Saturday, July 28, 2001

The cyber family

"WE don’t just borrow words; on occasion English has pursued other languages down the alleyways to beat them unconscious and rifle their pockets for new vocabulary", wrote James D. Nicoll. Words elegantly called ‘loan words’ were ‘borrowed’ never to be returned, as was observed with regard to Italian, in the previous column. Some words are ‘borrowed’, their meaning changed and, voila! A whole new group of words springs to life around those borrowed word without so much as ‘by your leave’!

The word cybernetics is one such word which has been treated with complete impunity by English. Cybernetics comes from the Greek kubernetes, steersman, governor. It was borrowed by French as cybernetique, the art of governing. The US mathematician Norbert Wiener, the founder of cybernetics, the theory of control and communication processes, introduced the English cybernetics in 1940. With the growing popularity of computers, there emerged the need for a catchy, pithy word for anything to do with computers, hence, cybernetics became cyber and in the long run, users forgot that cyber was abbreviated from cybernetics.

Not only was the beginning of cyber forgotten, every computer user came up with fresh neologisms for different aspects of computer-use. "Language is a city to the building of which every human being brought a stone", wrote Ralph Waldo Emerson. In this case, the stones brought were mostly back-formations. Back-formation is the creation of one word from another by removing an element. Such words are usually coined for effect or because language-users think that they exist or, ought to exist.

Italian friends
July 7, 2001
Random words
June 23, 2001
Mortal practices, immortal words
June 9, 2001
Passage of words
May 26, 2001
Traces of the past
May 12, 2001
April 28, 2001
Lost origins
April 14, 2001
Words and society
March 31, 2001
Origin of expressions
March 17, 2001
Varied origins
March 3, 2001
Words around the house
February 17, 2001

With the invasion of computers in every sphere of life, words like cyberspace, cyber-romance and cybersex were to be expected, cyberspace being virtual reality or the imagined place where electronic data goes, a notional realm. With reference to the meaning of the word cyber, cybersurfer, cyberterrorism, cyber thriller, cyber war, cyber stalker, cyber squatting and cyber sales are self-explanatory. Enough to give any cyber self (self as projected in cyberspace) a cyber-phobia (fear of computers and related machines)! This kind of exercise in word-formation is beneficial for a language, as it gives birth to all kinds of possibilities for the expansion of the lexicon. Once cyber came to be over-used with a cyber café in every neighbourhood, many kinds of word blends came up. Blends are words that are formed by the joining together of the beginning of one word with the ending of another. For instance, smog, made up of smoke and fog. Cybernaut came into being, for a person who travels frequently in cyberspace, made up of cybernetics and astronaut. Cybrarian, one who guides in cyberspace, from cybernetics and librarian. Cyborg, a fictional creature, part human, part robot, composed of cybernetics and organism, mostly found in cyberpunk, the science fiction of the cyber-age. Now, cyborg has the beginning of two words instead of the ending of one and the beginning of another. This deviation is symptomatic of the tremendous changes taking place in language and its rules. With the tyranny of prescriptive rules tapering off, rules take into account the usage and the users, expanding, contracting accordingly. This enriches the treasure house of language.


Hindi shows no pretensions about borrowing words from other languages. They are called videshaj words, coming from videshi languages, like chai, toofan, patakha and litchi, all from the Chinese.

— Deepti

This feature was published on July 21, 2001