Word Routes

Exploring the pathways of our lexicon

From "Cyber Monday" to "Cyber Week"

Retailers, not content with branding products, have lately taken to branding days of the week, as a way to hype the holiday shopping rush. "Black Friday," the name for the day after Thanskgiving, was transformed from a negative to a positive by some clever etymological mythologizing (make that etymythologizing). Then the Monday after Thanksgiving was christened "Cyber Monday," and now some marketers would like to extend that to a "Cyber Week."

If you don't know the true story behind "Black Friday," check out my Word Routes column last year and my interview on WBUR's "Radio Boston" last week. What started out as a pejorative term from Philadelphia traffic cops was successfully rebranded via a false etymology claiming that "Black Friday" was the day that retailers turned a profit on the year, going "in the black." With Black Friday recognized as a day to get the jump on the shopping season, retail marketers have set their sights on other days of the week.

In 2005, the online retail association Shop.org coined "Cyber Monday" for the Monday after Thanksgiving, in a conscious effort to pump up enthusiasm for e-commerce. I wrote about it at the time for Language Log, and returned to the topic the following year when a company called Coremetrics tried to debunk the notion that "Cyber Monday" was the biggest online shopping day of the year. Coremetrics argued that the true zenith of online commerce occurred a week later, on a day that they dubbed "eDay." I wrote:

In this battle of marketing coinages, "eDay" has certain advantages: the snappy "e-" prefix is a bit more au courant than "cyber-", William Gibson fans notwithstanding. (Really, when was the last time you heard anyone refer to "cyberspace" unironically? It sounds so Matrix-y and Y2K-ish.)  Plus, "eDay" has triumphal resonances with "V-Day" and "D-Day."

But I wouldn't count on "eDay" gaining the neologistic upper hand over "Cyber Monday." Media commentators have firmly latched on to the "Cyber Monday" concept, even as they acknowledge that it isn't really the busiest online shopping day of the season. Perhaps writing about Cyber Monday helps fill the post-Thanksgiving lull in the news cycle, and it's an easy followup to the boilerplate "Black Friday" shopping stories. I would also expect online retailers to continue transforming Cyber Monday into a legitimate shopping event by offering all sorts of sales and promotions for the Monday after Thanksgiving. It could take another year or two, but the self-fulfilling marketing prophecy of Cyber Monday might still come to pass.

Here we are in 2012, and Cyber Monday has further cemented its place in the retail calendar. (Sorry, eDay.) Last year, comScore reported that Cyber Monday had indeed become the biggest online shopping day of the year, and it also extended the concept to a post-Thanksgiving "Cyber Week." This year, Walmart wants us to shop for online deals for the entirety of "Cyber Week," which began on Saturday (the day after Black Friday — also known as "Small Business Saturday," in an initiative begun by American Express two years ago).

Regardless of whether Walmart and other retailers successfully extend Cyber Monday into a weeklong buying binge, I find it remarkable that cyber- continues to have legs in the realm of marketing, when it seems rather tired elsewhere. Our regular contributor Stan Carey mused on the prefix last year for the Macmillan Dictionary blog, tracing it from its roots in cybernetics, Norbert Wiener's 1948 neologism. As Stan explains, "It comes from the Greek kybernētēs, meaning steersman, guide, governor, and was originally used to describe the comparative study of control and communication systems in machines and living creatures."

The cyber- prefix started off slowly in the '60s, with cyberculture first used in 1963 and cybernaut in 1965. Then in the early '80s came cyberphobia (1981), cyberspace (1982), and cyberpunk (1983). It was science fiction writer William Gibson's creation of cyberspace in particular that encouraged further cyber-coinages, especially when that word became synonymous for the Internet and the Web built upon it. The '90s brought cyberwar (1992), cyberterrorist (1993), cybercafe (1994), and many more, but the productivity of cyber- tailed off after that.

In 2006 I already felt that cyber- sounded a bit dated, and the intervening years haven't been kind to the prefix... except for the advent of "Cyber Monday" and now "Cyber Week." As with the rebranding of "Black Friday," marketing minds have taken lexical lemons and made lemonade, revitalizing the played-out cyber- combining form as a successful advertising gambit. Just as our conspicuous consumption at this time of year can get out of hand, our consumption of language might not be so pretty either.

Update: I spoke about the proliferation of names for shopping days on the public radio show Marketplace.

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Ben Zimmer is language columnist for The Wall Street Journal and former language columnist for The Boston Globe and The New York Times Magazine. He has worked as editor for American dictionaries at Oxford University Press and as a consultant to the Oxford English Dictionary. In addition to his regular "Word Routes" column here, he contributes to the group weblog Language Log. He is also the chair of the New Words Committee of the American Dialect Society. Click here to read more articles by Ben Zimmer.