Historical Dictionary of Science Fiction.

Back in 2006, I alluded to the existence of Brave New Words: The Oxford Dictionary of Science Fiction, and frankly, I’m surprised I didn’t give it a post of its own, considering its groundbreaking nature and the fact that it combined two of my favorite topics, sf and language. Now, though, it’s been to some extent superseded by a free online resource, the Historical Dictionary of Science Fiction:

Welcome to the Historical Dictionary of Science Fiction. This work-in-progress is a comprehensive quotation-based dictionary of the language of science fiction. The HD/SF is an offshoot of a project begun by the Oxford English Dictionary (though it is no longer formally affiliated with it). It is edited by Jesse Sheidlower.

The About page explains the history and affiliations of the project. Click on an entry, e.g. actifan, and you get definition (“someone who is actively involved in fandom”), usage note (“Now rare.”), etymology [< active + fan], and citations (from 1942 H. Jenkins Jr. Letter in Super Science Stories May 136/2 “Thought-variant stories…draw popular acclaim as well as response from the actifan” to 1995 Dragoncon: FASFiC? or ComicCon? in rec.arts.sf.fandom 15 July “Most of those who vote are very probably actifen”), just like in the OED. Naturally enough, it has plenty of antedates and updates. But I said “to some extent” above because it unaccountably drops entries that were in the book, like anti-agathic “something (such as a drug) that prolongs life,” created by James Blish and with citations ranging from 1954 to 2004. