' Dons A Uniform.") See also my Language Log followup.

  5. Nick Barnes said,

    September 7, 2016 @ 8:04 am

    No science fiction writer after 1984 was unaware of Gibson's coinage, so your Benford/Brin/Spinrad examples cannot have been "independent of Gibson".
    And nobody born in the UK after about 1955 would be unaware of cybermen (post 1966).

  6. Victor Mair said,

    September 7, 2016 @ 8:06 am

    Again, this illustrates DT's distinctive predilection for the use of the definite article.

    "The NOUNs" (9/5/16)

  7. Grover Jones said,

    September 7, 2016 @ 8:10 am

    Isn't he just eliding "component," as in Flynn's original statement? Thus the reference would be to "the cyber [component]."

  8. Victor Mair said,

    September 7, 2016 @ 8:19 am

    @Grover Jones

    I don't think he'd use (or think) a word like "component". Maybe "aspect".

  9. Tim Leonard said,

    September 7, 2016 @ 8:21 am

    "Cyber" (for cybersecurity) and "cyber attack" are standard terms in the defense industry. They're not standard outside the defense industry, but General Flynn may not know that.

  10. Bill Benzon said,

    September 7, 2016 @ 8:22 am

    @bkd69: I believe 'cyborg' was coined in 1960 by Manfred Clynes, himself a rather colorful character.

  11. languagehat said,

    September 7, 2016 @ 9:01 am

    1966 I. Varshavsky in Path into Unknown 10 A worthy product of a machine upbringing..her little cyberkid.

    It may be of interest to provide the Russian original of this first OED citation; it's from Ilya Varshavsky's 1964 short story Конфликт ("Conflict"), about a human mother jealous of her young son's affection for his robot nanny (who is smarter than the humans of the household), and the phrase represented by "her little cyberkid" is "к маленькому кибернёныщу" [k malen'komu kibernyonyshchu], where кибернёныщ 'cyberkid' is a cyberized equivalent of ребёныщ [rebyonyshch], an unusual diminutive of the standard word ребёнок [rebyonok] 'child.' Cybernetics was hugely fashionable in the USSR in the early '60s; there's a book about it if anyone's interested, Slava Gerovitch's From Newspeak to Cyberspeak: A History of Soviet Cybernetics.

  12. Grover Jones said,

    September 7, 2016 @ 9:32 am

    @Victor Mair

    You don't believe he'd think or use the word "component" right after Flynn just did? Now you're just being cruel!

  13. Bloix said,

    September 7, 2016 @ 10:05 am

    Roger C – on the "no one says cyber anymore" thing – in the fields of law, regulation, insurance, and the like it's standard. You can buy any number of cyber insurance products to provide cyber coverage for cyber liability in the event of a breach of your cybersecurity, for example.

  14. Oop said,

    September 7, 2016 @ 10:13 am

    Ah, but Varshavsky's original included the lost -n referred above! "кибернёныш" (your citation and transliteration include a little mistake, as just like "ребёныш", it ends with -ш (sh), not -щ (shch), as you can see in Google) starts with "киберн-", and that -н (n) is not included in "ребёныш", while it also has no other origin in Russian I could easily see, so Varshavsky probably was among the rare people who could dissect "cybernetics" (Russian кибернетика) correctly.

  15. languagehat said,

    September 7, 2016 @ 10:16 am

    Oops! Sorry about the mistranscription; it's a gloomy day here, and I haven't had enough coffee.

  16. MR said,

    September 7, 2016 @ 10:55 am

    I'm currently reading Single Lady by John Monk Saunders. It was published in 1931 and mentions a cafe in Paris named Cyber.

    [(myl) This café was surely named after someone whose nom de famille was "Cyber", as here. For example, there was a 15th century printer named "Jehan Cyber, Maistre en l'Art de Impression".

