SF in the OED, Sept. 2016

September 17th, 2016

This quarter’s OED update has a bit of a theme to it. Of the seven words or senses added, three of them are related to Roald Dahl. They’re from different sections of the alphabet, so I have to assume this is intentional, but I don’t recall seeing this kind of pattern before. (Although, since I’m focused on SF, I could easily be overlooking other, similar clusters in areas in which I lack expertise.)

The Dahl-centric words are: Dahlesque, Oompa-Loompa, and golden ticket.

Dahlesque is defined simply as “Resembling or characteristic of the works of Roald Dahl,” which is pretty much how you have to define “authors-name+esque”; fortunately, they have a great note, which reads: “Dahl’s writing, particularly his children’s fiction, is typically characterized by eccentric plots, villainous or loathsome adult characters, and gruesome or black humour,” which sums up both Dahl and why you might compare someone (or something) to him very nicely, indeed. This also raises the count of eponyms from fantastika writers in the OED to eight.

Oompa Loompa seems to have joined munchkin as a term with a fantasy etymon that can be applied to short people. Unlike munchkin, however, it is also used as an adjective describing orange-colored people, as in this 1994 citation: “Self-tanners, which in the past tended to make you look like an Oompa-Loompa, now provide a much more even, natural-looking color.” (The orange sense is not directly from Dahl — as the OED notes, in Charlie and the Chocolate Factory, they were originally black-skinned [white in later editions]; it was the 1971 film that made them orange.)

And finally, golden ticket, “a (gold or golden-coloured) ticket, esp. one that grants the holder a valuable or exclusive prize, experience, opportunity, etc.; also fig.” While not original to Dahl — the earliest citation is from 1859 — I would bet that modern usage is influenced by the Golden Ticket which got Charlie into the famed Chocolate Factory (in both novel and film).

Moving on from Dahliana, they have added two terms for matter transmitters:

Transmat hails from 1959 (100 years after the first golden ticket!) in Larry M. Harris’s (aka Laurence M. Janifer) story “Obey that Impulse!” Curiously, the last two citations (1983 and 2008) are both from Doctor Who novels — one from the novelization of “The Five Doctors” and one original novel, “Shining Darkness.” I would prefer to see recent citations from non-Who sources mixed in, unless “Doctor Who” really is the only reason the term is still used.

The other is transporter, which is usually associated with “Star Trek,” but the OED has a first citation of 1957, from Gordon R. Dickson’s story “Cloak and Stagger.” Of the four citations, the next two are from “Star Trek” — the pilot “The Cage” and Vonda N. MacIntyre’s novel “The Entropy Effect” — and a cite from a mainstream novel that directly references “Star Trek.” Again, it would be nice to see non–Trek-allusive citations, unless Trek is the only reference for the term. (In this case, I can state with certainty that it is not, although it is surely the vector for any mainstream use, and likely for most post-1960s SF, as well.) But the OED seems less concerned with that sort of thing than I am.

This brings the number of synonyms of matter transmitter in the OED to four: matter transmitter, matter transporter, transmat, and transporter. Which beats BNW by one, although we overlap only on “matter transmitter.” The two I have that the OED lacks are teleport and teleporter. This, despite the fact that their definition for transmat ends with “a matter transmitter, a teleporter.” In dictionary parlance, I believe this is known as “word not in,” which is usually a no-no, although I imagine keeping up with it is pretty hard in a continuously-updated work like the OED3. (I’m going to assume that it means that “teleport” will be added in a future update.)

Moving from “Doctor Who” and “Star Trek” to another media-SF behemoth, we have two final SFnal additions: Yoda and Yoda-like.

Yoda, n., is glossed as “A person who embodies the characteristics of Yoda, esp. in being wise; an elder, sage, or guru.” It dates from 1984 (for reference, “The Empire Strikes Back” was released in 1981). Yoda-like is defined, as you might expect, as “Resembling or reminiscent of Yoda.” In addition to the wise and/or elder aspects, other characteristics referenced in the citation are his diminutive stature and characteristic syntax.

