Science Fiction: a genre (of literature, film, etc.) in which the setting differs from our own world (e.g. by the invention of new technology, through contact with aliens, by having a different history, etc.), and in which the difference is based on extrapolations made from one or more changes or suppositions; hence, such a genre in which the difference is explained (explicitly or implicitly) in scientific or rational, as opposed to supernatural, terms

—- Jeff Prucher, Brave New Words: The Oxford Dictionary of Science Fiction

The influence of science fiction on our language can’t be overestimated. Many terms and expressions in common usage originated in science fiction, or at least were popularised there. Jeff Prucher’s Brave New Words: The Oxford Dictionary of Science Fiction (2007) is the most detailed account of this influence to date. It defines words coined not only in science fiction literature, film, television and comics, but also within sf criticism and sf fandom. It was published by Oxford University Press and contains an introduction is by Gene Wolfe. It won the Hugo Award for Best Related Book in 2008.

The title alludes to Aldous Huxley‘s dystopian sf novel Brave New World (1932) – itself taken from Shakespeare‘s The Tempest (1610); the term ‘brave new world’ (n. a dystopian society resulting from the faulures of technological or social advancements; a situation resembling such a state of affairs) has entered popular discourse. It is perhaps science fictions greatest achievement that it has created the vocabulary through which we express our deepest fears about the direction in which society may evolve; George Orwell‘s Nineteen Eighty-Four (1949) alone provides us with ‘Big Brother‘ (n, an all-powerful, all-seeing, authoritarian ruler or government), ‘doublethink‘ (n, simultaneously believing that two contradictory ideas are true) ‘Newspeak‘ (n, the modified form of English created by the government for use in propoganda; in general use, any euphemism or doublespeak, especially as used by a govenment or for propaganda), and ‘thoughtcrime‘ (n, any thought, especially that which is against the government or which is unorthodox, considered as a criminal offense).

The most obvious fields in which science fiction words have entered the mainstream are in space exploration and astronomy. The words ‘spaceship‘ (n, a vehicle designed to be used in outer space) and ‘spacecraft‘ (n, a SPACESHIP) first appeared in John Jacob Astor‘s A Journey in Other Worlds (1894) and Philip Francis Nowlan and Dick CalkinsBuck Rogers, 2430 A.D. (1930) respectively. ‘Spacesuit‘ first appeared in Sci. Wonder Stories in 1929; less glamorously, ‘space-sickness‘ first appears in Hugo Gernsback‘s novel Ralph 124C 41+ (1911). ‘Free fall‘ comes from John W. Campbell Jr‘s Islands of Space (1931).

The word ‘robot‘ (n, [<Czech robota, ”forced labour”]), notably comes from play RUR: Rossum’s Universal Robots (1920); the term ‘robotics‘ (n. the science of designing, building, or using robots; the study of robots.), however, first appeared in Isaac Asimov‘s short story ”Liar!”, part of his Robot Series, which was first published in Astounding Science Fiction (May, 1941) and reprinted in I, Robot (1950). Asimov was not even aware that he was creating a word. ‘Android‘ appears, as does the abbreviation ‘droid‘ from George Lucas‘ Star Wars (1977) but the female equivalent ‘gynoid‘ does not, nor does ‘fembot’.

Several computing terms first appeared in science fiction. ‘Virus‘ (n, a computer programme that is capable of replicating itself and installing these copies onto other computers without the users’ knowledge, and which also performs damaging or irritating actions on the computers. Compare WORM) comes from David Gerrold‘s When HARLIE Was One (1972) while ‘worm‘  (n, a piece of computer software capable of replicating intself and transfering copies between computers, which usually performs damaging actions on those computers. Compare VIRUS) comes from John Brunner‘s The Shockwave Rider (1975).  The term ‘spam‘, of course, comes from a Monty Python sketch rather than sf, and so is outside the scope of this book.

