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Cyberplague

William Gibson couldn’t have guessed how the word he invented would breed and infect the lexicon. That word, cyberspace, appeared just at the time when we needed a term for the electronic realm. Gibson is best known for using it in his 1984 novel Neuromancer, but he had actually invented it two years previously in a short story in Omni.

The root that became cyber first appeared in the word cybernetics, which was coined by Norbert Wiener in his book of that name in 1948. Wiener derived it from the Greek for steersman and the idea of control is central to it. We quickly had a small rash of cyber words, such as cybernetician, cybernate and cybernation; cyborg was invented about 1960 to describe a person whose abilities have been transformed or augmented by mechanical elements built into the body; followers of the BBC television series Dr. Who will remember the Cybermen; an early edition of the Avengers in October 1965 invented the term cybernaut to mean a type of robot (this programme featured the archetypical mad scientist and the writer gave him the line: “Think yourself fortunate, Mr Steed, the Cybernaut was programmed to stun, not kill.”). Generally, though, we could take it or leave it alone and the prefix settled down to a specialist and unpushy role.

But Gibson’s reuse of it spawned a mass of imitative and derivative words, a process which, ironically, is now completely out of control. My own files have more than 200 combinations trawled from science fiction, computer magazines, books and newspapers, and I’m getting cyber-sick of them. Few will stay the course, though a small number look like achieving an entry in the dictionaries. The plague of neologisms even prompted Newsweek in 1994 to speak of “cybertedium”. Thankfully, the peak of journalists’ misplaced inventiveness seems to have passed, but the prefix is still very much alive. So famous has the concept and the coiner of cyberspace become that in the US television series Wild Palms, in which Gibson plays himself in the future, the question “Aren’t you the person who invented the word ‘cyberspace’ back then?” provokes the snarling reply “Yes, and they’ve never let me forget it!”

The meaning of the word “cyberspace” has evolved over the past decade. Its original sense in Neuromancer was of electronic space as perceived by what we would now call virtual reality: the brain and senses were directly linked with the world of computers and communications and so could experience it as an actual landscape. With the explosive growth of interest in the Internet its popular sense shifted to a weakened one that referred to the intangible (and hence mysterious) electronic domain: “the place where telephone conversations happen”, as Bruce Sterling defined it. More recently still, it has moved towards becoming a loose synomym for “electronic”.

One of the key related words is cyberpunk. This had been coined by Bruce Bethke (in his story Cyberpunk, in Amazing Stories in 1983) and was immediately taken up by Gardner Dozois, the anthologist and editor of Asimov’s SF Magazine, to describe the subgenre of science fiction of which Neuromancer was a canonical example. Cyberpunk novels are morally ambiguous; they describe marginalized people struggling to survive in bleak urbanized futuristic worlds dominated by global businesses or governments, whose control is enhanced by artificial intelligence; plots often involve electronically-augmented individuals (the 1982 film Bladerunner is pure cyberpunk in concept). In the mid eighties, some science-fiction writers and others saw parallels between these future worlds and current society, and began to describe themselves as cyberpunks. Later on, a group of computer scientists and others interested in computer security and cryptography named themselves cypherpunks in imitation.

Here’s a brief listing of some of the many compounds starting in cyber:

After this relentless barrage of neologisms and cyberhype you might be forgiven if you found you were suffering from cyberphobia, a fear of electronic communications or of its technology, but then you wouldn’t be reading this, would you?

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Copyright © Michael Quinion, 1996–. All rights reserved.
Page created 16 Feb. 1996

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The English language is forever changing. New words appear; old ones fall out of use or alter their meanings. World Wide Words tries to record at least a part of this shifting wordscape by featuring new words, word histories, words in the news, and the curiosities of native English speech.

World Wide Words is copyright © Michael Quinion, 1996–. All rights reserved.
This page URL: http://www.worldwidewords.org/articles/cyber.htm
Last modified: 16 February 1996.