SF in the OED, June 2016

June was a good month for fantastika in the OED.

For starters, we have Afrofuturism (“A movement in literature, music, art, etc., featuring futuristic or science fiction themes which incorporate elements of black history and culture.”) and Afrofuturist (though the latter is only as an adjective, not a noun). Of the various futurisms, this one seems to have the most coverage, both in terms of publication within its community, as well as in the popular press, and it’s nice to see it here. (As a side note, a new sub-entry for futurism has been added, which broadly covers this use, but doesn’t quite get at the way it’s coming to be used in compounds such as Chicanafuturism and indigenous futurism.)

Alpha Centauri joins Vega as the only (to my knowledge) extra-solar location to have a toponym in the OED. Since any named star system can (and probably has at some point) have inhabitants attributed to it, I find the inclusion of these two to be very interesting. Vegan was added in the 1993 additions series, and I’ve always assumed it was because it shares a spelling with “vegan” in the sense of someone who abstains from animal products. New in this update is Alpha Centaurian, which turns out to used in philosophy as an example of someone who would have a non-human or non-terrestrial perspective, as in this quote: “Martians, Venusians and Alpha Centaurians would all doubtless have their own special forms of the hollow world theory.” There’s a similar sub-entry for Centaurian, as well. Both appear to have been coined by Hal K. Wells in Astounding in 1931. I am curious what the policy for inclusion of toponyms is; so far, it seems that for extra-solar ones, its limited to words that could either cause confusion (“Vegan” for “vegan”) or have additional shades of meaning, but I don’t know whether this is just a coincidence.

The update also includes an update to the word “star,” so you’d think that there would have been a lot of opportunities for sfnal words here, but surprisingly there are only two: starbase and stardrive, both run-on to the entry for star. The starbase entry includes the note “originally and frequently in the name of such a base,” which I thought was interesting. The first citation is from the 1944 short story “Star Base X” by Robert Moore Williams. Stardrive has a first citation from Poul Anderson (“Genius,” 1948).

Starship, curiously, is not run-on to “star” (I have no idea what their criteria for run-ons is, but it seems a bit arbitrary in this case). It’s been in the OED for a while, but they’ve updated it with a new first citation: 1882, from a book by John Ballou Newbrough titled (in part): Oahspe: A New Bible in the Words of Jehovih and His Angel Ambassadors. This is a rather unusual book, and I haven’t spent enough time with it to tell whether this is really the sfnal sense of “starship,” or whether I would treat it as a bracketed citation (i.e. an early use in a sense related to what it finally came to mean).

My favorite from this set, though, is ansible. This is the instantaneous-communication device created by Ursula K. Le Guin in Rocannon’s World. I remember being struck as a youth when I came across the word in Orson Scott Card’s Ender’s Game; I was used to the shared vocabulary of SF writing, but this may have been the first time I encountered a word that I had so deeply associated with a particular author occurring in the work of another author. This is still one of my great pleasures in reading SF — the way that words and ideas are cross-pollinated throughout the genre. “Ansible’s” place in the SF lexicon is interesting, too. It hasn’t had the level of adoption of a lot of SF neologisms, but it feels like an important word to me. It’s instantly recognizable, and could probably have served as a shibboleth at some point — anyone moderately well-read in SF could reasonably have been expected to recognize it, but because (unlike, say, “robot,” or “grok,” or “TARDIS”) its use never left the bounds of genre, most other people wouldn’t. That’s my impression, anyway, and I’m very glad to see it in the OED.

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