What is the Origin of the Word “Cyber”?

Many assume that “cyber” is a portmanteau derived from other words, but it’s not. Here’s a look at where the word cyber came from, the evolution of its usage, and a glimpse at the debate among the technical community on what it means and how to phrase it. 

Cyber is firmly rooted in our vernacular, but some prefer the short and efficient “e-“ prefix as in e-mail and e-commerce. Cyber can be attached to almost anything to make it sound futuristic or technical, but its origins are a word so ancient it’s in Greek translations of the Old Testament of the Bible. 

Cyber came from cybernetics

Before there was cyberpunk or cybersecurity, there was cybernetics. In the late 1940s, cybernetics arose as the study of control systems and communications between people and machines. Today, it has evolved into a transdisciplinary approach to regulatory systems. Cybernetics influences game, system, and organizational theory.

Cybernetics derived from the Greek kubernētēs which refers to a pilot or steersman. Related is the Greek word kubernēsis which means “the gift of governance” and applies to leadership. Because the study of cybernetics involved the fields of computer science, engineering, and biology and their advancements, it calls to mind all things futuristic. 

Cyber is a neologism based on cybernetics, and from that, a slew of words came into existence to describe everything from jobs on the web to types of crime, and even retail events. 

Common derivatives of cyber

Compound words are two words together such as keyboard (key and board), while portmanteaux are words smashed together without the full elements of both words such as brunch (breakfast and lunch). Cyber is more often part of compound words than portmanteaux. 

Two of the earliest derivations from cyber that came into common usage was cyberspace and cyberpunk. Here’s a rundown of some common words that emerged from cyber, their definitions, origins, and use. 

Cyberspace – First used in 1982 in a short story, cyberspace now refers to anything associated with the internet.

Cyberpunk – As a subgenre of science fiction, cyberpunk first came out of New Wave sci-fi novels of the late 60s and early 70s. 

Cybersecurity – The first use of cybersecurity as a word dates to 1989 (the same year cyberporn came into usage) but only cybersecurity prevailed as an expression.

Cybercrime – There are many forms of cybercrime from financial fraud to cyberstalking, cyberdefamation, theft, forgery, and any criminal mischief involving the internet.

Cyberdefense – Also known as cybersecurity, it’s the detection, prevention, and response to cybercrime. It more often relates to military and government systems.

Cyberops – Short for cyber operations, cyberops is an interdisciplinary area of study that covers cyberspace and operations and ranges from technical to non-technical.

Cyber portmanteaux and fun phrases

There aren’t a ton of portmanteaux that incorporate cyber, but there are a few that are interesting. 

Cyborgs will rule Earth in the near future.

Cyberdelic – Made from cyber and psychedelic, cyberdelic can refer to art, raves, or immersive experiences meshing the internet with psychedelic drugs.

Cyborg – This technically is the marriage of cybernetic and organism, it refers to something composed of both organic and biomechatronic parts.

Cybrarian – A cyber librarian, or cybrarian for short, is a researcher or librarian that relies mostly on the internet for their information.

Cybernauts – A cybernaut is someone who immerses in an online experience using sensory and virtual reality (VR) devices. 

Finally, Cyber Monday, while neither a portmanteau or compound word, is one of the most well-known phrases associated with the word cyber. It follows Black Friday (the day after Thanksgiving) and is an online shopping day that has now expanded to Cyber Week. 

Is cybersecurity one or two words?

Some prefer cybersecurity as one word and some as two. Some even like to hyphenate it as cyber-security. Both the Merriam-Webster dictionary and the Associated Press reject the hyphenated and two-word version. The US Department of Commerce’s National Institute of Standards and Technology (NIST) uses it as one word.

Suzanne Kemmer, professor of linguistics at Rice University, says cybersecurity should be one word because cyber isn’t a “free-standing word” but rather a bound morpheme, a combination of words to form a new word. Kemmer, states, “bio, neo, photo are all parallel examples” adding that it’s “not bio informatics but bioinformatics.” 

Kemmer also said even if industry specialists try and “make their own convention” that she believes the “general [one-word] pattern will win out in the language at large.” Given this expert opinion plus the dictionary and AP style convention, it appears one-word usage will eventually become the standard. At Alpine Securities, we prefer cybersecurity and use it across the board.

From information security to cybersecurity

Sometimes used synonymously, information security and cybersecurity are not interchangeable. NIST defines cybersecurity as “the ability to protect or defend the use of cyberspace from cyberattacks.” To differentiate, NIST defines information security as “the protection of information and information systems from unauthorized access… to provide confidentiality, integrity, and availability.” 

Despite this authoritative position, those in the industry dispute how the two terms are defined and relate. Here’s a breakdown of types of security that relate to information systems and electronic data.

Data security – Keeping data safe is the function of data security. But is data information? Not all data is information. For instance, a number is data. If that number represents a date of birth, it’s information. 

Information security – As implied above, keeping information safe is the function of information security. Information can be names, addresses, etc. Not all information is data. Not all information is digital. 

Cybersecurity – The function of cybersecurity is to protect information, but it’s further reaching than that. Cybersecurity intends to protect all things accessible in cyberspace. 

As with any field, terminology evolves. Given the parameters of data versus information versus cybersecurity, business owners need all of it. Cybersecurity doesn’t relate to the data and information in file cabinets but does encompass everything digital within a business. As transactions and record-keeping evolve to be overwhelmingly digital, cybersecurity is compulsory, no matter how you spell it. 

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