SF in the OED, June 2016

July 27th, 2016

June was a good month for fantastika in the OED.

For starters, we have Afrofuturism (“A movement in literature, music, art, etc., featuring futuristic or science fiction themes which incorporate elements of black history and culture.”) and Afrofuturist (though the latter is only as an adjective, not a noun). Of the various futurisms, this one seems to have the most coverage, both in terms of publication within its community, as well as in the popular press, and it’s nice to see it here. (As a side note, a new sub-entry for futurism has been added, which broadly covers this use, but doesn’t quite get at the way it’s coming to be used in compounds such as Chicanafuturism and indigenous futurism.)

Alpha Centauri joins Vega as the only (to my knowledge) extra-solar location to have a toponym in the OED. Since any named star system can (and probably has at some point) have inhabitants attributed to it, I find the inclusion of these two to be very interesting. Vegan was added in the 1993 additions series, and I’ve always assumed it was because it shares a spelling with “vegan” in the sense of someone who abstains from animal products. New in this update is Alpha Centaurian, which turns out to used in philosophy as an example of someone who would have a non-human or non-terrestrial perspective, as in this quote: “Martians, Venusians and Alpha Centaurians would all doubtless have their own special forms of the hollow world theory.” There’s a similar sub-entry for Centaurian, as well. Both appear to have been coined by Hal K. Wells in Astounding in 1931. I am curious what the policy for inclusion of toponyms is; so far, it seems that for extra-solar ones, its limited to words that could either cause confusion (“Vegan” for “vegan”) or have additional shades of meaning, but I don’t know whether this is just a coincidence.

The update also includes an update to the word “star,” so you’d think that there would have been a lot of opportunities for sfnal words here, but surprisingly there are only two: starbase and stardrive, both run-on to the entry for star. The starbase entry includes the note “originally and frequently in the name of such a base,” which I thought was interesting. The first citation is from the 1944 short story “Star Base X” by Robert Moore Williams. Stardrive has a first citation from Poul Anderson (“Genius,” 1948).

Starship, curiously, is not run-on to “star” (I have no idea what their criteria for run-ons is, but it seems a bit arbitrary in this case). It’s been in the OED for a while, but they’ve updated it with a new first citation: 1882, from a book by John Ballou Newbrough titled (in part): Oahspe: A New Bible in the Words of Jehovih and His Angel Ambassadors. This is a rather unusual book, and I haven’t spent enough time with it to tell whether this is really the sfnal sense of “starship,” or whether I would treat it as a bracketed citation (i.e. an early use in a sense related to what it finally came to mean).

My favorite from this set, though, is ansible. This is the instantaneous-communication device created by Ursula K. Le Guin in Rocannon’s World. I remember being struck as a youth when I came across the word in Orson Scott Card’s Ender’s Game; I was used to the shared vocabulary of SF writing, but this may have been the first time I encountered a word that I had so deeply associated with a particular author occurring in the work of another author. This is still one of my great pleasures in reading SF — the way that words and ideas are cross-pollinated throughout the genre. “Ansible’s” place in the SF lexicon is interesting, too. It hasn’t had the level of adoption of a lot of SF neologisms, but it feels like an important word to me. It’s instantly recognizable, and could probably have served as a shibboleth at some point — anyone moderately well-read in SF could reasonably have been expected to recognize it, but because (unlike, say, “robot,” or “grok,” or “TARDIS”) its use never left the bounds of genre, most other people wouldn’t. That’s my impression, anyway, and I’m very glad to see it in the OED.

SFnal Onomastics: Fantastic Asteroids

April 15th, 2016

Jack McDevitt recently had an asteroid named after him, (328305) Jackmcdevitt, which is a pretty cool honor. The Visible Suns blog sought and found a number of additional asteroids named for SF authors, and plotted their orbits, which is also pretty cool.

