“What a unique word. I wonder where that came from?” ~ Mr.E

If you have heard of “cybersecurity,” you might have wondered in passing where the unique-sounding word originated. If you didn't know, the Cybersecurity industry is massive. In 2023, ISC2 determined that there are 5 million people employed in the global #cybersecurity workforce, with an 8.7% year-over-year increase [1]. Fortune Business Insights released a study indicating that cybersecurity was worth USD 153.65 billion in 2022 and is growing [2].

But what exactly is cybersecurity?

The United States Cybersecurity  & Infrastructure Security Agency (CISA) defines cybersecurity as “the art of protecting networks, devices, and data from unauthorized access or criminal use and the practice of ensuring confidentiality, integrity, and availability of information [3].” However, this explanation still didn't explain where the term originated.

Looking deeper into the origins of cybersecurity, I was puzzled to discover that there wasn't even a consensus on how to spell cybersecurity (or cyber security) internationally. In some countries like the United States, it is spelled as a single word by mashing “cyber” and “security” together. The National Institute of Standards and Technology (NIST)[4] sets this standard for the rest of the United States Government, and the United Nations (UN) also spells it this way[5]. However, in Europe, the United Kingdom National Cyber Security Centre[6] and Australia, the Australian Cyber Security Centre[7] spell it as separate words.

The technological language, especially when adopted by government organizations, does not arrive out of nothing. Something propelled the adoption of “cybersecurity” over other terminology like “Information security,” and I wanted to find out more. Below are my findings as I searched for clues to this digital mystery.

Finding “Cyber” in written literature

Leveraging “Google Ngram Viewer,” I was able to see how often “cyber” was found in printed literature between 1500 and 2019[8]. This tool helped to narrow the search to specific terms and periods to look more deeply into, specifically 1919 to 2019.

A line chart generated from Google NGram Viewer depicting the frequency of the word 'cyber' in English-language books from 1919 to 2019. The chart shows a gradual increase in the usage of the term starting around the 1970s, with a significant rise in the late 20th and early 21st centuries.

(Google Books Ngram Viewer 1919-2019)

1920s – Cyber Frocks

There are only a few references in Google's Ngram viewer before the 1948 rise of cybernetics. These references are typically names, the most prominent being a fashion designer named Madame #Cyber. Madame Cyber was named the Paris “Grande Couturière” [9] of the Place de L'Opéra in the 1929 Fairchild's International Magazine[10] and Vogue[11]. While unrelated to the modern use of the word, her work is some of the oldest use of the word “cyber” as a descriptor and foreshadows how the word shows up in unexpected places.

The image displays two vintage advertisements featuring women's fashion, side by side, likely from a newspaper or magazine.On the left, there is an advertisement titled "Madame Cyber Paris 'Grande Couturière' of the Place de l'Opéra." It features a portrait of a woman, referred to as Madame Cyber, in elegant attire with elaborate details and a decorative neckline. The text beneath the portrait promotes French elegance abroad and highlights the departure of a popular actress from Paris, drawing parallels to Madame Cyber's fashion, emphasizing feminine charm and avant-garde style. On the right, there is another advertisement with the headline "Madame Edouard Bourdet Wears a CYBER Frock." It shows a woman, presumably Madame Edouard Bourdet, wearing a stylish, modern dress with a hat, posing with her hands on her hips. The dress appears simple yet fashionable, indicative of the period's style. The text emphasizes the modern and elegant design of the dress, contributing to the advertisement's focus on promoting the sophistication and trend-setting nature of the CYBER brand.

Propaganda for French Elegance Abroad

The departure from Paris of the popular actress Vera Sergine was mentioned in these columns yesterday. While deploring her absence, the numerous enthusiasts for her talent find comfort in the fact that her tour abroad will score a triumph for the French dramatic art, as well as for that essentially Parisian science: feminine adornment.A convinced advocate of feminine charm in clothes, Madame Vera Sergine has chosen CYBER as her couturière. Her crusade against the wearing of sport-gowns at improper hours will now be pursued in the various capitals, where she is going to appear.

To admiring audiences the world over she will evidence the fact that the Parisian woman still upholds the art of dressing with a distinctly feminine touch while at the same time remaining true to the taste of the day.

The French woman of refinement who sets the fashion chooses her clothes with eclecticism. Though youthful in line, her gowns bear a character of distinction, essential to her discriminating taste.

