Is That From Science or Fiction? Otherworldly Etymologies, Neosemes, and Neologisms Reveal the Impact of SF on the English Lexicon


SFRA Review, vol. 51, no. 3

Selected ICFA 2021 Papers


Is That From Science or Fiction? Otherworldly Etymologies, Neosemes, and Neologisms Reveal the Impact of SF on the English Lexicon

B.L. King

Science fiction has been the red-headed step-child of literary genres since her beginning, despite being one of the most successful and fast-growing genres besides her sister, fantasy; however, this position is inconsistent with the impact the genre has made on language and the relating novum that its neologisms represent. Numerous English words and phrases have been coined or redefined by science fiction;they are also widely recognized and understood as more than pop culture references—as actual concepts, intellectual properties, and objects. Words such as spacesuit, webcast, and blaster are neologisms and actually find their derivations from science fiction literature and film, while words like alien and satellite were given new meanings while becoming used and understood on a much larger level, making them neosemes (Valentina). These words and phrases are widely recognized, even without contextual clues, and used outside of science fictional contexts, despite their alien meanings, pun intended. Even though they were initially introduced to characterize and term foreign, extraterrestrial objects and concepts, they have extended beyond that context and have made it into generalized dictionaries. Most find their birth in science fiction texts instead of scientific research, contrary to common belief and assumption. These etymologies prove the momentous impact of science fiction on the English lexicon and contribute to the popularization and mainstreaming of the genre as a whole while also mentally inventing new ideas and thoughts for the human race, especially in exploration of science, through linguistic means. Examining the extension of SF terminology into the lexicon results in evidence for SF to be regarded with reverence and credibility as a literary genre in and of itself. 

It is no secret that SF has been looked down on for its sensationalism and has been accused of writing for the masses as a product of “the culture industry” (Horkeimer and Adorno). Anthony Enns highlights this discrimination in his article “The Poet of the Pulps: Ray Bradbury and the Struggle for Prestige in Postwar Science Fiction” and recounts that the cultural perception of the pulps and critics of SF’s widespread reaction of awe and horror contributed to this imbalance. Despite the positive pop-cultural reception and growth of the genre, university programs continue to shun it and it is unequally represented in the western literary canon. Such negative associations, connotations, and biases persist in the world of both authors and critics. 

To negate this inequality, I will relay the undeniable impact of SF neologisms and neosemes on the English language by recounting the etymologies of the most widely used neologisms and citing their listings in mainstream, standard, modern dictionaries. It is crucial to clarify that the words to be discussed are simply the most popularly recognized and utilized words SF has coined and not the only ones. My etymologies will also be abbreviated as for the purpose of this paper, the quantity and usage of these words proves more to the argument than their lengthy histories. 

Thus, to start our alphabet of SF, the word alien (noun) has taken on a purging of its original meaning, which is “a foreigner” in its noun form and “belonging to a foreign country” in its adjective form (Oxford English Dictionary, “Alien”). It first appeared with its new definition as a noun meaning “a being not of earth” in the 1820 Collected Letters of Thomas Carlyle and was used again in this context in Frank R. Paul’s One Prehistoric Night and again in Eando Binder’s 1939 Impossible World (Prucher and Qolfe 2). From there it continued in its new usage as such while the other, though still used but infrequently, became a secondary meaning. The word’s first known use as an adjective was in Abraham Merritt’s Moon Pool (1919). The recorded usage of alien escalated rapidly after approximately the late 1800s and beginning of the 1900s. This time frame parallels the rise in popularity of its SF definition, which has now become for many the first definition that comes to mind.

Artificial intelligence (AI) (noun) was coined in 1973 by G. R. Dozois in the novella Chains of Sea (Prucher and Qolfe 10). It is defined as “the theory and development of computer systems able to perform tasks that normally require human intelligence” (Prucher and Qolfe 10). Big Tech and its most well-known entrepreneurs, like Bill Gates and Elon Musk, have co-opted the phrase to describe their technologies that mimic human intelligence. It is also the basis for the more recent term artificial super-intelligence, which formed before most modern computer programs were invented and one year before the personal computer’s (PC) invention, contributing to the notion that SF takes part in the invention of technology by speculating it.

