Cyberlinguistics and cyberetymology

The students in my undergraduate course are moving into questions related to changes in language including semantic shifting, so it seems appropriate to mention this fascinating article over at io9, The Bizarre Evolution of the Word ‘Cyber’.  It’s a compelling story of a single lexical item’s path from technical term to productive and trendy morpheme to unfashionability and … maybe back again from the brink?  Anyway, it’s interesting and has lots of detail.

The Google Ngram for ‘cyber’ shows a brief peak from the mid 1970s to about 1982,  followed by a dramatic drop, followed by a slow and steady increase up to 2000 – as I have detailed previously, anything after 2000 isn’t to be trusted at the Ngram viewer, but given the discussion in the article, we might suspect a dropoff.  Looking at the actual Google Books results, we see that the first period is almost entirely results for Cyber model computers (technical manuals, etc.) and then the later stuff is where you start see the more general references to computing and computer-related sexual connotations.   Bear in mind that that chart is just for the word cyber alone, not for compounds like cyberpunk or cybersex , both of which shoot up starting in the late 80s.

I found it curious, on first reading, that the article didn’t mention the term Cylon, referring to the robots from the 70s TV show Battlestar Galactica, later reconceptualized as androids in the 2000s reimagining.   I had always assumed, that the name originated (in 1978, at the show’s initial inception) as some sort of abbreviation or formation involving ‘cyber’.   Upon reflection, in 1978, that wouldn’t have been a likely derivation, and indeed it seems not to have been.  However, for the reimagined (2003) series, the name ‘Cylon’ was reinterpreted and given a new etymology, as an abbreviation for Cybernetic Lifeform Node.

Author: schrisomalis

Anthropologist, Wayne State University. Professional numbers guy. Rare Words: Blog:

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