Vera Sergine will emphasize this note of elegance on the foreign stage. She takes with her over 100 gowns. Some are of charming simplicity, others luxuriously conceived, all of such Parisian finish that compels admiration the world over. Let us thank Vera Sergine for her efficient propaganda in favor of Parisian style. Let us also thank CYBER whose genius for dress-designing has largely made possible this artistic enterprise.


1940s – Cybernetics

The modern use of “cyber” has its roots in #cybernetics, popularized in the late 1940s and 1950s, and has technical but non-digital roots. Cybernetics is the study of communications between living organisms and machines, “communications” being the exchange of information between those in one group and another. It's a complex field that deals with communication and control theory, specifically in the context of automatic systems[12]. Norbert Wiener popularized Cybernetics. He was a brilliant computer scientist, mathematician, philosopher, and writer. He noted that cybernetics was coined from the Greek kybernētēs[13], meaning steersman. The metaphor of the relationship between the action of steering, the feedback of the changing direction of the boat, and the additional adjustments needed for the steering system to have the desired result helped illustrate complex evolving systems.

a photograph of a book titled "CYBERNETICS OR CONTROL AND COMMUNICATION IN THE ANIMAL AND THE MACHINE" by Norbert Wiener. The book is part of the "Actualités Scientifiques et Industrielles" series, numbered 1053. It is published by Hermann & Cie, Éditeurs in Paris, and The Technology Press, John Wiley & Sons, Inc. in New York. The book cover is primarily in light beige with black and red text, and it features a small logo at the center.

(Cover: Cybernetics[14])

In his 1948 book “Cybernetics: Or Control and Communication in the Animal and the Machine,” Weiner argues for examining the mathematical similarities between natural organisms and artificial machine systems, a novel concept for the time. He then explains how feedback in systems is essential for adaptation[15]. He argued that cybernetics could serve as a framework for comprehending and designing systems capable of regulating and adapting to their environments. His work profoundly impacted robotics, computer ethics, and the future of systems like artificial intelligence[16][17].

His follow-up 1950 publication, “The Human Use of Human Beings,” delves into cybernetics and automation's social and ethical implications. He discusses how #technology, particularly in the form of machines and computers, is changing the way humans live and work. This philosophical work compounds what he has already released to stir cultural conversation about evolving technology and how it impacts the world. He advocated for technology that enhances human abilities rather than controls them[18]. Wiener emphasizes the importance of values and ethics in the creation and use of technology, and he raises concerns about the potential dehumanizing effects of unchecked automation [15].

“The world of the future will be an ever more demanding struggle against the limitations of our intelligence, not a comfortable hammock in which we can lie down to be waited upon by our robot slaves.” — Norbert Wiener[19]

1960s – Fine Arts

The works and Norbert Wiener's popularity sparked science fiction, artists, musicians, and intellectuals throughout the 1950s and 1960s[20]. CYSP 1, a collaboration between Nicolas Schöffer and Philips, was a #kinetic sculpture considered the first cybernetic sculpture in art history directly inspired by Wiener's works[21]. Other cybernetics art from the “Cybernetic Serendipity exhibition” at the ICA in London in 1968[22] featured interactive environments where feedback played a role as guests interacted with the spaces played a role in perpetuating the ideation around feedback systems. These sorts of works inspired Susanne Ussing and architect Carsten Hoff to develop several works featuring the word “Cyberspace” nearly a decade before William Gibson would popularize the word in his fiction. Like Madame Cyber and her Cyber frock, Ussing, and Hoff's artwork are unrelated to cyber's eventual domination by technology.

The image is an artwork by Susanne Ussing titled "Cyberspace," created between 1968 and 1970, consisting of collages, dry transfers, and photolithography. It features a large, peach-colored backdrop with a central, vertical split that resembles a stylized, organic crack or fissure. The edges of the split have ruffled outlines, giving it a somewhat natural or organic appearance. In the foreground, there is a silhouette of a solitary figure, presumably a man, standing and facing towards the fissure. The figure is depicted in solid black, creating a stark contrast against the lighter background. The bottom of the artwork includes a sandy or earthy-toned section with the word "CYBERSPACE" written in capital letters, suggesting a conceptual or metaphorical landscape. The overall composition evokes a sense of exploration or contemplation of the digital realm symbolized by "cyberspace."

