Archive for the ‘Dictionaries & Lexicography’ Category

Thinking about horror

Tuesday, January 29th, 2008

I’ve been thinking about the genre of horror lately (hence the clever title of this post), and more particularly why it’s so poorly defined in most dictionaries. I defined horror in BNW as “a genre of fiction, film, etc in which the object is to instill a feeling of fear in the reader or viewer”. One could probably quibble about whether or not fear is the only feeling involved, but I think it’s pretty good, as far as it goes. But most dictionaries fail to define “horror” as a genre at all, which I find puzzling, since it’s been used in this way since at least the early 20th Century. (BNW includes a 1900 citation for “tales of horror”, which could be interpreted as being simply descriptive and not referring to a genre or category, and a 1917 citation reading in part, “those who enjoy horror, tales overflowing with blood and black mystery”, which is pretty clearly referring to a category of fiction.) I should also note that I’m limiting my criticism to dictionaries aimed at native speakers; learners’ dictionaries obviously have different inclusion criteria.

What they do (usually) include is either an adjective (i.e., “calculated to inspire feelings of dread or horror : bloodcurdling <a ~ movie>” [Merriam Webster’s Collegiate Dictionary, 11th Edition]) or compound form (i.e., “horror film”, “horror comic”, etc.). Either way is a perfectly fine way to treat this usage, but neither choice correctly treats horror as a genre. It’s like having an entry for “science fiction novel” but not “science fiction”. (It’s worth mentioning here that the American Heritage Dictionary is the only major dictionary I checked that doesn’t define horror as a literary mode in any manner, although I haven’t looked at the latest version of the 4th ed.) The exceptions to this sad state of affairs are the Oxford dictionaries. The New Oxford Dictionary of English and New Oxford American Dictionary both define horror thus (example sentences and irrelevant subsenses elided): “1. an intense feeling of fear, shock, or disgust. […] a literary or film genre concerned with arousing such feelings.” And the Shorter OED, 5th Ed., which defines it as “a genre of literature etc. designed to excite pleasurable feelings of horror by the depiction of the supernatural, violence, etc.” (This def. was first used in the New Shorter OED, aka the 4th edition, in 1993.) The other exception is Wiktionary, the dictionary sibling of Wikipedia (their definition is “A literary genre, generally of a gothic character”, which I don’t think quite captures the essence).

So why is this? I don’t know. One possibility that occurs to me is that the word “horror” is used in this way primarily within SF/F/H circles, although I’m pretty sure it’s also used this way by publishers and booksellers, but maybe the generic sense is perceived as being too confined to certain realms of discourse to meet most dictionaries’ requirements for inclusion. But because some of the best-selling authors in the world write horror (not to even get into films and video games), and therefore get notice in the mainstream press, I would be surprised if this were really true. (That 1917 quote I gave above is from the New York Times Book Review, for example.) It would be interesting to see how other genres are treated, and whether there’s a pattern of omitting genres in general, or whether it’s just horror that’s being slighted thus. But that’s another project for another day.

New SF in the OED

Wednesday, January 2nd, 2008

The OED’s quarterly update of new and updated entries always makes for entertaining reading (especially if you can get access to the online version; I get it through the San Francisco public library’s website — it’s free to anyone with a library card, and all California residents are eligible; if you’re a CA resident and happen to be visiting SF, it’s well worth your time to get a card!). I always scan it for SFnal words, and the latest batch has some interesting ones.

First off is fembot, which is defined as “A robot resembling a woman in appearance. Also in extended use: a woman characterized as a robot.” This is probably most familiar from the Austin Powers movies, but the first citation is from the Oct. 24, 1976 Fresno Bee, regarding an episode of The Bionic Woman. Somewhere, there must still be a Steve Austin/Jaimie Sommers fandom which would be able to tell us whether the word was used in an episode, or whether it was the reporter or somebody in marketing who came up with the term.

