It’s Cyber Monday! So, what does “cyber” mean, anyway?


(WHTM) — It’s Cyber Monday, the e-commerce version of Black Friday. The National Retail Federation coined the term in 2005, to encourage people to take advantage of online shopping. Cyber Monday 2020 was reported to be the biggest digital shopping day in U.S. history, with Americans shelling out $10.8 billion with the click of a mouse.

But what, pray tell, does the word “cyber” mean, and where does it come from? The word it is derived from is thousands of years old, it’s in the Greek translation of the Old Testament. As for its meaning, well, that gets complicated.

“Cyber” is what’s known in linguistics as a “bound morpheme”, a word element (a prefix, in this case) which cannot stand alone, but must be linked to another word (the “base” or “root” word) to have any meaning. It is actually part of a Greek word, kybernetes, meaning steersman, guide, or governor. (Plato used it to describe the self-governance of people.) It entered English as “cybernetics” in 1948 when MIT mathematician Norbert Wiener (1894-1964) published Cybernetics or Control and Communication in the Animal and the Machine.

Defining cybernetics was difficult then, and even more so now, because it has become part of so many disciplines, from biology to engineering to medicine to, of course, computers. Central to the field is the concept of feedback — the outcomes of actions are used as inputs for further action. It didn’t take long for the “cyber” part of cybernetics to get detached and glued on to other words. One such early word is “cybernation” referring to “theory, practice, or condition of control by machines”. (We’ll get back to cybernation later.)

As computer science advanced in the 1950s through the 1990s, “cyber” became more and more linked to “thinking machines”. The use of “cyber” began to spread, helped along by science fiction. In 1966, the BBC TV series Dr. Who introduced the Cybermen, once-biological creatures who replaced their organics with metal, and lost all emotion in the process. They then turn anyone they capture into Cybermen. The creepy part is they think they’re doing you a favor since theirs is so obviously a superior existence.

In 1982, writer William Gibson coined the word “Cyberspace” for his short story “Burning Chrome”, then used it in his 1984 novel Neuromancer to define “widespread, interconnected digital technology” It became the de facto term for the World Wide Web in the 1990s.

Starting in the 1990s, the use of “cyber” exploded, for just about anything connected with computers and the internet. Everything was cyber-this or cyber-that. (It is to wonder, though, why we don’t talk to each other on cyberphones). In fact, it got used so much, people complained it was being overused and should be replaced with something better.

We’re still waiting for “something better” to happen. The website’s catalog of “English words prefixed with cyber” now has 524 listings, with new entries being added every year. Yet, the exact meaning of “cyber” continues to elude us. As an article in New York Magazine from December 23, 1996 points out, that’s what makes it so appealing:

“Cyber is such a 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.”

Sometimes “cyber” words benchmark technological progress. Remember that word “cybernation”, which referred to the technology for “control by machines”? It now has a secondary meaning (from“A large online community that operates like a nation, or state.” Norbert Wiener and his associates might have been able to imagine that, but wouldn’t have had a clue how to create it. That’s a lot of progress in just 73 years.

(To see that list of words that start with “cyber”, click here.)

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