(Susanne Ussing, Cyberspace, 1968–70, collages, dry transfers and photolithography. From Kunstkritikk “The (Re)invention of Cyberspace”[21])

1980s – Cyberspace

William Gibson is considered a prolific science fiction writer for popularizing the idea of the *modern* Internet and virtual reality before either existed[23]. William Gibson was a leader in what came to be known as #cyberpunk, a subgenre of science fiction writing. He is credited with popularizing the term “cyberspace” in his early 1982 short story Burning Chrome[23] and 1984 novel “Neuromancer.”[25] “Neuromancer” was so influential that cyberspace now generally refers to anything related to computing and the Internet[26]. The word has been adopted by technology strategists, security professionals, governments[27], the military, industry, and many fictional works. This adoption has led to a sprawl of new terms such as #cybersecurity (or cyber security), cyber defense, cyberbullying, cyber warfare, #cybercitizen, #cyberattackers, #cybercrime, #cybercriminals, #cybernaut, cyber safety, cybersex, #cyberterrorism, and many many more[28].

This screenshot shows a Google Books Ngram Viewer graph tracking the frequency of use of the terms "Cyber," "Cybersecurity," "Cyberspace," "Cybernetics," and "Cyber Security" over time from 1920 to around 2019. The y-axis represents the percentage of all words in the corpus that are the specified term, while the x-axis represents the years. The line for "Cyber" shows a significant increase, especially after the year 2000, rising sharply towards 2019. "Cyberspace" and "Cybernetics" show moderate increases over time, while "Cybersecurity" and "Cyber Security" also rise but more gradually compared to "Cyber." Each term is color-coded differently for easy distinction.

(Google Books Ngram Viewer 1919-2019)

But how did a work of fiction drive the adoption of “cyber”? In the book, “Make it So, Interaction Design Lessons from Science Fiction,” Nathan Shedroff and Christopher Noessel conclude that fictional examples of technology become an expectation and the default reference when describing new solutions. It is easier to reference fictional facsimiles than to describe a technology that no one has a reference for[29]. The computing landscape was proliferating at this time. Earlier in 1984, Apple's “1984” commercial aired during Super Bowl XVIII and was considered a turning point for the marketing of computers and signaled the rise of the personal computer[30]. Similar to how artists of the 1960s and 1970s were drawn to the potential of cybernetics, the growing potential of computers ignited the imagination of those producing and consuming technology who needed ways to describe the forming digital world. In the 2016 republishing of Gibson's novel “Neuromancer,” the introduction by the author Neil Gaiman points out that speculative fiction is remarkable in that it inspires the reader to rethink how they see their current world through the ideas in the story and map new horizons into their own realities[31], which combined with the unprecedented access to computers fueled the adoption of the word #cyberspace.

“Cyberspace. A consensual hallucination experienced daily by billions of legitimate operators, in every nation, by children being taught mathematical concepts . . . A graphic representation of data abstracted from the banks of every computer in the human system. Unthinkable complexity.”  William Gibson in Neuromancer

Through their distinct and charismatic communication, Wiener and Gibson influenced the world by fostering a deeper understanding of the intricacies of interconnected systems and the transformative power of technology on our lives and society as a whole. Wiener had a unique ability to explain complex ideas in a way that was accessible to the general public. He achieved this through public lectures, books, and articles, including his work on ethical and social concerns. His ideas and discussions about the interplay between humans and machines, control systems, and feedback loops directly influenced the emerging culture, including the science fiction genre, leading the way for such speculative fiction as Gibson's #Neuromancer. Ultimately, Gibson's depiction of cyberspace influenced popular culture's framing of the Internet and virtual networks.


There is an argument in Shakespeare's “Romeo and Juliet” about whether a name is important if the underlying person, place, or thing is ultimately the same. Juliet says, “A rose by any other name would smell as sweet[32].” By reviewing its modern history, we see time and again how the word “cyber” lurked just below the surface in several different disciplines and how it came into widespread usage. Over the 20th and 21st centuries, “cyber” has reappeared in several contexts that continue to grow and adapt. How different would it be today if “cyber” had become a fashion brand instead of a digital description? With only a few historical adjustments, “cyber” could have been claimed by fashion, fine arts, robotics, or biology jargon.

Ultimately, the widespread adoption of “cyber” developed from the cultural legacy of cybernetics futuristic popularity, inspiring science fiction and art. Combined with the timing of the speculative fiction novel “Neuromancer,” in a time when widespread personal computing, “cyberspace” was propelled into modern usage to help describe concepts that had yet to be branded. “Cyberspace” and its derivatives were catapulted into modern usage by the legacy of cybernetics as well as the evolving digital culture. Only time will tell how they will continue to evolve.

Resources and Footnotes