Brave New Words (hereafter BNW) is subtitled "The Oxford Dictionary of Science Fiction", and they're not kidding. No haphazard collection of SF-related terminology, BNW is an impressive piece of scholarship, based on the OED's method of collecting citations to establish both what a word means and when it began to be used. As the editor, Jeff Prucher (whose blog, I note with a bit of disappointment, is not named by analogy with Jim Treacher's) points out, BNW is based on the citations collected by the online OED Science Fiction Citations project. BNW was also copyedited by the linguistiblogosphere's own Language Hat, so you know all those letters and whatnot are in the right place.
I loved this book. If you're a science fiction fan and you've ever wanted to know which writer invented some piece of SF terminology or how the meaning of such a word has changed over time, you really ought to pick up a copy (or three). After I write this review, BNW is going on the shelf right next to the invaluable Clute and Nicholls Encyclopedia of Science Fiction. (Before I wrote this review, BNW spent about four months alternating between my night table and the bathroom—it's just that good.)
Most of the contents of BNW are organized like any other dictionary. Entries are organized alphabetically, and each consists of the headword, a part of speech, and then for each sense of the headword, a definition followed by a series of citations. Here's an example:
mind shield n. a mental barrier that prevents a telepath from reading one's thoughts.
1940 A. E. van Vogt Slan in Astounding S-F (Nov.) 132/2: You will lower your mind shield. Of course, I don't expect absolutely free access to your brain.
[followed by three more citations]
In addition to the definitions, many of the alphabetical sections begin with a short essay about some aspect of SF terminology. Some of the highlights include: "Earthlings", a discussion of the wide variety of terms meaning 'person from Earth'; "Expletives & Profanity", which explores the fertile territory of frak, smeg, frell, and gorram; "Fanspeak", an introduction to the jargon of SF fandom; and "Space Drives", which describes the terminology for various fictional and non-fictional ways of propelling spacecraft. (The remaining essays are "Communications & Entertainment", "Naval Terms", "Robots", "Star Trek", "Time Travel", "Weapons", and "Zines".) These essays provide additional context and structure to BNW, and I really enjoyed them. In fact, I wish that there were more of them, and that they went into more depth about how the SF concepts behind SF words like ringworld and ansible have been borrowed and adapted by later writers—but that's probably beyond the scope of BNW, which after all is a dictionary of SF, not an encyclopedia. (If you're interested in the origins of SF concepts, check out Technovelgy.)
So, if it's the Oxford dictionary of science fiction, what kind of word goes into BNW as opposed to the full OED? The answer seems to be fourfold:
- Words whose origin was in science fiction. Such words may refer only to fictional concepts, but of course the referents may also exist in the real world, since concepts and inventions that originated in SF sometimes really are developed later. (e.g space suit)
- Words that have a particular science fictional usage. These are additional senses of words that already appear in dictionaries of real-world English.
- Words that refer to science fiction itself. This may sound like a narrow category, but in addition to the myriad of synonyms and near-synonyms for science fiction (scientifiction, sci-fi, SF, etc) it includes terms for specific sub-genres of science fiction (e.g. space opera, planetary romance).
- Words that are used in science fiction fandom. There are a lot of these, and if you've never heard of fanac or -h- infixation, prepare to have your eyes opened. (I have to say, I found these the least interesting because I don't have much to do with organized SF fandom, but it's nice to see them given the same scholarly treatment as the rest of the BNW.)
When I first heard of BNW, I mostly had in mind words of the first kind (of science fictional origin), and I have to admit I was skeptical. After all, how many words, outside of a few well-known examples like grok, robot, and cyberspace, come from SF? Well, it turns out, a lot—since science fiction writers are often trying to anticipate the future, they often end up coining terms for things that later come into being. If there's already an existing term for such a things in SF, it stands a good chance of being adopted as the standard English word.1 There are more words of the second and third kind than I expected, too. I was surprised to find that some of the terms from SF criticism that I had assumed were very old are actually of fairly recent vintage. The first citation for planetary romance, for example, is only from 1978—I had thought it was one of the early competitors that lost out to science fiction.
In a dictionary with such a wide scope, it's inevitable that BNW should have missed a few words, but I'm damned if I can think of many. The only ones that occurred to me as I was reading were hard light and [re]fresher. If you can think of more, you should submit them to the SF citations site. Hopefully, BNW represents the current state of a continuing project, and if so, they need as many readers combing through science fiction stories as they can get.
In summary, then: buy this book. Below, I have a lot of detailed comments about various entries in BNW (I count 33 little Post-It tabs sticking out of the pages of my copy), so this is your chance to bail out...
