Many years ago I told my dear wife that, based on the number of words that had slipped into our lexicon from science fiction, we had come to live in a science fiction world. Lots of the products we use every day are called by these names: “robot” comes to mind. I collect words which I place in different categories so this seemed like a great new list. I even came up with what I considered a very clever name for the collection: BRAVE NEW WORDS.
My wife’s discovery that the good doctor Isaac Asimov himself had, unbeknownst to me and a couple of decades before me, called our world a science fiction world added veracity to my own claim.
Those rascals at the Oxford University Press, though, blindsided me. They not only beat me to the punch at collecting such words, thousands more than I did as a matter of fact, but they even stole my title, BRAVE NEW WORDS! To make matters worse they came up with the title in 2007, three years before I even thought of it!
So, disheartened, I let the collection languish in my computer and forgot about it.
However, the great science news of the last few weeks has inspired me to dust the list off, admit how those thieves at Oxford University Press upstaged me and share it with you. Maybe a few of you even share my interest in science.
(Incidentally, in addition to my rambling thoughts in the definitions below, some of the dates of publication and other information are from the Oxford Press book: Brave New Words, The Oxford Dictionary of Science Fiction, edited by Jeff Prucher, published by Oxford University Press, May 7,2007.)
Robot. A big metal machine, usually but not always, anthropomorphic in shape that does jobs humans can’t or don’t want to do because they’re boring or dangerous. Source: From Karel Capek’s 1923 play, R.U. R., which stands for Rossum’s Universal Robots. In the author’s native Czech, “robot” means “worker.”
Atlas 2013 by DARPA
Android. Nowadays, a kind of artificial human that more closely resembles a human than a robot, made of synthetic flesh, sometimes with metallic parts. Source: One could argue that it isn’t technically of science fiction origin because it was used years ago to mean artificial life forms created by alchemists. The case can be made for sf writers though, because they popularized its usage in stories from the 1930s and movies like Blade Runner. Droid, the most common modern form, was made popular by the character in George Lucas’ Star Wars movies, the cutesy and non-human looking R2D2. A rather unoriginal usage of the term is made by a mobile phone/camera thing.
Beam me up, Scotty, which means “get me out of here fast,” has been in print even in stodgy periodicals since 1984. A draftsman who worked for me in the ’80s posted a sign over his desk that said, “Beam me up, Scotty. There’s no intelligent life here. Just engineers.” Source: the television series, Star Trek.
ET, short for “extra-terrestrial,” is used for strange-looking animals or even babies that people think look abnormal. Source: A 1941 pulp science fiction story by C.M. Kornbluth but it didn’t reach the public vocabulary until Steven Spielberg’s 1984 movie, E.T.: the Extraterrestrial, which “proved” that creatures from other worlds can be cute and loveable.
Outer space. A dumb term. I mean, how high do you have to go to get to “outer space”? Is the stratosphere far enough or do you have to go further than the most tenuous of breathable air? If the latter is far enough you reach outer space every time you fly in a jet. Source: A really bad 1953 movie, It Came from Outer Space. Even though the movie was based on a short story by the great Ray Bradbury I hope I never find out that he had anything to do with the script.
Inner space. The human psyche, especially the subconscious. Source: An article by British writer J.B. Priestly entitled, “They Come from Inner Space,” inspired by the aforementioned movie, in which he exhorted other writers to explore their “inner space.”
Sci-Fi. A shortening of “science fiction.” An even worse term than “outer space” that makes scientists, linguists and science fiction fans cringe. Source: It was coined, apparently, by the analogy with “hi-fi,” a short for superior reproduction of sound: high fidelity music. It’s okay to shorten high fidelity to this term, I suppose, and even “science” to “sci-.” But “-fi” sounding so completely different than “fiction” makes the shortened version grating.
We can thank scientists for a lot of these terms. Many of the most innovative and creative of them read or even write science fiction stories. And thank you, Jeff Prucher, for all the time you put into the research necessary to produce this terrific book.