SF in the OED, March 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).


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