Being a fan of SFnal onomastics, and probably overly fond of lists, I thought I’d take a look and see what other minor planets have names that derive from authors or works of fantastika. The Minor Planet Center has a handy list, which I used to try to find them. This is a decidedly unscientific survey. The results are basically me trying to guess who might be popular, well-known, or “classic” enough for someone to nominate, plus scanning randomly through the list. (McDevitt’s asteroid is the 328,305th one found, so that’s a very long list to scan through. I didn’t even try to be thorough.) The MPC, besides the handy text list, has a database that includes a note about what the minor planet was named for; however, the database isn’t searchable by keywords in the text, nor is it indexed by Google, so there’s no way to simply search the database for strings like “science fiction” and “fantasy,” which would make a comprehensive list much simpler. (Wikipedia, slightly surprisingly, lacks a category of “minor planets named for SF writers” which is totally the kind of thing it would have, although it does have a list of minor planets named after people, which was much too large to help me much, unfortunately.)

Bearing all those caveats in mind, here are the ones I was able to find, plus the ones listed on Visible Suns. I’m being very generous with what qualifies as fantastika here, since I think it’s more fun that way. However, for people who are more peripherally associated with SF, I only included them if the citation (follow the links) mentions something to do with the fantastic. So Rabelais is in, but Jack London, Johannes Kepler, and Leo Szilard are all out, even though they all wrote at least some SF or fantasy. The idea being that this list is of people (and things) who were honored for some contribution to fantastika. Also bear in mind that I am unquestionably missing scads of asteroids; feel free to add more in the comments if you know of any.

(25924) DouglasAdams (note last two digits of the asteroid number)
(7758) Poulanderson
(5020) Asimov
(5099) Iainbanks
(230765) Alfbester
(11510) Borges
(9766) Bradbury
(21811) Burroughs
(14976) Josefcapek
(1931) Capek
(6984) Lewiscarroll
(77185) Cherryh
(4923) Clarke
(7016) Conandoyle
(3582) Cyrano
(5748) DaveBrin
(10177) Ellison
(91007) Ianfleming
(6312) Robheinlein
(115561) FrankHerbert
(10758) Aldoushuxley
(3412) Kafka
(196772) FritzLeiber
(3836) Lem
(7644) Cslewis
(2625) Jack London
(12353) Marquez
(328305) JackMcDevitt
(11020) Orwell
(17427) Poe
(12284) Pohl
(127005) Pratchett
(152319) Pynchon
(5666) Rabelais
(10895) Aynrand
(43844) Rowling
(2578) Saint-Exupery
(228883) Cliffsimak
(3054) Strugatskia
(2675) Tolkien
(2362) Mark Twain
(5231) Verne
(5676) Voltaire
(25399) Vonnegut
(196540) Weinbaum
(235281) Jackwilliamson
(238129) Bernardwolfe

(8883) Miyazakihayao
(11356) Chuckjones
(28600) Georgelucas
(4659) Roddenberry
(25930) Spielberg

(13562) Bobeggleton

David Bowies:
(342843) Davidbowie

Characters not appearing in Lewis Carrol’s oeuvre:
(29401) Asterix
(2991) Bilbo
(9007) James Bond (Note the number.)
(12410) Donald Duck
(224617) Micromegas
(58345) Moomintroll
(274020) Skywalker
(14941) Tomswift
(10160) Totoro

Lewis Carroll characters:
(6042) Cheshirecat
(17712) Fatherwilliam (Actually a character within a poem within Alice.)
(17627) Humptydumpty
(7470) Jabberwock (Ditto)
(6735) Madhatter
(8889) Mockturtle
(17518) Redqueen
(9387) Tweedledee
(17681) Tweedledum
(17612) Whiteknight
(17942) Whiterabbit
(Note that there is an asteroid named “Alice” but there’s no indication which Alice it’s named after.)

(9777) Enterprise
(9769) Nautilus
(3325) TARDIS

(1819) Laputa

(15907) Robot

(2309) Mr. Spock. This was actually named after a cat who was named after the character.

