Behind the Dictionary

Lexicographers Talk About Language

The Language of Science Fiction

Words like "spacesuit," "blast off" and "robot" weren't born in science -- but in science fiction. To learn more, we called Jeff Prucher, the editor of Brave New Words: The Oxford Dictionary of Science Fiction, a rich and fascinating compendium of words invented and popularized by the genre. We spoke to him about science fiction's impact on English:

VT: What exactly is a "science fiction" word?

Jeff: There's no right answer to that question. I used a series of metrics when I edited the dictionary. First off, I asked if a word was coined in a work of something that could be arguably called "science fiction." But the question, "what is science fiction?" is one that fights have been started over many times. So I tried to use the broadest definition of the genre.

VT: Can you give us examples of words coined in science fiction?

Jeff: I was really surprised when I started to find out how much of the language of science fiction has entered into everyday use or within a specialized context. For example, in the aerospace world, words like "spaceship," "spaceman," and "spacesuit," were all coined in science fiction. "Spaceship" was actually first used in science fiction in the 1890s. A real spaceship didn't appear for another 50 years.

It's impossible to know whether the scientists who first talked about spaceships were calling them that because they had read science fiction stories or because it's a fairly obvious thing to call this invention. In many cases it's hard to tell, but a word like "spaceship" certainly had been around for a very long time in terms of science fiction history.

In computers, there has also been a big impact. "Cyberspace" is one of the words that are often cited. It was coined by a writer named William Gibson in the 1980's and refers to the notional space of a computer network, the space we imagine that Internet communication takes place. This word, of course, is everywhere now.

Those are the big examples. One of the lesser ones that I'm pretty fond is "virus" in the sense of a computer virus. That was originally a science fiction word. So is "space cadet." In a science fiction context a "space cadet" is a junior space spaceman.

VT: Not a flaky person?

Jeff: Yes, exactly. Now it means somebody who's an airhead. There's really been this semantic drift. It's the same word but it's taken on a completely new meaning.

VT: Do you think the prescience of science fiction will continue, even in our Internet age?

Jeff: I'm sure of it. The intersection between science fiction and science, I think, is becoming even more interlinked. It's hard to tell sometimes in the last decade or so whether it's the science fiction writers having the crazy ideas, or whether it's the scientists having these completely crazy ideas and the science fiction writers are taking off with them.

VT: It's a question of who's following whom?

Jeff: I think of "nanotechnology," which was a big buzzword in the '90s and is still a big thing both in science and science fiction. It was a theoretical science concept originally - and something science fiction writers jumped on almost seconds after it was first published.

This term has spawned a huge vocabulary with nano this and nano that, "nanobot," "nanoweapon," nano-whatever. I've been trying to tell which of those nano prefix things are from science or science fiction but I've had to give up and say, nobody really knows.

VT: It's symbiotic.

Jeff: It's always been symbiotic, I think, but now the Internet is speeding up communication so ideas are disseminated very quickly.

VT: Any other examples of words affected by this speed of communication?

Jeff: Yes, the words "fanzine" and "zine," referring to amateur journals. Both of these words came not out of science fiction, but out of the science fiction "fandom" community, as it's called. While these were first used in science fiction fandom, they have now spread to other subcultures that produce amateur-published magazines about everything from movie stars to football clubs.

These amateur journals were not new to science fiction. They were building on older subcultures. But the names "fanzine" and "zine" were two of probably half a dozen abbreviations that were commonly used for amateur fandom publications. And for whatever reasons, these words caught on like wildfire. This was something that made me think, oh my God, there really is a connection between this isolated, contained language and the rest of the English language.

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