OK, you asked for it. Some of them are suggestions for earlier citations or finer distinctions in meaning for some entries in BNW, while others are just things that caught my attention.
alien: This is an interesting case of a word that started outside of SF—its Latin root means simply 'foreign'—then took on a specifically STFnal meaning, and finally came to be used outside of SF with that new meaning. In fact, the meaning 'space person' has probably become the default English meaning for this word, to the extent some people reject the term illegal alien in part because they feel it dehumanizes the people it is applied to.
artificial intelligence: At first glance, I thought to myself, "Hold on, surely that term was used in scientific research before science fiction," but BNW is referring to a secondary meaning of the term: not artificial intelligence the field, but an artificial intelligence—you know, the talking box that wants to take over the world.
belter: BNW's first citation for this word is from a 1966 Larry Niven story (which, incidentally, might be antedated by the 1965 magazine version of his World of Ptavvs, but I don't have a copy I can check). Niven is certainly the writer I most strongly associate with the term, but Niven has written that his Asteroid Belt civilization was lifted more-or-less wholesale from earlier stories by Randall Garrett; see the aptly-titled "How I Stole the Belt Civilization" in The Best of Randall Garrett for details. Unfortunately, I also don't have copies of any of those stories, but it would be interesting to know if Garrett used the term belter as well, since that would antedate any Niven citation.
BDO (for Big Dumb Object): This is one of the words from SF criticism whose recency surprised me. The first citation is from the 1993 Clute and Nicholls Encyclopedia. Really? It seems like such a natural term for Dyson spheres and ringworlds I'm amazed it hasn't been in use for much longer.
boat (meaning 'spaceship'): This is one of a bunch of early competing terms for what came to be called spaceships. The essay mentioned above, "Naval Terms", talks about how pervasive this kind of nautical borrowing was, including terms like ship, destroyer, space dock, starfleet, and space pirate. The analogy was, I suspect, more natural when spacecraft were expected to be mighty steel giants with crews of dozens or hundreds, requiring separate bridges, engine rooms, and sick bays. The reality of actual spacecraft, where space is at such a premium they're more likely to contain a bridge/shower/toilet/airlock, would seem to call for a new wave of non-naval borrowing, though I'm not sure from where.
cloaking device: Although I've seen it used elsewhere, I strongly associate this term with Star Trek, and apparently I'm right to do so: the first citation is from D. C. Fontana's 1968 script for "The Enterprise Incident".
doubleplusungood: This word is right on the borderline between science fiction term and literary allusion. Prucher mentions in the preface that words like dilithium that are strongly associated with a single fictional world were generally not included in BNW, but then notes that "newspeak is included, since it went directly from Nineteen Eighty-Four into widespread use." I guess doubleplusungood falls into the same category, but has it really escaped its Orwellian origins? I doubt anyone uses it without it being a conscious reference, for both speaker and hearer, to Nineteen Eighty-Four.
elsewhen: Aha, I can antedate it! The first citation listed for elsewhen is from a story from 1943, but it was used earlier, in 1941's "Elsewhen" by Caleb Saunders (actually Robert Heinlein under a pseudonym), which BNW cites as a source for the words anywhen and somewhen. Devil, meet details! [Whoops! Just before I posted this, I thought to check my copy of Robert A. Heinlein: A Reader's Companion, and it's a good thing I did, because "Elsewhen" was titled "Elsewhere" in its original magazine publication. Devil, meet details, indeed!]
FTL (for Faster Than Light): The first citation for the abbreviation is from 1950, which seems impossibly late. Weren't ships traveling faster than light all through the forties? Google Book Search doesn't turn up anything earlier than the cited Fritz Leiber story, though.
gas giant: This was the biggest surprise and the greatest single pleasure for me in BNW. I had no idea this term originated in a 1952 James Blish story. It's impressive how completely this term has been bleached of its science fictional origins. Words like robot still retain a certain whiff of skiffiness even when used in mundane contexts, but I had never detected even a faint hint of science fiction around gas giant (a phrase which, I note, occurs 130 times in the last decade alone in the ISI Web of Knowledge, a research database of scientific abstracts.)
graser (a gamma ray laser): Quick! Name the science fiction author least likely to have first used such a hard-core mil-SF term in 1974! Give up? Answer: Harlan Ellison, in his excellently-titled "Adrift Just off Islets of Langerhans: Latitude 38°54'N, Longitude 77°00'13"W". You could have knocked me over with a feather. However, it doesn't appear that he coined the term, or that it was even originally from science fiction; it goes back at least as far as U.S. patent 3,234,099 (page 6, left column), which was filed in 1963. I think there's also an additional sense of this word floating around in SF, meaning 'gravity laser' or 'graviton laser' (whatever that's supposed to mean, physics-wise), but I couldn't come up with any citations to prove it.