What conclusions can we draw from this?

Minor planet namers are clearly besotted with the Alice books, for some reason. I mean, they’re major works of literature, truly wonderful, greatly beloved, and overall quite worthy of besottedness, but I’m not sure why Carroll is so over-represented compared to other beloved creators; there is no other creator with more than one character that I could find (fantastical or otherwise). Although the moons of Uranus are named after characters from Shakespeare (and Alexander Pope), so that probably accounts for the paucity of Shakespearean characters (not that I looked very hard, since his characters are mostly not fantastic, and his two most clearly fantastical works are the main ones the Uranian moons are drawn from).

Not a lot of women here, or people of color. (Note that this is just an observation on the SFnal asteroids, not all named asteroids, which I haven’t looked at enough to make generalizations about.) I’m sure I’ve missing some, but can we have an Octaviabutler or Ursulaleguin or Sunra? Pretty please?

Virtually no comic creators or characters: Asterix is the only one I could find. And no television that’s not Star Trek- or Doctor Who-related. (Again, that I could find.) Dunno what to say about that, other than get on the stick, media fans.

Also, what is up with the utter lack of naming conventions? We have names separated with a space (Mark Twain, Donald Duck); names where all the parts are mushed together in title case (Cslewis, Cheshirecat, Miyazakihayao); names mushed together but in camelcase (JackMcDevitt, FrankHerbert); and some highly informal names (Cliffsimak, Alfbester). Actually, now that I think of it, the lack of standardization is kind of glorious. Objection withdrawn.


January 24th, 2015

There’s been a long and fascinating conversation on the listserv of the American Dialect Society about fictional materials and their inclusion (or, more frequently, non-inclusion) in dictionaries, which led me to discover that the OED has included both unobtainium and impervium recently. Unobtainium is primarily in non-SF use, but impervium is almost exclusive to SF.

It dates (to current knowledge, anyway) to Philip Nowlan’s old Buck Rogers comic strip of Dec. 18, 1932, and is still in use today (the OED’s last citation is from Wil McCarthy’s 2005 novel To Crush the Moon). But it’s the intermediate cites that I find particularly interesting. The first to catch my eye was a clearly non-fictional use from The Journal of Nuclear Materials in 1989:

The CeS crucibles that we had developed were found to be so highly resistant to attack..that we thought the ‘Impervium’ crucibles could contain any molten metals.

A little poking about suggests that this was a republished version of this conference paper (pdf) by Leo Brewer, discussing crucibles they had devised from the compound CeS, a substance they dubbed “impervium,” for the Manhattan Project around 1942, just a decade after Nowlan’s coinage. Curious, I tried to find out what this compound is (“cerium sulfmumble” is what my stunning recollection of AP chemistry tells me), but I found pretty much squat. So

The other citation that caught my fancy was from Poetry magazine. Now, there’s a long history of speculative poetry, but it mostly finds publication in SF publications, so I was very surprised to see what appeared to be an SFnal citation from Poetry. The citation wasn’t clear enough for me to tell whether it was a literal or figurative usage, or really, much at all, so I thought I’d see what I could find out about the poem. The OED’s editorial policy is not to cite authors or titles of shorter works appearing in periodicals or anthologies, so there wasn’t much to go on (I understand this decision, especially the space constraints of the print editions, but I also think it’s too bad). Fortunately, Poetry seems to have its entire back catalog (or at least enough of it to include the relevant issue, Sept. 1957) free online. The poem in is “The Man from the Top of the Mind” by David Waggoner, and is, in fact, pure speculative poetry.

