I'm heading into the postgraduate phase of my Computer Science-oriented studies, and I can't put my finger on what this root means.

According to Etymology Online it comes from Cybernetics, which in turn comes from the greek for "Helmsman" and is the study of governation or governing systems.

But modern usage, such as cyberspace, cybercafe, cyberattack, cyberterrorism, cybermosque, cybersex, cyberbullying, and such seem to use it synonymously with "Internet"

Of course, you could argue that you use a cybercafe to interact with a primitive virtual governor, a cyberspace is a place where a lot of virtual governors "reside", while cyberattacks try to disrupt these governors.

But cyberbullying and "cybering" really don't fit into that scheme, unless you were to day that cyberbullying is "bullying by relaying domineering or intimidating messages with the help of a governor." but then again "physics" could be a governor. You shout mean things into the air and physics makes sure your overbearing soundwaves propagate to your target.

Bo that would mean that pretty much everything is cyber-, because everything is controlled by something.

The rational middle ground would be for "cyber-" to now mean "internet," unless it is followed by a greek or latin root, in which case it would mean "control systems"

Is it safe to assume this?

  • 5
    With its current overusage, I think the only general meaning you can infer from cyber- is "related in some way to computers, information networks, or some other kind of technology". May 8, 2014 at 23:51
  • I was hoping it meant something specific, some concept I wasn't familiar with. :( "cyber" sounds so cool, I feel like the potential of the word has been wasted after popular culture turned it into a meaningless fugazi.
    – guest
    May 9, 2014 at 1:02

6 Answers 6


First off, attack, terrorism and sex all have Latin roots, so your proposed rule of thumb doesn't even work on your own examples.

The closest hypernym for all the newer things cyber is probably "virtual". But not necessarily Internet-related. Any LAN can be a cyberspace. (And some might even consider a single app or game a cyberspace.)

Cybernetics and cybernetic are the odd ones out, or rather the hinge point, as they cover various meanings each. Coincidentally, that nicely demonstrates that you can't arrive at the meaning simply by looking at the word. So any rule of thumb will fail.

Cybernetics is the exact same word in any context, and it is only from that context that you can tell if it means "the theory/science of communication and control in the animal and the machine", "the art/study of governing, controlling automatic processes and communication", or "technology related to computers and Internet".

Words can have more than one meaning, and so can morphemes. If we use a morpheme to mean "dog" in one word but "truck" in another, then there simply is no middle ground. Looking at the etymology at that point is at best useless, and at worst an etymological fallacy. If you don't like my invented example and think it is an exaggeration, try and find a hypernym for "door", "passageway", and "scandal", which are only some of the meanings -gate- can have.

Likewise, -cyber- can be as flexible as we choose to make it. Cybernetics can mean whatever it means regardless of what cybercafé happens to mean. And a cyborg can sit on the subway next to a cyberterrorist, but that's about as much as they have in common. Just like nobody is offended that the woman and the wife sitting opposite them are no longer related.

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    Sure things can mean whatever they may mean, but being that blatant, I expected some sort of logical taxonomy. And the word isn't even that old!
    – guest
    May 9, 2014 at 1:10
  • Technology is evolving very fast, and new phenomena emerge all the time, all of them needing a name. The naming process doesn't happen via some comittee of English professors, it occurs in a totally ad-hoc way via magazines, blogs, twitter, tv etc. For any given phenomenon, there might have been several words invented by different people, and one of them will tend to stick. Shaking your head in disbelief and sadness at this is perhaps understandable, but also a waste of time. Apr 5, 2016 at 11:33
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    Expecting a logical taxonomy among words used by real people (and journalists ;-) ) in real language, is a fool's errand.
    – Colin Fine
    Apr 5, 2016 at 12:25
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    @user35945 - In particular, with a fast-moving field like computers and digital communications, new concepts are being invented at a stupefying rate, and there is not really time for society to "settle" on a term for each concept using the traditional give-and-take of word formation.
    – Hot Licks
    Apr 15, 2016 at 12:36
  • "Just like nobody is offended that the woman and the wife sitting opposite them are no longer related." Huh, what do you mean by that? And isn't there a "of" missing before "opposite" ? PS English is not my native language, maybe I'm missing soimething obvious. Jan 25, 2021 at 12:30

The meaning has been broadened through popular use and, in so doing, it has become diluted by people who either don't apply it properly, or seek to draw parallels which get mistaken for genuine associations as time passes. That's what popular culture does - I wince whenever I hear or read news about "hacking" which invariably demonstrates a complete lack of insight into what was perpetrated.