gravityless: The last citation for this word is from a 2004 article in the New Yorker by Oliver Sacks. Here's the quote: "One parkinsonian friend of mine says that [...] being in an accelerated state is like being on ice, frictionless, slipping down an ever-steeper hill, or on a tiny planet, gravityless, with no force to hold or moor him." That's a decidedly mixed metaphor, Dr. Sacks—I'm sure you'd agree that one needs gravity in order to slip down an icy hill, but you also compare the sensation to the lack of gravity. You can't have it both ways, so which is it? Gravityless or gravityful?
holodeck: This word seems ineluctably Star-Trekky to me, but apparently it's begun to leak out into the wider SF world—a trend that should be nipped in the bud post-haste, if you ask me. At least, it's leaking out if we buy the non-Trek citations from 1994 and 1999. I'm a little suspicious that the 1994 citation, which compares the image created by the holodeck to a "computer generated graphic", uses the word to mean 'small device for showing holograms' instead of the Trek-style room that creates artificial environments. The 1999 citation though, from a Norman Spinrad story, seems unassailable. Sigh.
hyperdrive: The second citation, from the 1955 script for Forbidden Planet, contains an excellent bit of technobabble that I wanted to share: "Almost at once there followed the discover of quanto-gravitetic hyper-drive, through which the speed of light was first attained, and later surpassed." Quanto-gravitetic hyper-drive—that's awesome. Is gravitetic supposed to remind me of dietetic? (Because it totally does!)
mad scientist: To me, this seems like another word about SF rather than a word from SF, and so I sort of expected it to be recent. Nope; the first citation is from 1908.
orbital: BNW defines this as 'a space station in orbit around a planet or star', which is reasonable enough. However, the citations include one from Iain M. Banks' Look to Windward, which is set in his Culture universe. In that setting, an orbital isn't really a space station except in a very broad sense; rather, it's a scaled-down ringworld that orbits a star instead of encircling it. I'm not sure if this is worthy of a separate entry, though, since I'm not sure any other fictional universes include Banks-style orbitals.
overdrive: This is another term for a faster-than-light drive. Its first citation is from 1945, but I wondered how that compares to the real-world automotive term overdrive, which refers to a feature of automatic transmissions. Turns out the OED is way ahead of me: the first citation for the automotive term is from 1929 (with the science fictional sense also appearing in the online version of the OED I use.)
prime directive: Another Star Trek word, right? Wrong! First citation: Jack Williamson's "With Folded Hands" (1947), in which it refers to the primary purpose of the humanoids, sleek black robots who protect humans from harm...no matter the cost! (Sorry, I drifted into paperback-cover blurbspeak for a moment there.)
proto-cyberpunk: Hmm, this word doesn't quite strike me as worth including as a separate entry. It's just the attachment of the extremely productive proto- suffix with the already-included word cyberpunk.
sci-fi: It's interesting that the first citation for sci-fi, which has come to be perceived by science fiction fans as a derogatory word for crappy media SF, is from a 1949 letter by Robert Heinlein. He uses it to refer to one of his short stories, and I don't detect any hint of sneering. I wonder if this is really the first use of the term, though; Heinlein doesn't bother to define it, so it might already have been current in 1949.
space drive: BNW defines this as 'a propulsion system for a spaceship', but there's another, more specific definition of the term, in which it refers to some kind of super-scientific reactionless or FTL drive, as compared to the rocket propulsion systems we have now. Check out this page at NASA's web site for an example of this usage.
space person: Just a quibble: of the eight citations for two senses of this word, only one (from 1996) actual includes spaceperson. The rest instead mention space people, surely a different term—people is not the plural of person! In fact, the 1964 citation (from a Jack Vance story) includes the sentence, "Anyone decide they're not really space people after all?" If space person were the primary term, I would have expected Vance to use it there, where surely the singular person would have been more natural-sounding than the pseudo-plural people, though the issue is clouded by his use of they as the gender-neutral singular.
space-sick and space-sickness: The first citations for both of these are from Hugo Gernsback's 1911 Ralph 124C 41+, where it seems to mean something like 'homesickness, except out in space'. This rather backwards coinage (shouldn't it be Earthsick?) seems to me like a different sense from the more common 'nausea caused by weightlessness'.
