DeFlip Side #31: SF Meets the OED


Welcome everyone. This is DeFlip Side.

Now, everyone, gather round and listen to the following passage:

“The flying saucer dropped out of hyperspace and slipped into a parking orbit high above the unsuspecting Earth. Healy’s pod dropped from the belly of the mothership and made planetfall, gliding down silently on its null-g forcefield until it hovered directly over the predetermined coordinates. A large farmhouse, as it turned out, a detail apparently missed by the esper scouts uptime. Healy laughed at the irony. Here he was at the vanguard of a group of crack chrononauts, jumping the timestream only to arrive like some little green man getting ready to zap a yokel up in his tractor beam.”

Okay. Before you begin to wonder overmuch, this isn’t the beginning of some new space opera penned by yours truly. I inflict this poor prose to prove a point: it shows just how commonplace the once-fantastic notions of Science Fiction have become in our society. Even if you weren’t an SF fan, you’d still be able to build a pretty good mental picture of the exploits of crack chrononaut Healy. But if you were living a hundred or so years ago, you’d be scratching your head at this meaningless stream of gibberish. Hyperspace? Tractor beam? Forcefield? Huh? It just goes to show you how deeply Science Fiction has embedded itself into the collective psyche in the relatively short span of a century.

Etymologists are just beginning to catalog this new language of the 20th Century, for no less reputable a source than the Oxford English Dictionary. Yes, the grand old OED, the premiere authority and archive of the English language, has decided to risk its impeccable credibility by sullying its proud pages with terms like ray gun and death ray, wormhole and warp drive. You can hear the collective gasps of the old codgers in the University Club, their monocles dropping as they widen their eyes in disbelief.

To be fair, I’m maligning the OED a bit by painting it with such an elitist brush. Actually, it was first compiled with the notion of providing an authoritative, universal and, above all, credible catalogue of the English language. Before the OED, the few dictionaries that did exist were subject to the whims and prejudices of whichever editors happened to be compiling them. The OED broke this tradition by soliciting words from anyone interested in sending one in. The editors would then arrive at a definition and cite the earliest verifiable use of the word in that given context.

Thanks to this open admissions policy, the history of the OED is studded with odd anecdotes, the most famous of which was recounted by Simon Winchester in his excellent book, The Professor and the Madman: A Tale of Murder, Insanity and the Making of the Oxford English Dictionary. The book tells the tale of one of the dictionary’s first editors, Professor James Murry, and his ongoing correspondence with Dr. W.C. Minor, who alone contributed more than 10,000 words to the book. Unbeknownst to Professor Murray, Dr. Minor was an inmate at an asylum for the criminally insane. Winchester’s book is fascinating and entertaining and I highly recommend it. And the author has since returned to the topic of the OED, taking a more complete look at the tome’s checkered past in his latest book: The Meaning of Everything: The Story of the Oxford English Dictionary.

But despite the funny stories, the open citation process was a resounding success, and is still the policy today. Readers are encouraged to provide new words, cite earlier examples of the first use of existing words and help arrive at more precise definitions.

Now, with the advent of the Internet, the OED has taken the opportunity to expand its citation process into the digital realm by launching an online pilot program to target aficionados of words associated with specialized interests. And the first specialized words they’ve set out to compile are, appropriately, those found in Science Fiction.

When I logged onto the pilot site, I expected to find a few terms like the ones I mentioned earlier—the kitschy contraptions and concepts that have been the workhorses of Science Fiction. But, this being the OED, I should have known better. The dictionary is looking for citations on more than 620 words. Granted, a few of these are in the dictionary already, and the editors just fishing for earlier verifiable sources of the words in question; but the bulk of the words are slated for inclusion. And we’re not talking about specialized terms for Sci-Fi geeks. Most people would recognize a good 80 percent of the words listed. It really lends perspective to how prevalent Science Fiction has become in the way we define the world around us. And as if this wasn’t enough, the words for citation are broken down into three categories: Science Fiction, SF Criticism and SF Fandom.

With such a wealth of information, there were some interesting etymological discoveries. The term “outer space” has been around since the 1870s; “death ray” was coined as far back as 1919. I don’t know what a death ray would have shot back then. Electricity, maybe? But the granddaddy of the SF word game is H.G. Wells. In 1895, he introduced us to the phrases time traveler and time machine; it took another forty odd years for Clifford Simack to come up with the concepts of timestream and time warp. And it wasn’t until 1974 that Philip K. Dick wrote about chrononauts.

And if Wells can lay claim to time, then we have to give space to E.E. “Doc” Smith. In 1931 he came up with tractor beams and forcefields. He followed those up in 1934 with hyperspace and mothership. These words, and variations on the concepts they represent, provided the underpinnings of practically every hard science fiction story that has been written since. A.E. van Vogt came along in the 1940s to give us subspace and videophones.

The 1950s saw the advent the term “genetic engineer” thanks to Poul Anderson; Alfred Bester got in on the act as well with the term null-g in his novel The Stars My Destination. The same decade also saw Bester’s creation of the word esper to denote someone with psychic powers, and Robert Heinlein’s use of the word nova as a verb, as in to “go nova.”

We also have Heinlein to thank for a term near and dear to most of us: Sci Fi, which popped up in letter he wrote in 1949. And speaking of Sci Fi, that reminds me of that cantankerous old blankity-blank, Harlan Ellison. It looks like we have Harlan to thank for the first usage of the work trekkie, back in 1972.

Okay, you’re saying. So what? When you come down to it, these are pretty simple words and concepts. What’s the big deal? To which I answer, the wheel looks pretty simple and obvious, too, once you’ve seen one, but I didn’t see you running around inventing the damn thing. Their simplicity is what makes these words so fascinating and well used. They have boiled extremely complex ideas down into readily understandable concepts.

The website also charts the word origins by date, and it’s interesting to see the picture that emerges. You find most of the general Science Fiction terms being created between 1930 and 1960, with the creative peak in the 1940s. The bulk of the terms associated with the fandom that followed were created in the 1950s. And, as is usual, the establishment clocks in last, with most of the words associated with Science Fiction criticism being coined in the 1980s and 90s, when it became socially acceptable to consider Science Fiction on a level above derivative kid stuff. Either that, or the fans had finally gained enough power and credibility to become the establishment. But however you chart the explosion of Science Fictional concepts into the popular consciousness, one thing the OED proves is that they’re here to stay.

If you’d like to check out the compilation in action, and maybe even make a citation of your own, you can do so at But that URL is such a pain, you’d probably be better off going to your favorite search engine and typing in the keywords OED Science Fiction citations. Once there you’ll get more information on the citation process and even some sample submissions to guide you.

But be careful to check it out when you have some time on your hands. While doing the research for this segment, I got sidetracked trying to find a reference earlier than the 1995 one listed for the term jump gate. I was positive that I had seen it in Larry Niven’s and Jerry Pournell’s 1974 novel The Mote in God’s Eye. If you’re a book geek like me, it’s easy to get caught up.

Well, I aborted my frantic skimming so I could finish writing this. And if I was wrong, and it’s not in the book, it’s no big deal, because I’ve decided to submit an all new word for inclusion: DeFlipian, meaning a mildly derivative but ultimately useless observation or series of observations.

Used in a sentence it would go something like: “Howard found that the segment he was producing had become decidedly DeFlipian, so he potted up the background music.”