My degree was in Biomedical Engineering and Cybernetics. The etymology of cybyernetics has already correctly been given here as κυβερνητικός (kubernētikós), the Greek sailor exerting control over his environment, and that is the true meaning of the field. It is about intelligent systems of control, nothing more, and the essence of this is a very simple concept: feedback. Like the Greek sailor, it is not enough to exert force to achieve will - the results of the exertion must be perceived, and compared with the desired outcome. If the sailor finds he is veering to the right due to winds or currents, he must apply change using the rudder in order to maintain his course. Thus his actions in this instant are predicated on the results of his actions in the preceding instant(s); what is happening influences what will happen next.

Taking an example of technology, consider climate control within a building. Once the thermostat has been set, the system has been given its desired outcome: say 26 degrees Centigrade. If a room's temperature exceeds this, then the air conditioning will be triggered and the room will be actively cooled, until the point at which the desired temperature is reached, when the system will cease running the aircon. Conversely if the room is too cool, heating will be engaged in the same manner. We're all familiar with this form of feedback, and any system which incorporates it may be thought of as cybernetic, although it is generally only applied to systems created by humans.

The reason cyber has been applied so universally to mean all things internet-enabled is not because of the internet itself, but because of the properties of this system. I can say something to my friend while he is standing next to me, or I can write my message down on a piece of paper and show it to him - the outcome is the same (leaving out the lack of body language/intonation which is a subject for another discussion). The outcome remains the same if I type it on an electronic device, and show him the screen. It still remains the same if I type it on an electronic device and it appears on the screen of his electronic device - but now, the properties of the conversation have altered. The same message is conveyed, but (i) I no longer need to be next to him, so long as we are connected to the same infrastructure, and (ii) I don't have to be giving my message at the same time as he is able to receive it. Our communication paradigm has been decoupled in both space (we are telecommunicating, from the Greek τῆλε meaning afar, far away) and time (we are communicating asynchronously, from the Greek σύν (sún, “with”) + χρόνος (khrónos, “time”), negated with a).

However, this decoupling is not to be confused with cybernetics. If we ignore all of the cybernetic systems that facilitate the actual internet, as parts of the infrastructure, then it becomes clear that use of the internet as a medium does not constitute a cybernetic system in itself. The outcome of me delivering a message and my audience receiving it is the same, whether I am standing on a podium in front of them or posting it on my Facebook page. The internet simply becomes a tool, a mechanism used to perform this action remotely and asynchronously; the fact that it utilises cybernetic principles does not make any system that involves it inherently cybernetic per se. If I follow someone down the road and hurl abuse at them, I am bullying. If I do it on Facebook, I am bullying. The fact that I did so using a different medium does not change the outcome, and words like "cyberbullying" are part of the reason why our legal system has been so insufficient and outmoded in tackling all of the issues that are arising from an internet-enabled world, such as online abuse and so-called piracy.

TL;DR: words like cyberspace, cybercafe and cyberterrorism all refer to the same thing as their real-world counterparts, which are taking place by leveraging (usually internet) technology. The conflation of this medium with the basic action itself does not alter the meaning of the word. In this context cyber, by itself, has no inherent meaning, in the same way that "app" is short for "application" and nothing more.

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    Well true. And fraud is fraud. If I say it's mail fraud I've simply told you what the medium was. It's still basically fraud. Cyber fraud is as well. The difference is most people feel they understand the mail system. Most don't feel that way about 'cyber'. Thus new is combined with scary to produce headlines. This is why cyber is becoming less associated with technology than it is with fear mongering hype. Sent from my cyber phone. Apr 5, 2016 at 11:05

This is what etymology says to help us understand the meaning of cyber

cyber: as an element in word formation, ultimately from cybernetics (q.v.). It enjoyed explosive use with the rise of the Internet early 1990s. One researcher (Nagel) counted 104 words formed from it by 1994. Cyberpunk (by 1986) and cyberspace were among the earliest. 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. ["New York" magazine, Dec. 23, 1996] As a stand-alone, it is attested by 1998 as short for cybersex (which is attested by 1995).