subjunctivity: This is a useful word, coined by Samuel Delany, that I'd never encountered before. BNW defines it as 'the relationship between something portrayed in a text and reality'. It allows us to talk about the different levels of reality represented by the real world and a piece of science fiction. This is convenient, but the unfortunate collision with the grammatical term it was presumably based on makes it hard to use without being misunderstood. Maybe it could be replaced with some variation on Tolkien's term subcreation, though that comes with its own literary-theoretical baggage (and subcreationality is pretty clumsy).
terraformed: Both this and terraform were apparently coined in 1942 by the same author, Jack Williamson, in stories in his Seetee series. Given that, I'm not sure why the past participle is worthy of a separate entry, since the meaning of the participle is entirely predictable from the base form (and the base form appeared in the earlier of the two stories).
time travel: I was sure, when I saw the first citation was from a 1914 philosophy journal article, that it must be a mistake. After all, H. G. Wells had a character in The Time Machine called "The Time Traveller"—surely he also used the noun time travel somewhere in the story. Nope. When I grep through the Project Gutenberg version of the text, I find only the 56 occurrences of time traveller and 6 occurrences of time travelling. Evidently, since he used only the agentive and progressive forms, for Wells, time travel was...wait for it...a verb!
torch: Ah, I can antedate this one, too. The first citation in BNW is from Heinlein's 1953 story "Sky Lift", but Heinlein used it earlier in 1950's Farmer in the Sky. Here's a quotation from page 57 of the Scribner's edition:
The Mayflower was shaped like a ball with a cone on one side—top shaped. The point of the cone was her jet—although Chief Engineer Ortega, who showed us around, called it her "torch."
Amazon's Search Inside feature doesn't turn up any occurrences of torch ship in FitS, though. It's also worth mentioning that BNW's definition of torch, which mentions a "fusion reaction", is a little too narrow. Although Heinlein does compare the torch to "a tiny sun" in "Sky Lift", I believe he generally used the term to refer to a total conversion drive; that is, one that takes raw mass and somehow ee-equals-em-cee-squares it, thereby extracting the maximum possible energy from its fuel.
One of the things that struck me when reading BNW were the many, many words whose first citation comes from a Robert Heinlein story. That man was an absolute word-coining machine! Just vgrepping through BNW shows he's the first citation for all of the following: anywhen and somewhen, astrogate (though not astrogation or astrogator), cold sleep (n.) and cold-sleep (v.), dirtside, Earth-type, eetee (for E.T.), grok, groundhog, Luna City, moon base, mutation and mutie as synonyms for 'mutant', nova bomb (in "Gulf"), null-grav, parking orbit, pseudo-gravity, rim world, one sense of science fictional, the non-derogatory sense of sci-fi mentioned above, slideway, space (in the transitive sense of 'to kill by expelling into space'), space cadet, stasis field, torch and torchship, tri-dim, vibroblade, waldo, xenobiologist, xenobiology, and xenology.
Heinlein's main competition for the word-coining title appears to be E. E. "Doc" Smith, who's the first citation for: blast off, boat and craft in the sense of spaceship, deep space (the first two citations), Earthlike, Earthperson, extra-dimensional, flitter, groundcar, lifeboat, light as a count noun meaning 'a multiple of the speed of light' (a favorite of mine), needle ray, planetographer, pressure suit, tractor [beam] and pressor [beam], shield (meaning 'force field'), Sol Three, spaceboat, space car, space cruiser, spacehound, spaceworthy and spaceworthiness, spy ray, sub-ether, super-weapon, Tellus, tight-beam, ultrawave, vacuum suit, and visiplate.
By my count, that makes the winner...er, sort of a toss-up. If we count pressor and pressor beam as separate entries and likewise with tractor and tractor beam, the winner is Doc Smith, 34 to 33. If we don't, then Heinlein comes out on top, 33 to 32. I hereby declare it a tie. Interestingly, many of Heinlein's words strike very distinctively his: grok, groundhog, space, torch, etc. In contrast, Smith seems to have coined a lot of terms that passed into general SF use. I suspect that's because Smith started writing more than a decade before Heinlein, and so he simply had to invent more terminology for then-new science fictional concepts.
This stuff is right up my alley, obviously, and I hope BNW is an ongoing project. I'm sure there's a lot of SF terminology that hasn't been covered, and equally sure that earlier citations can be found for many words. Fortunately, the project is built on a method that combines the clever part of Wikipedia—BNW is brought to you in part by the contributions of readers like you—while still applying editorial brainpower to the contributions to make sure things don't get stupid. The results are excellent. I can't wait for the second edition.
1 But this doesn't always happen, which reminds me of a pet peeve. Not too uncommonly, I'll ride one of these in an airport, and it seems like they always call it something like a moving walkway. Bah! There's already a perfectly good (and perfectly clever) term for those, and it's slidewalk. Please make a note of it.