SF in the OED June & Sept 2013

September 14th, 2013

Two updates in one! The OED’s June updates didn’t bring us much that was SFnal, but they did include smeg (n. and int.) and smeghead, which ought to be enough to warm the cockles of anyone’s heart. For the uninitiated, these are among the various fictional swear words SF writers have invented over the years (other notable ones being Battlestar Galactica’s frack and Douglas Adams’ belgium). Smeg and its derivatives hail from the venerable BBC show Red Dwarf; I have always assumed that they derive from smegma, but the OED suggests that it may simply have been a made-up word that was later reinterpreted as being derived from smegma. Missing from the OED are the adjective smeggy and the phrase smeg off (which I interpreted in BNW as evidence of a verbal form, but I might now consider smeg off to be a phrasal verb in and of itself).

Also in June, but only of minor SFnal interest, is Randian (“Of, relating to, or characteristic of Ayn Rand, her writings, or her theories, esp. those advocating individualism and laissez-faire capitalism. Cf. objectivism n.3.”). Since she did write a couple SF novels which are both counted among her writings and do advocate her theories of individualism, etc., one could consider this to be an addition to the fairly short list of eponyms based on SF writers’ names (the only ones I’ve found in the OED are Carrollian/Carrolline/Carrollese/Carrolliana, Vernean, Wellsian, Tolkienian/Tolkienesque, Kafkaesque, and Orwellian). One could also conclude that her SF is beside the point, and the name is due to her political and philosophical writings. (As a side note, the obvious omission from that list is Lovecraftian (and Lovecraftiana); the others I think that should merit consideration are Heinleinian and phildickian, although I’d wager both the latter are used almost exclusively in SF criticism, whereas all the others, including, I believe, Lovecraftian, are used more widely. Phildickian has the unusual attributes of including both first and last names and  often appearing lower-cased; I can guess about the first, but I have no idea about the second.)

Moving on to September’s update, we have a veritable treasure-trove. First is BNF, an initialism of Big-Name Fan. First cite is from Lee Hoffman in 1950. I find this particularly gratifying because this term is pure Fanspeak, and unlike many fannish terms that make it into dictionaries, it has little or no application outside of fandom. One of the things that’s great about the OED is that it does choose to include terms that are specific to, even exclusive to, particular communities’ slang/jargon/dialect/whatnot.

Also in this update is gate: “A portal or device through which a being, spaceship, etc., may be (instantaneously) transported to another point in space or time, or into another dimension.” Related terms include gatewaystargate and jumpgate, none of which are in the OED. First cite is from Jack Williamson’s “Through the Purple Cloud” in 1931. My sense is that this is also a fantasy term, although that’s not attested in the citations. The book Horror Films of the 1980s, for example, cites a 1987 film titled, simply, The Gate (the book describes the titular gate as “a gate to a demon realm” which I would count as falling under the broad rubric of “dimension”). I also note with some satisfaction that this wording is very similar to my definition in BNW; whether this is because they based it on my definition, or because we happened upon similar wording, I neither know nor care (Oxford holds the copyright to BNW, so they’re free to use any parts of it they please). I am quite chuffed, however, that my definition came close to meeting the standards of the OED.

Woody Allen’s orgasmatron, from his 1973 film Sleeper also made the cut: “Chiefly humorous. A (hypothetical) device which induces orgasm. Also in extended use.” Both the OED’s citations and Wikipedia attest that the “hypothetical” part of the definition is in parens because there are non-hypothetical devices bearing that name. Live and learn.

Finally, we have the venerable SF term skimmer: “Any of various small vehicles that fly relatively close to the ground, esp. by means of an anti-gravity propulsion system.” First cite is from the May, 1949 Astounding. The OED doesn’t provide an author, but the citation is from William L. Bade’s story “Lost Ulysses”. I’m honestly not sure whether I agree with the “especially” part, there — from the citations in BNW, I can’t actually tell what the propulsion system might be, and from experience, most writers don’t bother to specify because it’s not usually important to the story (and, probably too, that the skimmer is such a staple piece of SFnal furniture that no explanation is needed, any more than one is for a hyperdrive or gate). One possibility is that they wanted to distinguish the SFnal skimmer from the actual hovercraft and ground-effect vehicle more generally, which I think is accurate; however, I can imagine other SFnal ways of keeping a skimmer up besides anti-gravity (stick a pressor beam on the bottom of a boat, for example). But that’s just a quibble.