    I don't know the etymology of these names but I'll bet it had nothing to do with the Greek word for steersman…]

  17. Terry Hunt said,

    September 7, 2016 @ 11:13 am

    Although Gibson introduced the specific term cyberspace in 1982, as indicated above, the general concept of cybernetics had been discussed and utilised in SF since the early '50, for example in Raymond F Jones' The Cybernetic Brains (magazine publication 1950, book 1962) and Bernard Wolfe's Limbo (1952). Particularly influential was Stanislav Lem's collection Cyberiada (1967, translated as The Cyberiad: Fables for the Cybernetic Age 1974).

    Though originally having a "Mechanical brain" inference, the extension of "cyber" topics to electronic computer and thence to computer network contexts in SF developed along with, and probably somewhat in advance of, real world developments of those technologies. (Some Science Fiction authors were and are also practicing scientists, so diffusion of real scientific concepts into SF is usually quite rapid; sometimes it happens before the concepts themselves have been committed to formal papers.

    The SF community of readers and authors was and is close knit, with ideas being exchanged verbally author-to-author or between authors and fans (though many would consider themselves both) at SF Conventions and via personal contacts, and appearing in magazine short stories often in advance of their use in full-blown novels. The search for first appearences of specific terms therefore needs to take short stories as well as novels into account. Today, a good deal of SF (and Fantasy, etc.) fiction and fiction-related discussion only appears online, perhaps making the task for future historical lexicographers a little more complicated.

    For anyone interested in the minutiae, the lengthy 'Cybernetics', 'Cyberpunk', 'Cyberspace', and 'Cyborgs' entries in The Encyclopedia of Science Fiction (Ed Clute et al) are worth perusing. (The current edition is fully accessible online, although I was consulting my older 1993 paper edition to confirm details of the above).

  18. Eric Vinyl said,

    September 7, 2016 @ 2:08 pm

    Dr. Liberman, I am at an utter loss as to understanding the premise of this post, namely that “Trump interprets ‘the cyber’ mean ‘the internet’.” It honestly seems like a throwback to Bushisms, wherein many quotes were parsed as uncharitably as possible.

    My reading is that cyber here—in both the interviewer and Trump’s speech—is a shorthand referring to cyberterrorism, -warfare, etc. That he goes on to say “…and, you know, you look at what they're doing with the Internet, how they're … recruiting people” (presumably referring to ISIS and other net-savvy jihadist organizations) further reinforces the idea that he does not think of “the cyber” as synonymous with the Internet, but is using it as a catch-all term for the category of attacks carried out through computer networks.

    And while his etymology may be a little hazy, it also seems to me that, say, 10 years ago, the average American was much less aware of Internet-based threats to commerce and infrastructure than is so today, which is consistent with his perception that, while cyberterrorism or cyberwar “wasn't even a word” at the turn of the century, it is now one of the most serious issues facing national security.

  19. Jerry Friedman said,

    September 7, 2016 @ 3:54 pm

    Terry Hunt: I was thinking of mentioning Lem's Cyberiada and the spectacular (and I hope accurate) translation by Michael Kandel, but I didn't know it was particularly influential. To pick two nits, the ISFDB dates Cyberiada to 1965, not 1967. Also, "Stanisław" ends in a w.

  20. maidhc said,

    September 7, 2016 @ 4:44 pm

    Control Data Corporation had a line of computers under the name Cyber, which sold pretty well in the 1970s and 1980s.

    We also have the Cybermen, first appearing in 1966.

  21. Graeme said,

    September 7, 2016 @ 6:18 pm

    Let's not forget the cute neologism 'cybrary'. Two unis I worked at in the 2000s seriously relabelled their libraries with that moniker. Both since returned to a mix of 'library' (generic and to describe the physical building) and 'information services' for the function of broad means of accessing info.

    Aside from companies with the 'cybrary' brand, has the term fallen into disuse elsewhere?

  22. Linda said,

    September 7, 2016 @ 6:27 pm

    And there was the episode of The Avengers in 1965, The Cybernauts.

