Mind your language

The real problem with the Fatima advert

31 October 2020

9:00 AM

31 October 2020

9:00 AM

An advertisement from GCHQ provoked angry comment because it seemed to suggest that some ballet dancers would be better working with computers, or as it put it: ‘Fatima’s next job could be in cyber.’

The angry brigade said that ballet dancers should not have to give up their art. I suspect too an element of hatred of the state’s security apparatus. No doubt the advert gave the dancer the name ‘Fatima’ hoping to attract people of a Muslim background (Fatima being Mohammed’s daughter). The man who took the original photograph expressed outrage. The woman depicted, from Atlanta, Georgia, is called Desire’e Kelley, who apparently uses an apostrophe in her first name rather than the conventional acute accent.

What annoyed me was the use of cyber as a noun. This seems parallel to the use of digital in the Department for Digital, Culture, Media & Sport. Department for digital what? It is like the usage of the adjective electric that the Oxford English Dictionary labels ‘colloquial’, as in: ‘Who’s going to pay the rent and electric?’ One can see how this might have derived from the names of electricity supply companies, some still visible on inspection covers in London pavements: Westminster Electric Supply Corporation. Here you’d expect a noun used attributively — as in water supply (rather than watery supply). Of the ten electricity companies that went to form the London Power Company in 1925, three had Electricity Supply in their names, four Electric Supply, two Electric Lighting and one Electric Light.

As for cyber, it has enjoyed an existence only in the past 30 years, as an adjective. It derives from cybernetics, which in Norbert Wiener’s Cybernetics(1948) applied to ‘the field of control and communication theory, whether in the machine or in the animal’. Its curious derivation was from kybernetes, the Greek for ‘steersman’. The organic-mechanical amalgamation was still evident in the Doctor Who robot monsters, the Cybermen (1966). These were cyborgs (cyber-organisms). No one thought of Cyberwomen until 2006.

Of course, by the Turing Test, a robot Cyberwoman would make a perfect ballet dancer if you could not distinguish it from the real thing.

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