Archive for the ‘Dictionaries & Lexicography’ Category

SF in the OED, March 2013

Wednesday, 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).


Scientiphilology around the web

Saturday, 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

Tuesday, 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”):

* 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

Tuesday, 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


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.

SF in the OED, Sept. ’09

Tuesday, September 22nd, 2009

I’ve been falling behind with my updates of SF words in the OED, I fear.  This quarter’s update (for those of you not keeping score at home, the OED is in the process of a complete revision, and publishes quarterly updates of new and revised entries which pretty much always makes for fascinating reading) doesn’t have much of SFnal interest — just two words by my count: clone and skinsuit.

clone, n. 2. a. Chiefly Science Fiction. Any member of a hypothetical population of artificially produced, identical people, aliens, etc. Also: a duplicate of a living person.

First citation is from Alan Toffler’s Future Shock (1977). Interestingly, none of the citations are from actual SF, although three of the citations are reviews or discussions of SF works.

skinsuit n. any of various types of (usually one-piece) suit made of elasticated material which fits tightly to the body, esp. one designed for a particular sport.

Note that this definition rolls up the SF sense of skinsuit (a tight-fitting spacesuit, often intended for short-term or emergency use) with the sporting sense (as in that garment that short-track speed skaters wear). Their first citation is from 1956in a diving context, which handily beatsBrave New Word”s 1971 citation from Keith Laumer’s Dinosaur Beach.

What the world needs now…

Wednesday, October 15th, 2008

is more lolxicography! In honor of Dictionary Day (look it up), I present you with these new lolz.  (Old lolz iz here.) (Click the images if you’re confused.)

Scientiphilology in the cards

Monday, August 4th, 2008

Whilst browsing at a lovely, if overpriced, purveyor of organic and green home furnishings in my new home town of Berkeley (what? oh yes, I moved — hence, in part, the long dry spell of posts), I noticed a greeting card with the word “Grok” on it in large, friendly letters, with a definition and usage notes on the reverse. (It’s worth noting that the usage notes refer only to the sense of the word as used in Stranger in a Strange Land, and not as it’s come to be used in English, although I do find it rather charming that they wrote it as if Martian were a real language.) This is part of a line of cards with words from various languages, my favorite of which is Mamihlapinatapai, a Yaghan word apparently meaning “A meaningful look between two people, expressing mutual unstated feelings.” They also have one in Klingon, rounding out their SF linguistic credentials quite nicely.

I’m not (entirely) crazy

Sunday, April 6th, 2008

A while back, I was musing on the definitions of horror, and wondering if there wasn’t something missing from the standard definitions — namely that I had a sense that there was a def. of horror that basically included anything involving vampires, werewolves, et al. (as opposed to the standard definition of including works that seek to instill fear in the reader or viewer) — although I lacked any evidence other than my own impressions. Well, Locus magazine has come to my rescue, in the form of the Feb. 2008 issue’s recommended reading discussion. In it, editor-in-chief Charles N. Brown discusses the various categories they use for recommendations and such:

As with bookstores, we’ve been listing anything with vampires and werewolves as horror, and anything with witches and magic as fantasy.

So there exists at least one place where this definition has been used. But he says it as a prelude to a change in policy:

Chicklit witches and other supernatural creatures don’t really make it as fantasy, and romantic vampires and werewolves don’t make it as horror. They need their own category.

This pretty much backs up my impression of the broader sense of horror: it’s used as a convenience, because you have to call these books (i.e., the non-horrific horror books) something, and in the case of a bookstore, you absolutely have to put them somewhere. This also makes me wonder if my impression about this use of horror comes partly from my having worked for Locus once-upon-a-time, and having internalized their standards; it certainly has a basis in having shelved the genre books at a bookstore. Lexicographically speaking, of course, this is nowhere near enough evidence to support including this def. in a dictionary, but it does at least a) prove that I’m not crazy (at least in this one regard), and b) suggest that it’s worth pursing this question to see how common the usage is.

Guestblogging on OUPblog

Thursday, February 28th, 2008

I have a guest-blog at OUPblog today (I’m pinch-blogging for Ben Zimmer), about organleggers and organlegging. Pop on over and take a look!

Thinking about horror, II

Saturday, February 9th, 2008

The other thing about definitions of horror that bothers me (and this goes for my own definition in BNW), is that I have this inkling that something is being left out. I get the sense, based largely on visits to bookstores and libraries, and to a lesser extent, book reviews, that “horror” is applied to works of fiction that merely partake of the furniture of horror (vampires, ghosts, werewolves, elder gods, the word “eldritch”, etc.), but which are not particularly evocative of the emotion of horror (fear, shock, dread, etc.). And I mean that they are not evocative of these feelings by authorial choice, as opposed to, say, bad writing. For example, the Laurel K. Hamilton “Anita Blake” series of books, which is about a vampire-hunter, and includes all kinds of were-beasts and whatnot, is primarily (at least in the later installments) erotic in nature, and not particularly fear-inducing. But her books are almost invariably shelved in the horror sections of book stores.

Wikipedia’s entry for horror fiction includes this sentence: “Since the 1960s, any work of fiction with a morbid, gruesome, surreal, or exceptionally suspenseful or frightening theme has come to be called ‘horror’.” This could possibly be interpreted as supporting my hypothesis, in that works that are merely “morbid,” “gruesome,” or “surreal” are not necessarily written to induce feelings of horror. But that’s the closest I can come to finding a citation that supports my inkling. Reviews are not especially useful for this sort of defining, since, unless one has actually read the work under review, it’s hard to know which sense the reviewer intends; in the absence of evidence, the standard definition is safest to apply, although, as I said, I’ve seen reviews that give me the impression that the use of “horror” might be broadening. (And unfortunately, I didn’t save any, and don’t even recall what works were under review, so it’s entirely possible that I’m imagining novel uses in my spare time. But I don’t think I am.) Time will tell, I suppose.