June 25th, 2013

Via Michael Quinion, I’ve discovered a new subgenre of SF (or, rather, a new name for a subgenre of SF), cli-fi, short for climate fiction, created by analogy to sci-fi. It refers to fiction that deals with climate change, and therefore includes both disaster and post-disaster stories, like J. G. Ballard’s classic The Drowned World (which features climate change as a result of natural, rather than human, forces), as well as works like Kim Stanley Robinson’s “Science in the Capital” trilogy (not to mention Antartica and parts of the “Mars” books) that I probably wouldn’t classify as either disaster or post-disaster novels. I note in passing that, thus far, the term doesn’t seem to be applied to works in which aliens change the Earth’s climate as a terraforming exercise, as in Gwynneth Jones’ The North Wind, but cli-fi is still nascent as a genre label, so I would hesitate to make too many generalizations about it’s use at this point.

The earliest cite I can find in the relevant sense is from a 2009 review of The Age of Stupid in Wired by Scott Thill. It’s an unusual first use, in that it’s used in passing in the “Wired/Tired” section at the end of the review:

Wired: Killer CGI, dystopian cli-fi, heart-wrenching footage

Most reports on the term cite a second use by Thill in Wired in 2010, which is much more satisfying as far a citations go:

The cli-fi flick finds Bones’ Brendan Fehr and Alias’ Victor Garber struggling to survive after the Alaskan permafrost thaws, unleashing subterranean rivers of volatile liquid methane and planet-killing earthquakes on Christmas Eve.

In a tweet, he implies that Wired didn’t care for the term, which explains why it only shows up twice on Wired.com.

It got a bump in a tweet by Margaret Atwood, presumably this one, from Jan. 14, 2012:

“Polar Cities” Sci-fi-cli-fi: : http://www.hollywoodstarshoney.com/cultural-commentary/sci-fi-cli-fi.html …

It’s pretty much everywhere now, as a Google search will attest. Dan Bloom maintains a blog dedicated to both the term and the genre; WordSpy has covered it; and it naturally has a Wikipedia article. Dan Bloom himself claims to have coined it, although I can find no evidence online (take that for what it’s worth). Regardless of the coinage, it seems to be quite trendy right now. Certainly, there is a large amount of fiction (both prose and film) addressing issues of climate change, and this is only likely to continue. If having a handy label continues to be useful for discussing them, we’ll probably be hearing about cli-fi for a while to come. (And if the media really takes to it, crotchety people might start talking about cliffy — really bad examples of cli-fi.)

(As I implied earlier, cli-fi has had an admittedly brief earlier career as a shortening of climbing fiction, although Googling only shows two uses total, first apparently in 2005, one of them embedded in an otherwise Czech title, which doesn’t suggest that it’s much more than a nonce occurrence.)




Cthulhu lives! (in the hindgut of a termite, no less)

April 10th, 2013

The big news taxonomic nomenclature is that Cthulhu has been found in the guts of a termite, rather than in the middle of the Pacific Ocean, as previously reported. Or, to be more precise, that two new genera have been reported and named after Cthulhu and his daughter Cthylla. The organisms were reported by Erick R. James, et al., in the online journal PLoS One in a paper entitled “Cthulhu Macrofasciculumque n. g., n. sp. and Cthylla Microfasciculumque n. g., n. sp., a Newly Identified Lineage of Parabasalian Termite Symbionts“. The type species of these genera are flagellates that inhabit the guts of two termite species. The article kindly includes images of the suitably be-tentacled organisms, and is worth taking a gander at. The authors also include etymological notes on the generic names, which is what is of the most interest to me. For Cthulhu, they write:

The name is based on the fictional many tentacled, cephalopod-headed demon found in the writings of H. P. Lovecraft, specifically The Call of Cthulhu. The tentacle-headed appearance given by the coordinated beat pattern of the anterior flagellar bundle of Cthulhu cells is reminiscent of this demon. The name is supposedly impossible to pronounce as it comes from an alien language, but currently it is most often pronounced “ke-thoo-loo”.

