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.

Cli-fi

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.

De-extinction

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):

Alice-ish

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.

Scientiphilology around the web

September 22nd, 2012

In honor of the great man’s birthday, Wordnik has a blog post dedicated to words coined or popularized by H. G. Wells. It has the obligatory “atomic bomb” and “time machine”, but also some fun surprises, like “lurve” (the rhotic pronunciation spelling of “love”) which he is, apparently, the first known person to write thusly.

Indirectly, that post led me to this great post on io9 from last year about Nineteenth-century terms for what we now call science fiction. It’s very well done, and pushes the earliest use of “scientific romance” in a literary sense to 1851, and “scientific fiction” to 1873.

And finally, slang lexicographer Jonathon Green has the text of a talk he gave about Anthony Burgess and slang, which is really well worth the read. It’s certainly one of the best treatments of the language of science fiction I’ve read in some time.

 

Swanwick on scientiphilology

September 21st, 2010

Over on Michael Swanwick’s blog, Flogging Babel, he has a post on a subject dear to my heart, which he’s titled “Science Fiction Lexicography.” He says

Now that the Oxford English Dictionary has gathered together definitions and citations for a raft of words derived from science fiction (ansible, blaster, alternate universe, etc.) and fandom (trufan, worldcon, filk, u.s.W.), it’s time to start laying down the documentation for some far future edition of the OED which will scoop up terms which currently only insiders use.

Well, what could be better? The gathering together of definitions and citations is presumably a reference to the SF Citations Project. Of the terms he lists, only filk and blaster are so far in the OED, although most of the others are in BNW and the citations project. U.s.W. (which I assume to be the abbreviation of the German und so weiter, which was often used, along with the Esperanto k.t.p. (for kaj tiel plu), in place of etc. in fanzines and the like) is in none of these. I’ve always assumed the abbreviation had German, rather than fannish origins, so I never bothered to research it, but I don’t know for sure.

But onto the main attraction: Swanwick’s first insider word (he promises another later) is “Bull Goose Loser,” which he defines as “the science fiction writer (so far, no fantasists have made the grade) who has been nominated for the most Hugo and Nebula Awards without ever winning one.” (It can also apparently be abbreviated “BGL”.) There aren’t a lot of citations for this on the web, which doesn’t necessarily mean much, and many are references to Swanwick’s blog (he’s actually posted about this before, with a slightly less restrictive definition: ” the guy or gal who’s been nominated for more major awards without winning any than anybody else”).

There are a couple references to Walter Jon Williams being the bull goose loser (although both of these are fairly old content — he finally won a Nebula in 1999 after ten Hugo/Nebula nominations and one World Fantasy nomination*). One even has a quote from Dozois himself: “Those of us in the Know refer to Walter as the “Bull Goose Loser,” because he has lost more major awards without winning one than any other writer.” Another wonders about a bull goose loser of the Stokers, showing some nice extending of the definition. Patrick Nielsen Hayden gives a purely Hugo-centric gloss here, with Swanwick and Michael Bishop vying for that version of the honor in 1999. So there’s some wiggle-room in the definition of this term, at least based on this basically inadequate sample.

One thing I note is that all the references online, except for the Stokers one, are from the 1990s, and the Stoker one was posted as a response to Swanwick’s post. So perhaps this term was more prevalent then? This would explain the lack of much online evidence. But then, so much slang is seldom written down that it’s hard to draw any conclusions, so its fortunate, for the future of scientiphilology, that Michael Swanwick decided to highlight the term.

I thought I’d try to figure out who the current BGL is. Freebase has pretty good data for some definition of BGL, although most of the 2010 nominations and winners haven’t been entered yet. Michael Burstein seems to it pretty well sewn up, unless you don’t count the Philip K. Dick award, in which case the nod would go to Stephen Baxter. (The query is here, for the technically-inclined (just click “run”): http://tinyurl.com/38aly9a.)

* I am assuming that the World Fantasy Award counts a major award in the less restrictive definition, but one of the nice things about that definition is that there’s room for argument about which awards actually count as major, so there could be multiple pretenders to the bull goose loser throne.

[Updated 9/22 with a revised query.]

SF in OED, December 2009

December 29th, 2009

The SFnal words are a bit more peripheral in this update, but nonetheless includes one of my favorite SF-sourced combining forms:

-zilla [from Godzilla, of course]:

With preceding noun, forming humorous, usually temporary words which depict a person or thing as a particularly imposing, relentless, or overbearing example of its kind.

First cite is for the form “hogzilla”, from 1978. Other forms attested include “bosszilla”, “bird-zilla”, “groomzilla”, “momzilla”, “thespzilla”. For more -zilla goodness, see The Tensor’s excellent post on this, way back in aught-five. And you can’t have a -zilla entry without one for the prime exemplar of its use, namely

Bridezilla

A woman thought to have become intolerably obsessive or overbearing in planning the details of her wedding.

First cite 1995.

Not particularly SF, but rather from fantasy, are to go flatline

(of an electrocardiogram, electroencephalogram, etc.) to display a flatline

which has a first cite from Stephen King’s 1979 The Dead Zone, and flatliner

A person who is in cardiac arrest or is brain-dead; a dead person

which has a note saying that it was popularized by the 1990 film Flatliners. (Interestingly, the entry for this sense of flatliner also says that it was originally North American medical slang, despite the first cite being some 1989 pre-press for the film. (And of course, the term will have particular resonance for fans of Neuromancer.)

Not genre-related in any way, shape, or form, but of interest to parents of very small children, are the entries for Ferber,

A strategy for training children to fall asleep on their own by gradually limiting intervention by caregivers.

and Ferberize (with Ferberizing run-on),

To use the Ferber method or a similar technique to train (a child) to fall asleep independently.

More News of Earth-shattering Linguistic Importance

December 29th, 2009

My son has officially spoken his first word.  It is “blind” (or, really, “bli” or “blih” or something like that), and seems to include both “window blind” and “window” in its definition.

[Note: this was supposed to have been posted a month or so ago, the week of Thanksgiving, but I seem to have clicked "save" rather than "publish". The, news, however, remains as earth-shattering as ever.]