Archive for the ‘Science Fiction’ Category

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.

More OUP bloggery

Tuesday, June 2nd, 2009

This time I’m blogging about fanspeak terms that got picked up in non-fannish contexts: (This overlaps to some degree with an earlier post here, but I think the info is interesting enough to merit a revisiting of the idea, particularly in light of the massive success of my last OUPblog post.)

Nine Words You Might Think Came from Science…

Wednesday, April 1st, 2009

I have a guest post over at OUP Blog: Nine Words You Might Think Came from Science but Which Are Really from Science Fiction. In the comments, someone pointed out that one of my words is really from science after all. This is what happens when you try to assert firstness about things, but it was fun drawing up the list anyway.

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.

Hugo nomination!

Saturday, March 22nd, 2008

I’m incredibly pleased to announce that Brave New Words has been nominated for a Hugo award in the “Best Related Book” category. (For those of you who don’t follow the minutiae of SF awards, the “best related book” category is for:

Any work whose subject is related to the field of science fiction, fantasy, or fandom, appearing for the first time in book form during the previous calendar year, and which is either non-fiction or, if fictional, is noteworthy primarily for aspects other than the fictional text.

Full list of nominees is here:

Now the phrase “Hugo-nominated author” can be pre-pended to my name for the rest of my life! (And beyond, even!)

Sir Arthur C. Clarke, 1917-2008

Tuesday, March 18th, 2008

My first encounter of Arthur C. Clarke was in the 10th grade, when we were allowed to choose a book for a book report from a fairly long and broad list; Childhood’s End was one of them, and I was so excited to get to read science fiction for a book report. (There was also a Vonnegut title on the list, Cat’s Cradle, I think, which was described as “typical, if you like Vonnegut.”) I got marked down for totally omitting the whole “Overlords are devil figures” theme. I just didn’t think it was all that big a deal. (Note that the only thing I remember about the paper is that I didn’t mention the devil figures theme.)

One of his greatest contributions to the world was the idea of the geosynchronous orbit, which he mentioned in a letter published in Wireless World in April 1945, and expounded on in a full article the following October. In tribute to him, here is a scan of the letter:


A scan and OCR version of the full article can be found here.

As additional tribute, I thought I would list all the terms in Brave New Words for which his is the earliest citation:

  • farside (Fall of Moondust, 1961)
  • gee (= a unit of acceleration) (Interplanetary Flight, 1950)
  • overmind (Childhood’s End, 1953)
  • space elevator (Future Space Programs, 1975)
  • zero-g (Islands in the Sky, 1952)

And, of course, Clarke’s three laws, and Clarke orbit (a phrase that was likely coined by Keith Laumer in Clarke’s honor).

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.