Dept. of Word Lists

Beam Me Up: Star Trek Vocabulary

While I wouldn't call myself a Trekkie or Trekker or even a Trekhead, I do have a certain fondness for the world of Star Trek.

Characters don't get more lovable than the originals, with James T. Kirk, Mr. Spock, and Dr. McCoy forming a triumvirate for the ages that's endured Klingons and recasting. While I don't have quite the same affection for Captain Picard, if I were ever stuck between a Romulan fleet and a hard place, he's the Captain I'd trust. How can you go wrong with Patrick Stewart?

Some of the most distinctive lexical contributions of Star Trek have come in the form of alien races. Besides the Romulans and Vulcans, there's the Borg, who tool around the galaxy in those weird cubes. There's never been a better shorthand for selling out or becoming mindless sheep than joining the Borg. Tribbles remain adorable little space hamsters. The Klingons are not only a specific, fearsome-looking alien race, but they famously spawned the creation of an actual language with grammar and, eventually, Shakespeare translations. There was more than a little truth to the classic Onion headline: "Klingon Speakers Now Outnumber Navajo Speakers." For more details on the weird success of this artificial language, check out the Klingon Language Institute.

With a new Star Trek TV show debuting soon—Star Trek: Discovery on CBS—this is a good time to look at some Star Trek lingo, which involves other science fiction mythologies, actual science, and, to a large extent, the navy. Beam these words up to your vocabulary stat.

For a full list of English words related to the cultural phenomenon, check out Beam Me Up: Talking About Star Trek.

This word comes from a very specific Star Trek phrase that became a part of popular culture: "Set phasers to stun!" This was actually a decent thing to do, since the alternative was setting them to kill. If a Starfleet officer hit someone with a phaser set on stun, it knocked them unconscious, similar to how a linebacker can stun a quarterback. People are also stunned by bad or shocking news. To be stunned is to be knocked out: literally or metaphorically.

Originally a fleet was a group of ships in the Navy, but since Star Trek's space forces are modeled on naval tradition, words like fleet (and first officer) were borrowed by writers. The Enterprise isn't just part of a fleet of spaceships: it’s part of Starfleet, the organization that sent the Enterprise on its five-year mission. Starfleet is often mentioned in the term Starfleet regulations, which Spock is often quoting and Kirk is often ignoring.

The universe is everything that exists. (I feel like I should say, "Whoa, man" after typing that. Heavy stuff.) A solar system is a group of planets orbiting a sun, just like Earth and Mars and Jupiter and the rest orbit our little sun, or Sunny, as I like to call her. The unit in-between is the galaxy: a galaxy is made up of many solar systems. As best I can tell, the adventures of Star Trek take place all or mostly within our galaxy, the Milky Way. Our closest neighboring galaxy is called Andromeda. Since we can't even send people to Mars yet, I wouldn't book any future vacations outside the Milky Way.

The opening lines of Star Trek's original series are famous, powerful, and a little sexist: "Space, the final frontier. These are the voyages of the starship Enterprise. Its five-year mission: to explore strange new worlds, to seek out new life and new civilizations, to boldly go where no man has gone before." A mission is a purpose and goal: a reason for doing something. It's also like a quest. There are many types of missions. You could say you're on a mission to find the perfect cheeseburger. People on a religious mission dedicated to helping people (and often converting them) are called missionaries.

A hybrid combines two things: a restaurant could be a hybrid of Mexican and Chinese food, while a hybrid car runs on both gas and electric. Animal hybrids include the mule (the offspring of a donkey and horse) and the less well-known zedonkey (the love child of a zebra and donkey). Mixed dog breeds could also be called hybrids, such as the labradoodle (Labrador and poodle) and puggle (pug and beagle). Mr. Spock is often referred to as a hybrid because his father is a Vulcan and his mother is an Earthling. I'm surprised there's never been a prequel about Spock's parents meeting, along with awkward pickup lines such as, "Your planet or mine?"

Anything prime is the best or highest example something: prime rib is the best rib, and the prime of your life is the best part of your life. In Star Trek, the main use of prime is in prime directive, a term the Oxford English Dictionary defines in its broad and Trek-specific senses: "a chief objective, goal, or requirement; a guiding principle (in later use popularized esp. by the U.S. science fiction television series Star Trek as a law prohibiting interference with less developed planets and cultures)." In other words, Starfleet ships shouldn't be meddling in other planets' cultures just because they feel like it or think they know better. Of course, the show was notorious for disregarding the prime directive whenever Captain Kirk felt like it. Still, it's a nice idea.

This word has undergone a smooth series of mutations over time. The first known uses of torpedo referred to a type of fish in the 1500s. By the 1700s, the word had gained its more contemporary meaning: as a type of explosive, in the shape of a cigar, launched from a submarine. This is yet another naval term borrowed by Star Trek. The Enterprise is on a peaceful mission of exploration, but when they need to get tough, they fire the photon torpedoes. Photons transmit light, but I'm not exactly sure how the photon torpedoes work. My PhD isn't in pseudo-science.

As Mr. Spock might say, "Live long and may your lexicon prosper."

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Mark Peters is a language columnist, lexicographer, and humorist who has written for Esquire, The Funny Times, New Scientist, Psychology Today, Salon, and Slate. He contributes to OUPblog and writes the Best Joke Ever column for McSweeney's. You can read Mark's own jokes on Twitter, such as, "I play by my own rules, which is probably why no one comes to my board game parties anymore." Click here to read more articles by Mark Peters.

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