Of Cthylla, who I have to admit I hadn’t encountered prior to this*, they write:

The name is based on the fictional Cthylla (often pronounced ke-thil-a), who was the secret daughter of Cthulhu in later writing inspired by H. P. Lovecraft. Though never described, Cthylla is generally portrayed as a winged cephalophod. It is here named as a smaller and simpler relative of the parabasalian genus Cthulhu.

Phonetically-speaking, I’d have written “kuh” instead of “ke” for the initial syllable, but I have to assume they meant it to represent a schwa. I’m guessing that none of the peer reviewers were SF fans or phoneticians. The article also includes the completely wonderful neologism “cthulhumonad” (no Google hits at all as of this writing). The term is undefined, but since “monad” is another term for a single-cellular organism, I assume that “cthulhumonad” just means a single-cellular organism of the Cthulhu-type. But considering that in some gnostic thought, the Monad is the supreme being, I find this particular coinage to be simply delightful.

*Cthylla, it turns out, was created by Brian Lumley in his Lovecraftian series Titus Crow, and, as is the way of things in the Cthulhu Mythos, subsequently picked up by other writers.


March 23rd, 2013

Michael Quinion’s World Wide Words newsletter mentions a word that was new to me, but which may have an SFnal origin (the website apparently runs a week behind the newsletter, so it might not be up yet). The word is de-extinction, which refers to the bringing-back of formerly extinct species from their DNA (a la Jurassic Park). It’s apparently a fairly recent coinage in scientific circles, but Quinion found a much earlier example in Piers Anthony’s The Source of Magic. (OK, this is a Xanth novel, so it’s really a fantastical, rather than SFnal, coinage. Which makes it a much rarer beast — there are any number of words used in science that were first used in SF, but very, very few that came out of fantasy.)

SF in the OED, March 2013

March 20th, 2013

I’ve been falling behind in my OED updates. The latest additions to the OED have a few entries of SFnal interest, however, giving me an excuse to catch up.

First is “credit,” the standard currency of far-future SF. The OED’s editors made a choice to combine this sense with a few others:

In various informal or fictional contexts: a unit of currency. Later also: a unit used as a measure of a person’s entitlement to use of a particular resource, service, product, etc.

This is a very lumpy definition, but “credit” is a fairly polysemous word, so it’s not surprising to find lumpy sub-definitions in it. Their first citation is from E. E. Smith in 1937 (BNW has a 1934 quote from John W. Campbell, Jr.). Since the SFnal sense is one of several, and the Smith citation is therefore an interdating, I wouldn’t expect the OED to be concerned with finding the earliest citation in the SF sense, although it is interesting that they only have early 20th Century cites, even though the sense is still current (if less common than it once was). It’s also interesting that they’ve made a connection between the fictional currency (or really currencies, since it’s not as if all SFnal universes that use something called a “credit” actually use the same currency) and the “credit” that you have when you put coins in a video game. I’m not sure I buy that these are really the same thing, although the two are presumably linked by connection to the earlier “informal” contexts — that is to say, informal references to currency as “credits” lead, on one hand, to fictional currencies called “credits”, and on the other to the units measuring services you’ve paid for, such as plays on a video game console. Sorting this kind of thing out is, of course, why lexicography is so much fun.

The next entry of note is “Vulcan”, for which they record both adjectival and noun senses, and note specifically “Vulcan neck pinch” and “Vulcan mind meld” within the adjectival entry. (Mysteriously, BNW has no entry for “Vulcan” at all, although it does have plain old “mind meld” which includes cites for “Vulcan mind meld”.)