Atomic bomb (noun) was introduced to the lexicon by none other than H. G. Wells in his 1914 novel, The World Set Free (Brake 122). Oxford defines the term as “a bomb that derives its destructive power from the rapid release of nuclear energy by fission of heavy atomic nuclei”(Oxford English Dictionary, “Atomic Bomb”). Wells invented the term about thirty-one years before the first actual atomic bomb, “Little Boy,” was dropped over Hiroshima, Japan. Wells’s psychic phrasing points again to the strong bond SF has with the English language and the technology around us. 

D stands for disintegrator (noun), first appearing as the name of a weapon in 1925 by N. Dyalhis in When Green Stars Wane, published in Weird Tales (Prucher and Qolfe 36). In the same sentence where the world first saw a disintegrator, Dyalhis also coined the term blaster—although some might first think of a certain space opera by the name of Star Wars upon hearing this word because the films are one of the main perpetrators of its use. Both words have made it into the Oxford US English lexicon and through their widespread use, are very easily pictured and recognized words and concepts. When this type of recognition and mental imagery happens, it is as if the author has invented something concrete and is not merely describing or employing a plot device, accentuating the power of language and specifically the power of SF language.

Going back to one of the most common themes of SF, extraterrestrial (noun, adjective), a neoseme to describe alien life, first appeared in S. D. Grottessman’s 1941 Cosmic Stories. Its root word, terrestrial, comes from Latin meaning “of the earth” and now with the prefix extra-, it does not mean more earthly, but instead “outside of earth,” in reference to UFOs or alien species (alien as in the aforementioned definition). An entire institute is actually named from this word called The Search for Extraterrestrial Intelligence (SETI) which accredited scientists support and research for. This solidifies the integration of not only the word into the language, but also the concept it stands for.

Hyperspace (noun) was given its meaning of another dimension that one reaches by travelling faster than light in 1934 by John Campbell in The Mightiest Machine (Brake 70), yet many commonly associate the phrase with the Star Wars franchise’s Millennium Falcon. The term was recorded once before 1934, but only as a geometrical reference, and was added to the Oxford English Dictionary in 2010 (Oxford English Dictionary, “Hyperspace”). It has become a shared concept among SF texts and contributed to the use of hyperdrive, which originated in SF in 1955. Campbell’s word also inspired the term cyberspace which was coined by William Gibson (Brake 137) in his 1982 short story Burning Chrome and then expanded upon in his best-seller from 1984, Neuromancer. 

Lightspeed (noun), coined in 1929 by E. Hamilton in the novel The Star Stealers, is a neoseme meaning “a unit of speed equal to the speed of light” (Oxford English Dictionary, “Lightspeed”). It is now used in scientific texts and jargon and is the accepted unit of measurement of 300,000 kilometers per second. It was added to the Oxford English Dictionary in 2005, cementing its use. Lightspeed’s continued usage persists as a common element of SF stories. The phrase “speed of light” inspired our neoseme, but it was not a measurement and related itself with questioning and speculation rather than with coinage or tangible ideas. 

One of the most famous neologisms of SF origin is robot (noun), derived from a Czech play called R.U.R. that uses the Czech word “robota” meaning “forced labor” (Prucher and Qolfe 165). The play was written by K. Čapek in 1920 to refer to artificial but biological slaves, and P. Selver translated the play in 1923. Flash forward to 1941 when Asimov applied it, along with other writers, to mechanical beings, and he coined robotic, robotics, and roboticist. It is arguably one of the most famous SF-derived words and concepts and is another one that we tend to forget or not realize was originally  coined in SF.

The neologism spacecraft (noun) was first used in 1930 by P. Nowlan and R. Calkins in Buck Rogers 2430 A.D. Buck Rogers is probably a familiar name to some and has contributed to the mainstreaming of SF through its franchise so it is no surprise that it has also contributed to language like it has with pop culture. Spacecraft as a term makes its appearance twenty-seven years before the Soviet Union’s Sputnik launched from earth. Yet spacecrafts have a far more complex and impressively prophetic history than that. Johannes Kepler, an astronomer and early SF author, wrote in a letter to Galileo humans should and could create a “craft ‘adjusted to the heavenly ether for the ‘brave sky-travelers’ who are ‘unafraid of the empty wastes’” (Brake 20). This letter was written about 300 years before any sort of spacecraft even existed and illustrates the mental experimentation that SF holds at its core. 

