SF in the OED June & Sept 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.

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