  23. Jenny Chu said,

    September 7, 2016 @ 7:09 pm

    1. Is it possible that DT was using "the cyber" to refer to all things digital (not only the existence of the Internet, but also the ubiquity of smartphones and the growth of access to both)? If I had the habit of speaking in free verse as DT does, I can imagine myself struggling to retrieve an everyman's term that would adequately express "the proliferation of digital access" and ending up with "the cyber" because I couldn't think of the right noun for it to modify ("… the cyber … um … thing? stuff? whatever – you know what I'm talking about").

    2. I would assume "cybernetics" gave birth to "cyberspace" rather than "cybernspace" – because of the simplification of the consonant cluster. Are there any other cyber(n)- prefixed words that predate cyberspace in which the second word starts with a vowel? Let me look in the cybernarchive.

  24. D.O. said,

    September 7, 2016 @ 9:06 pm

    Languagehat, кибернёныш is pretty obviously a play on the word детёныш (detionysh) = animal offspring.

  25. D.O. said,

    September 7, 2016 @ 9:27 pm

    By the way, кибернёныш shows that for Ilya Varshavsky (Russian equivalent of) the word cybernetics incorporated -n- in the stem. It would be киберёныш otherwise.

  26. tangent said,

    September 7, 2016 @ 11:18 pm

    The U.S. Army has a Cyber Command, the DOD has a Cyber Strategy, etc. They also use it in combinations, but it can be used as a freestanding word there. You get phrases like "we're getting good at cyber now.". So I think this usage is a militarism.

    [(myl) Yes, but you didn't write "we're getting good at the cyber now". ]

  27. jenifer said,

    September 8, 2016 @ 4:48 am

    Terry Hunt: I was thinking of mentioning Lem's Cyberiada and the spectacular (and I hope accurate) translation by Michael Kandel, but I didn't know it was particularly influential. To pick two nits, the ISFDB dates Cyberiada to 1965, not 1967. Also, "Stanisław" ends in a w.

  28. languagehat said,

    September 8, 2016 @ 7:17 am

    D.O.: Thanks, both excellent points!

  29. Terry Hunt said,

    September 8, 2016 @ 2:25 pm

    Jerry Friedman & Jenifer (?): Although Lem was perhaps not so widely known to the average anglophone SF reader, my recollection is that his writing was always well regarded by professional writers (despite the unfortunate 1976 kerfuffle over the withdrawal of his honorary SFWA membership).

    Michael Kandel strikes me as an exceptionally good translator, in part because when puns and other wordplay in Lem's Polish are untranslatable, Kandel is able to compose equally good and appropriate, though different, substitutions in English. If only Jules Verne had been so well served during his lifetime!

    Both the paper 1993 and current online Encyclopedia of Science fiction date Cyberiada to 1967 in their 'Cybernetics' article (to which I was referring), but 1965 in that on Lem himself. I'll notify Dave Langford (one of the Editors and an old acquantence) of this discrepancy.

    My erroneous "ear-spelling" of "Stanislav" is of course entirely down to me.

  30. James Wimberley said,

    September 9, 2016 @ 6:57 am

    A guess on the etymology of Jehan Sieber, your 15th-century French printer. The homeland of printing was the Rhineland, including Alsace. Transliterate Cyber into German, and you would get Sieber, = sifter. Agriculture not sailing.

    There's a lovely little museum in Sélestat, including books belonging to a local rich kid ca. 1500 who tried his hand unsuccessfully at writing and turned with more success to copy editing. There's a manuscript of a minor Latin author marked up in his hand for the Aldine press in Venice, and the printed version. Vandalism? How else could it have been done?

    They also have a copy of the Cosmographia published in the even smaller tow of St-Dié in 1507. This proposed the term America for the New World. The entire argument is that "Amerigo Vespucci found the continent, and all the other ones are named after women, so let's call this one after him".

  31. James Wimberley said,

    September 9, 2016 @ 7:00 am

    PS: or gold/silver mining.

  32. BZ said,

    September 12, 2016 @ 4:18 pm

    If I were being charitable, I would say Trump keyed off of Michael Flynn's use of "Cyber" as a standalone item in a list and when he said "the cyber" he meant "the cyber part of the list you just asked me about"

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