A member of a fictional human-like alien race in the U.S. television series Star Trek, and related films, books, etc. Also in extended use: a person perceived as having characteristics typical of this race; spec. someone who is excessively logical or who demonstrates suppression of normal human emotions, a lack of humour, etc.

Their first citation for the noun is from the fourteenth TOS episode “Balance of Terror”; interestingly, the noun was actually used earlier in the eleventh episode “The Menagerie, Part 1”. Their first allusive use is from 1994.

Adjective-wise, they cite a May 9, 1966 memo reprinted in The Making of Star Trek (the series premiered on September 8). AFAICT, the adjectival form was first used in the series in episode four, “The Naked Time”. Curiously, their earliest cite for “Vulcan mind-meld” is from 1993, despite earlier citations for that form in their definition of “mind-meld”. Again, since “Vulcan mind-meld” and “Vulcan nerve pinch” are subsumed in the “Vulcan” quotation block, I have to assume that they’re not concerned with first use of each form. Which is totally understandable, but I would like to know more about the history of the phrase “Vulcan nerve pinch”. As far as I know, it was never so called in the series, and the stage directions in the scripts would refer to it as something like “the famous Spock nerve pinch” (I have the precise written down somewhere, but I can’t find it right now, alas). It would be interesting to know when it first showed up in this form. (It’s also been used to refer to a keyboard combination, a la Control-Alt-Delete, that reboots a computer; at least, the New Hackers’ Dictionary says so, and I’m not going to argue with that source. I do wonder if it’s still in use, though — I’ve never actually heard it in the wild.)

The last entry of SFnal note is “smart-gun”, run-on to “smart”:

 a gun incorporating technology that renders it capable of seemingly intelligent action; spec. one that can be fired only by an authorized user.

The non-SF citations all mostly refer to the latter portion of the definition. But the first cite is a reference to the 1986 film Aliens, from about a week after its release. The phrase “smart-gun” is never uttered in the film, but it is used in the script. So it looks like the editors either didn’t check the script or didn’t use it because it wasn’t published until later (if at all).


SF in the OED, Sept. 2012

September 22nd, 2012

The OED’s latest update covers the range affable to always, although many of the SF terms of note in that range have already been updated (i.e. air-car and the various alternates and alternatives). There is one new SFnal term, though, and an updated one, both related.

alien life form (with a first citation from A. K. Barnes in 1937)

a form of life found on other planets, esp. an extraterrestrial being.

This is actually a run-on to the much-expanded alien (adj. and n.) entry. Relevant senses are:

adj. 4. orig. Science Fiction. Of, belonging to, or relating to an (intelligent) being or beings from another planet; designating such a being; extraterrestrial. (first citation 1929, Jack Williamson)
n. 5. orig. Science Fiction. An (intelligent) being from another planet; an extraterrestrial. (first citation, Nathan Schachner and Arthur L. Zagat, 1931)

One wonders whether their definition for alien-looking, which is defined in purely earthly terms, could be extended to include the extraterrestrial sense, although I haven’t made a search of the literature to verify this hunch. It’s also interesting to note that their defs. of alien are somewhat limited, in that aliens need not come from planets (they can come from planetoids, natural satellites, stars, even other dimensions, and so on ad infinitum), and that Earth-folk are generally referred to as aliens when on planets other than the Earth (although a quick check of BNW only shows one citation that I can say for sure refers to humans as aliens [for those keeping score at home, Frank Herbert’s Dosadi Experiment], but only because I remember the book; there are a couple more that could potentially, but I either didn’t collect them myself or don’t recall them to be able to say. Certainly there is nothing the context clearly indicates is a human alien, which is too bad; presumably I didn’t have any.).

Not science fictional, but rather fantastical, are two new adjectival forms for “Alice” (of -in-Wonderland fame):


Reminiscent of the character Alice or the books in which she appears

and Alician

Resembling or characteristic of the character Alice or the books in which she appears; fantastical, absurd, illogical.

Interestingly, these are not, apparently, completely interchangeable.