Cybernatics(n.) coined 1948 by U.S. mathematician Norbert Wiener (1894-1964) from Greek kybernetes "steersman" (metaphorically "guide, governor") + -ics; perhaps based on 1830s French cybernétique "the art of governing." The future offers very little hope for those who expect that our new mechanical slaves will offer us a world in which we may rest from thinking. Help us they may, but at the cost of supreme demands upon our honesty and our intelligence. [Norbert Weiner, "God and Golem, Inc.," 1964]

  • It's unbelievable that people would accpt this. but I see the parallels. I suppose "Cyber" is last generation's "Quantum."
    – guest
    May 9, 2014 at 1:12

The term 'cyberspace' was coined by William Gibson in his 1986 short sci-fi story "Burning Chrome". He chose it after some deliberation, as a cool-sounding phrase to describe the domain of connected computers, which he visualised very differently - "a mass consensual hallucination" in computer networks.

The fact the the word is pretty inappropriate (one could hardly describe the internet as 'control-space'!) was neither here not there to Gibson, he just wanted a catchy way to describe a literary entity. He did so very well, and the name has stuck.

BTW I highly recommend Burning Chrome, or indeed any of Gibson's work, the Sprawl trilogy especially (Neuromancer, Count Zero, Mon Lisa Overdrive) (which were an inspiration for the Matrix films, with Mona Lisa Overdrive being the name of a track from the Matrix Reloaded)


Cyber is a prefix , derivation is the back formation of cybernetics. Closest synonym is "virtual" The word "Cyber" means computer , computer network or virtual reality.

Many words are formed with this prefix e.g. cyber-talk, cyberspace, cyberart , cyberfasshion meaning very uptodate.

I used to be intimidated by computers till my kids taught me how to use a computer. You can very well say that I had a cyberphobia.

I hope that this short explanation would add to your general understanding of this prefix.


  • I'm tempted to ask "On whose authority? What's the logical progression from controller to virtual reality and modernity?" But I'm afraid that won't lead anywhere.
    – guest
    May 9, 2014 at 1:15

The root "cyber" comes from English word-proper "cybernetic", which in turn comes from Greek kybernētikós (κυβερνάω / kybernao means "to guide").

Many Greek loan-words spelled with the Kappa [κ] were rendered in Latin script with a C, while others were spelled with K, some others evolved into a G. Compare English phrase "kinetic energy" with French "énergie cinétique". Likewise, "kyber" eventually became "cyber" with Soft C (pronounced as an ordinary S) as opposed to its earlier form where it was pronounced with Hard C (like modern letter K).

The root of the word has entered and re-entered Latin and other languages multiple times across centuries and hence one Greek root, could be seen transliterated into Latin script as "-cyber-", "-kyber-", "-guber-", and "-guver-", with the latter one giving birth to the English word "government".

In fact "cybernetic" (κυβερνητικός) in Greek simply means governmental, gobernatorial or related to government.

To answer your question, in terms of technology "cybernetic" is meant to mean "a thing that guides", in a looser ideologic sense "A machine that guides and helps humans solve tasks or problems".

  • 1
    Just to be quite clear: Greek loan words in /k/ did not generally change to /g/ in Latin. Κυβερν- did, for unknown reasons. It may have gone through Etruscan, or it may be related to the fact that the root itself seems to be Pre-Greek and shows quite a bit of variation. It's not a normal change, though. And the [s] pronunciation as well as the /b/ becoming a /v/ happened after Latin, on the way to French. Oct 24, 2016 at 17:41
  • I didn't imply that all those changes occurred in Greek, merely said that those roots can be seen across various languages. Also speaking of B-V shift: Betta is always rendered as /v/ in Russian: алфавит alfavit (alphabet), Вавилон Vavilon (Babylon), Византия Vizantiya (Byzantium). In modern Greek Betta is actually called Vetta too and it is pronounced like a Latin /v/.
    – Pringles
    Oct 25, 2016 at 11:02
  • It wasn’t clear from your answer whether you were implying that or not, so I thought I’d better clarify in a comment in case someone misinterpreted. The voiced plosives of Ancient Greek all became voiced fricatives (so /b d g → β ð ɣ/, and later on /β → v/) perhaps as early as the third century CE, and most Slavic loans from Greek are later than that, so it makes sense that they represent beta with /v/. That’s an entirely unrelated issue, though: govern/κυβερν- has an irregular change from /k/ to /ɡ/, i.e., unvoiced to voiced. That didn’t normally happen at all (e.g., it’s not Визандия). Oct 25, 2016 at 11:28

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