Posted by: Mish | August 10, 2010

Brave New Words

“We live in a world shaped in large measure by the images and ideas of science fiction—and the language we speak has been shaped the same way.”

I love science fiction and learning about languages so Robert Silverberg’s article in Asimov’s last month was really interesting. I knew some commonly used words today come from science fiction, like “cyberspace” thanks to William Gibson’s Neuromancer (1984), but only a handful and not the particulars. Now aware of its existence, I may have to get a copy of Brave New Words aka Oxford Dictionary of Science Fiction from which Silverberg drew examples:

Robot– Karel Capek’s 1923 play, R.U.R (Rossum’s Universal Robots), about the advent of quasi-intelligent mechanical laborers. The word’s Slavic variations mean hard, boring work. Silverberg mentions seeing the sign “UWAGA! ROBOTY BUDOWLANE!” in Poland, “Were we being warned against berserk robots in the vicinity? Not quite.” More like “Danger! Construction work!”.

Android– Popularized in the thirties, but originally used centuries ago to describe artificial beings created by alchemists. Droid– George Lucas’s Star Wars.

Viruses (computer)- David Gerrold’s 1972 novel When Harlie Was One. Similarly, worm was used in John Brunner’s 1975 novel Shockwave Rider.

Flash crash– A quickly assembled group called together by Internet or cellphone. Larry Liven used the term in his 1973 novel of the same name.

ET– Not of this earth. Traced back as far as C.M. Kornbluth’s pulp story in 1941. Stephen Spielberg reintroduced the term in 1982 with his movie E.T.: The Extra-Terrestrial.

“Science fiction movies and television shows have much greater audiences than even the most popular SF novel, which is why their coinages pass so readily into the language. Beam me up, Scotty…  in its sense of ‘Get me out of here fast.’ It originated, of course, on Star Trek, as did many another phrase now in colloquial use.”

Outer space– From another film, It Came From Outer Space in 1953, that was adapted from a story by Ray Bradbury.

“Let us hope Bradbury had nothing to do with coining that silly locution. Where is ‘outer space’? How far out there do we have to go to reach it?.  The movie did lead British novelist J.B. Priestley to urge writers, a year later, to devote themselves instead to the literary exploration of inner space, ‘the hidden life of the psyche’, and ‘inner space’, too, has passed into our language as the antithesis of the place where the dumb sci-fi movies are set.”

Orwellian– George Orwell’s Nineteen Eighty-Four coined numerous words such as Big Brother, doublethink, thoughtcrime, etc. It also honored the author.

Sci-fi– Used by Robert Heinlein in 1949 to describe one of his short stories.

“Another hateful term that will never be eradicated from our language. It was coined, apparently, by analogy with ‘hi-fi’, a twentieth-century term short for ‘high fidelity’, referring to superior reproduction of musical sound. It’s reasonable enough to collapse… ‘science’ into ‘sci-‘, but abbreviating ‘fiction’ as ‘fi’ has always struck me as barbarous.”

Science fiction-A literature of ideas was found in 1851 explaining it about “a knowledge of the Poetry of Science, clothed in the Poetry of Life”. It set the forerunner for Hugo Gersback’s Amazing Stories, the first scientifiction magazine about 75-years later. It also gave us numerous terminology like alien, time machine, spacesuit, and a slew of others.

Anyway, there’s a lot of good food for thought. I look forward to reading some more insights, examples, Silverberg, and then some.


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