Cyberspace‘ (n, the entirety of the data stored in, and the communication that takes place within, a computer network, conceived of as having the properties of a physical realm; the environment of virtual reality) first appeared in William Gibson‘s cyberpunk short story ”Burning Chrome’‘ (1982) first published in Omni (July 1982) and reprinted in Burning Chrome (coll, 1986). ‘Matrix‘ (n, CYBERSPACE or virtual reality) is correctly attributed to Robert Holmes, writer of the 1976 Doctor Who story ”The Deadly Assassin” – 23 years before Andy and Lana Wachowski‘s The Matrix (1999).

The term ‘cyberpunk‘ (n,  1.a. [cybernetics + punk] subgenre of science fiction that focuses on the effects on society and individuals of advanced computer technology, artificial intelligence, and bionic implants in an increasingly global culture, especially as seen in the struggles of streetwise, disaffected characters) itself was coined by Bruce Bethke in the title of his short story ”Cyberpunk” in Amazing Stories (Nov 1983); it was first used as a term in sf criticism by Gardner Dozios in an editorial in the Washington Post Book World (December 30, 1984). ‘Steampunk‘ (n, [by analogy to CYBERPUNK] a genre of science fiction with a historic setting in the nineteenth century characterized by technologies extrapolated from that era, but which were not invented at that time. Hence steampunker, steampunkish) is dated to a letter written by K.W. Jeter describing his own work, and that of Tim Powers and James Blaylock, printed in Locus (April 1987).

Many useful terms from fandom are defined: ‘fan fiction‘, ‘fanzine‘, ‘filk‘, ‘Mary Sue‘ and ‘slash‘ – but not ‘cosplay

The book can’t hope to be comprehensive but there are notable omissions, the most glaring being ‘atomic bomb’, a term first coined by H.G. Wells in The World Set Free (1914). Also absent is ‘meritocracy‘, a term which first appeared in the sociologist and educationalist Michael Young‘s dystopian satire The Rise of the Meritocracy 1870-2033: An Essay on Education and Equality (1958); this is particularly disappointing as the term has since become naturalized, and it’s satirical origin as a term for a bureaucratic oligarchy is overlooked by those actively promoting it.

Also absent is ‘Vril’, the life-giving force from Edward Bulwer-Lytton‘s gothic utopia The Coming Race (1871).

Sources
  • Asimov, Isaac (1941) ”Liar!” in Astounding Science Fiction, May, 1941, reprinted in I, Robot (coll. 1950)
  • Astor, John Jacob (1894) A Journey in Other Worlds
  • Bethke, Bruce (1983) ”Cyberpunk” in Amazing Stories, November 1983
  • Brunner, John (1975) The Shockwave Rider
  • Bulwer-Lytton, Edward (1871) The Coming Race
  • Campbell, John W. Jr (1930) Islands in Space
  • Capek, Karel (1920) RUR: Rossum’s Universal Robots
  • Dozios, Gardner (1984) SF in Eighties in Washington Post Book World, December 30, 1984)
  • Gernsback, Hugo (1911) Ralph 124C 41+
  • Gerrold, David (1972) When HARLIE Was One
  • Gibson, William (1982) ”Burning Chrome” in Omni, July 1982, reprinted in Burning Chrome (coll, 1986) 
  • Holmes, Robert (1976) Doctor Who: The Deadly Assassin
  • Huxley, Aldous (1932) Brave New World
  • Jeffprucher.com (Author’s blog)
  • Jeter, K.W. (1987) Letter printed in Locus, April 1987
  • Nowlan, Philip Francis & Dick Calkins (1930) Buck Rogers, 2430 A.D
  • Orwell, George (1949) Nineteen Eighty-Four
  • Prucher, Jeff (ed. 2009) Brave New Words: The Oxford Dictionary of Science Fiction
  • Wachowski, Andy & Lana (2001) The Matrix: Shooting Script
  • Wells, H.G. (1914) The World Set Free
  • Young, Michael (1958) The Rise of the Meritocracy 1870-2033: An Essay on Education and Equality

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