Where does the language of cyber security come from?

As our cyber security course gets started we dig a little deeper into the language of technology.

As our cyber security course gets started we dig a little deeper into the language of technology.

With unprecedented technological growth (60,000 apps hit the app store every month) names for tech are in high demand. So where does this language come from? Is it conjured from nothing? Hacked together like franken-words? Is it just existing words reappropriated, repurposed, recycled? Let’s explore.

1. Phishing

Phishing FutureLearn Cybersecurity

If someone’s phishing, they’re trying to get private information by pretending to be a legitimate enquirer – it’s usually done via email. An altered version of ‘fishing’, the first (apparent) use of phishing is in 1995 in documents from AOL. The use of the fishing analogy is clear (you’re luring someone in), the addition of the ‘ph’ on the other hand is a little trickier to work out  It may have been done purely to differentiate from ‘fishing’ but it’s more likely to be related to ‘phreak’ – someone who defrauded phone (hence ph) companies in the 1970s.


Worm FutureLearn Cybersecurity

A ‘worm’, in the world of tech, is a computer program that replicates itself so it can spread to other computers (usually for less than pleasant reasons). Like phishing the analogy here is clear – a worm is something typically seen as an unwanted, something that burrows in, an infestation. So how did it end up a sort-of-homonym? The first usage is actually in fiction, in John Brunner’s 1975 sci-fi novel The Shockwave Rider: “you have the biggest-ever worm loose in the net”.

3. Trojan

Trojan FutureLearn Cybersecurity

Another analogy – this time borrowed from the Ancient Greeks and their trojan horse myth. A trojan in today’s world however is a computer program that misleads the user, posing as one thing whilst being something else entirely. Although it’s hard to track down the first use, computer trojans emerged in the 1980s, proving that Ancient Greeks were great at spinning long-lasting tale. 

4. Malware

Malware FutureLearn Cybersecurity

One of the easiest words to work out the origins of, malware, the umbrella term for nasty software, is a compound of ‘malicious software’. There’s now a proliferation of ‘wares’: software, hardware, spyware, adware, ransomware, wetware. The last being an interesting reversal – an application of technological language to biological matter, wetware = the brain or the nervous system.

5. Firewall

Firewall FutureLearn Cybersecurity

Similar to worm, a firewall is another sort-of-homonym (and a sort-of-analogy). In the technological sense it’s a security feature that protects your computer from potentially dangerous online traffic but in the original 1850s sense it meant a physical wall meant to stop the spread of fire. Now these walls stop digital fires.

Now you know some of the lingo join Introduction to Cyber Security

(Or if it’s language you’re after, check out our language courses.)
Category Digital Skills

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