The neologism spacesuit (noun) can be defined as a “a sealed and pressurized garment which protects the wearer against the conditions of space.” It was first used in the 1929 July edition of Science Wonder Stories (Oxford English Dictionary, “Spacesuit”). Man’s first actual journey into space took place many years after that and astronauts did not don spacesuits until the 1960s. NASA now refers to these “pressurized garments” as spacesuits because of science fiction stories. This is yet again an instance of SF not only influencing the jargon of science, but also the very technology that science can create. Similarly, space station (noun) also made its debut in Science Wonder Stories in 1929; however, it actually appeared as “spatial station” and later that year in December, C. W. Harris and M. J. Breuer replaced it with space station in Baby on Neptune in Amazing Stories (Oxford English Dictionary, “Space Station”). The neoseme phrase space travel (noun), the concept of navigating outer space, also finds its coinage in the 1929 September edition of Science Wonder Stories (Oxford English Dictionary, “Space Travel”) and is even born in the same sentence where we first see space station. In 1998, the International Space Station was launched, simultaneously actualizing both phrases, space station and space travel, once again showing a cross between SF and science and making SF predictions a reality. Mark Brake writes “that a spirit of ‘what if’ is common to both science and science fiction” (Brake 2).

Time machine (noun), perhaps one of the most famous neoseme phrases from SF, is a phrase coined by H. G. Wells’s 1894 novel of the same name. This text is one of the very first SF novels and created one of SF’s signature tropes, inspiring classics like Back to the Future. Through this phrase Wells also made time the fourth dimension (Brake 70). Time machine was added to the Oxford English Dictionary in March 2012, over a century after its first use (Oxford English Dictionary, “Time Machine”). This phrase also precedes time travel and time traveler. Wells did not just coin a word, however, he invented a scientific concept that some scientists believe could be an actual possibility. Einstein himself believed in and studied the existence of wormholes (Brake 70), which are essentially tears in the space-time continuum through which one could theoretically enter and come out the other end at a designated date in what is considered linear time. Again, SF has opened doors for scientists to experiment with concepts born of authors’ minds.

Our last word, a brief honorable mention is the neologism Webcast (noun), which was coined in 1987 by D. K. Moran in Armageddon Blues, meaning, “[a] live broadcast transmitted over the World Wide Web” (Oxford English Dictionary, “Webcast”) Now with the technologies of Skype, Zoom, and Webex, Moran’s direct vision is a vivid reality. 

As we end our alphabet of SF, it is important to note that SF has also been crucial to the popularization of existing words. Among this category are words like zero-gravity, humanoid, mothership, and nanotechnology. These words had scattered use before they appeared in SF texts, but after their appearance they steadily gained momentum in use and in research (Google Ngram). Not only does SF coin words, but it also popularizes obscure words and is the main contributor to their inclusion in the standard lexicon. 

Yet not only has SF impacted our language through these neologisms, introducing new words to our shared, universal vocabulary, but it also has introduced novum, new ideas, to our realities. SF has not just coined a word for a space station, but because it has introduced a new word to our minds linguistically, it has now invented intellectual property that must be represented by the word, as I conclude using Darko Suvin’s and Ferdinand de Saussure’s theories in conjunction. The genre introduces us to novum, those of which must be symbolically represented by our language in order to be conveyed. These neologisms are signs that transfer new meaning, novum, and images to the human brain and consciousness that were previously unthought of, and their signifiers (or words) were previously without meaning. In order for a word to be coined, introduced to, and used in a lexicon, it must have an image, concept, or idea behind it to provide its meaning since language is an arbitrary medium for communication in which the main goal is for ideas to be exchanged. SF has not just impacted us linguistically, but idealistically. To impact a language is to impact thought and reality, perceptions and inventions. Thus, SF has not just coined or recoined words, but has introduced and described new ideas, which are novum, and the mental invention and recognition of concepts like spacesuits, robots and webcasts. Mark Brake, the author of The Science of Science Fiction, discusses a version of this as “a kind of theoretical science” (Brake 2). However, an emphasis on the linguistic part of that science is missing. SF could not achieve this theoretical science of exploration and, as I term it, mental invention without keywords which are neosemes and neologisms to signify those inventions. 

