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What’s in a Name? The Origin of Cyber

By: Jerald Dawkins, PHD, Chief Technology Officer at CISO Global

Cybersecurity veterans often cringe when they see the word “cyber” used outside of a compound word. Some have given up the fight, embracing this pop culture terminology where a prefix is used as an all-encompassing noun. It seems to be used in non-technical circles as the label of choice for all the ethereal things we imagine live “somewhere out there” in cyberspace (yes, one word). So, a modifier becomes a noun, just like that? The fact is, when it comes to nomenclature associated with such a fast-moving and young industry as cybersecurity, there are bound to be adaptations as pop culture wrestles with new concepts, strange terminology, and capabilities they could never have imagined, even post-War Games. Yet, the ability of a word to endure and carry meaning across industries and cultures relies on the intrinsic torque it contains to move through generations and innovations – and how well it endures colloquial adaptations. 

Origin of Cyber or Cyber history Blog Graphic

In the 21st century, many – if not most – assume that the term “cyber” is a portmanteau or blending of two words derived from other words, but it’s not. The evolution and usage of the word has morphed, as well as debated, over the years. 

However, one thing is clear: cyber is firmly rooted in our vernacular. Cyber can be attached to almost anything to make it sound futuristic or technical, but its origins are ancient: it can be found in Greek translations of the Old Testament.

Here’s a look at where cyber comes from beginning with the evolution of its usage to a glimpse at the debate among the technical community as to what it means and how to phrase it.

Cyber Can be Traced Back to the 40s 

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 derives 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 involvesthe fields of computer science, engineering, and biology and their advancements, it calls to mind all things futuristic.

How did we get to “Cyber”?

As a standalone term, cyber is a neologism based on cybernetics, and from that, a slew of derivative words came into existence to describe everything from internet jobs to types of crime, and even retail events.

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

Common Cyber Compounds

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.

While the above list are examples of compound words (when two words are fused together – such as keyboard), there are also cyber usage examples of portmanteau (when new words are formed without the full elements of either word – such as brunch or spork).  Most of the below cyber portmanteau use “cy” as a type of prefix. 

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.

And last but not least: 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 bioinformatics but bioinformatics.”

Kemmer also said even if industry specialists try to “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. 

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.”

A culture of cybersecurity or CSC, builds on these definitions and goes above and beyond tactics to encompass broader strategic and comprehensive engagement from all levels of employees at a particular company, and even across organizations. With the right tools and the right engagement for on-going training, cybersecurity can nurture an ever-evolving environment to ensure best practices and compliance remain agile as threats and technologies change.

To learn about how to transform Cybersecurity Culture within your organization, reach out to CISO Global.