Next is the venerable FTL, which they list as an adjective (and “also as adv.”), and which I decided was an abbreviation. They only go back to 1964, even though both BNW and the SF Citations Project take it back to 1950.

Less directly SFnal, but interesting nonetheless is galactically. The primary sense (“With regard to a galaxy or galaxies; in galactic terms.”) goes back to 1903 in a non-SF use. The entry for the second sense (“To a vast extent or degree; hugely, immensely.”) strikes me as odd because the first citation they give for it is from an Ursula K. Le Guin novel (The Dispossessed), and to my eye looks like a strictly literal use in the first sense. But you decide: “After all you’re a world-famous—a galactically famous scientist!”  It  does, I suppose,  mean ” to a vast extent” in this context, but mostly it means that the scientist is actually famous throughout the galaxy, or “in galactic terms.”

Finally, we come to silver surfer, a term which is perhaps only marginally SFnal. It refers to “an elderly or retired person who uses the Internet,” and is a reference in part to the Marvel comic book character, Silver Surfer, and in part to the sense of “silver” referring to the color of hair “when white with age”.

McKean on antedating

Monday, October 15th, 2007

Erin McKean writes about the competitive sport of antedating in the Boston Globe.

Prescriptivists of future past

Monday, October 8th, 2007

Theodore Sturgeon’s story “How to Forget Baseball” (collected in the 11th volume of his complete stories, The Nail and the Oracle) includes a brilliant throw-away line that speaks volumes about attitudes toward language change. The story is set in a future America (where baseball has been supplanted with the extremely unlikely sport of “quoit”, the rules of which I will not even begin to attempt to reproduce, except to say that science fiction sports almost always sound hideously lame). The speaker is a “Primitive” — someone who lives in the sticks and hews to the “old ways” (in this case, those of the early 1960s); he is responding to a barrage of future slang:

“I,” said Mr. Ourser, “am a scholar, and among other things I am devoted to the purity of the tongue. I do not dig you one bit, man.”

Fun with corpora

Wednesday, August 1st, 2007

Erin McKean, pinch-hitting for William Safire last week, wrote what is probably the best description of why language corpora (singular corpus) are important and above all, cool. Now if only there were a corpus of science fiction texts to, for example, help disambiguate words like off-planet and off-world, which look like they should be synonyms but really aren’t, or at least, not always.

The Joys of Lexicography

Tuesday, June 19th, 2007

One of the great joys of lexicographic research is coming upon an unlooked-for citation; antedatings can be especially exciting, but novel usages and just plain good quotations are also fun. I mention this because I stumbled upon what might well be the first use of “sci-fi” (pronounced “skiffy”) to mean bad science fiction in Damon Knight’s critical anthology “Turning Points”; it’s mostly reprints, some of which I’ve read elsewhere, but it contains two original essays by Knight. I found it at a used bookstore, and being a complete sucker for books of essays about science fiction (sometimes I enjoy reading about SF more than actually reading it — does this make me some kind of a fakefan?), I grabbed it. The relevant quote is in one of Knight’s essays, “What Is Science Fiction” in which he makes a valiant attempt to define SF (without resorting to pointing to it) based on a descriptive model, which is pretty rare for genre writers — most of them have an axe to grind or ideology to promote. The quote is below the jump:



Wednesday, June 6th, 2007

In honor of the upcoming DSNA conference, and in response to an urgent call by Mark Liberman, I present a brief history of lolxicography. Because what the world really needs is more image macros.


The Double-Tongued Word Wrester wants you!

Monday, May 21st, 2007

Grant Barrett is looking for volunteers to help him scour the zeitgeist for “new and newish words, and new meanings for old words, or any word that is not included in a mainstream dictionary” to use in the Double-Tongued Dictionary. If you feel like taking a break from scouring the spaceways for novel SF usages, drop him a line.

Ever wonder why lexicographers are so wealthy?

Thursday, March 15th, 2007


Now you know.

Via Erin.