Now that we have explored what words come from SF, we must highlight why it matters. Brake argues that SF precedes science in many cases and has impacted our culture and interests, which largely supports the notion for SF to be regarded with more reverence as a genre. To build upon this, the elemental way in which SF is able to influence our culture and science is through neologisms and neosemes. The concepts SF words stand for are why people love them, but the way the concepts are communicated—through neologisms and neosemes—is what makes readers able to grasp and understand them and henceforth, to accept them within the culture. Without the invention of these words, the intellectual properties and tropes of SF would be lost in translation,would not be able to be copied and recognized across texts as effectively, and would also not as easily slip into our language. We do not talk about “the pressurized garments worn in space”; we talk about spacesuits. Most of us are not familiar with the mechanics of navigating precise wormholes that operate through use of hyperspace activity and their function in the fourth dimension, but we do know what time travel is. Without these neologisms and neosemes, these concepts would not be popularized or commonly recognized. 

It is difficult to argue that another genre has been this heavily involved with real-world science and the English lexicon. This sets SF completely apart from other literary genres, yet it has not been dignified as a credible genre. Many of the words above represent concepts that actual scientists are now exploring thanks to concepts that originated in SF like time travel, parallel universes, and space travel (Brake). This exemplifies the strength of language, but also the impact of SF as a genre on our reality. Considering the volume and popular usage of the collection of SF words above, it is reasonable to say that SF has made a large impact in not just the words we speak, but the voice we hear in our heads that heralds images and ideas into the forefront of our minds. SF has not made meaningless words, but has mentally invented a vast world of concepts, some of which we have made into a tangible reality. This linguistic power moves SF beyond the page and into our daily lives, into the fabric of our communication, making the case that SF should no longer be ignored when its impact extends this far. This proof that SF is a credible genre lies in its very text and our very own language.


WORKS CITED

Brake, Mark. The Science of Science Fiction. Skyhorse Publishing Company, Incorporated., 2018.

Enns, Anthony. The Poet of the Pulps : Ray Bradbury and the Struggle for Prestige in Postwar Science Fiction. Belphegor, 2015.

Horkheimer, Max, and Theodor W. Adorno. The Dialectic of Enlightenment. 1947. Trans. Edmund Jephcott. Ed. Gunzelin Schmid Noerr. Stanford: Stanford UP, 2002.

OED Online, Oxford University Press, December 2020, http://www.oed.com/view/Entry/90321. Accessed 13 December 2020.

Prucher, Jeff and Gene Qolfe. Brave New Words: The Oxford Dictionary of Science Fiction. Oxford University Press. (2007).

Rolls, Heather, and Michael P. H. Rodgers. “Science-Specific Technical Vocabulary in Science Fiction-Fantasy Texts: A Case for ‘Language through Literature.’” English for Specific Purposes, vol. 48, Oct. 2017, pp. 44–56. EBSCOhost, doi:10.1016/j.esp.2017.07.002.

Saenz, Aitziber Elejalde. “(Re) translation and Reception of Neologisms in Science Fiction.” Transletters. International Journal of Translation and Interpreting 3 (2020): 39-58.

Salvatierra, Valentina. “Science-Fictional Multilingualism in Ursula K. Le Guin.” Science Fiction Studies, vol. 47, no. 2, 2020, pp. 195–218. JSTOR, http://www.jstor.org/stable/10.5621/sciefictstud.47.2.0195. Accessed 1 Dec. 2020.

Westfahl, Gary. “The Words That Could Happen: Science Fiction Neologisms and the Creation of Future Worlds.” Extrapolation (Kent State University Press), vol. 34, no. 4, Winter 1993, pp. 290–304. EBSCOhost, doi:10.3828/extr.1993.34.4.290.

B.L. King is an MA graduate student and instructor at Florida Atlantic University with a concentration in SF and Fantasy. She is an ICFA, PCA/ACA and SFRA member and has presented at each of the 2021 conferences for those associations. Her master’s thesis will be an ecocritical look at The Witcher series and she is a proud working member of Heartwood Books and Art, an antiquarian and rare book seller.


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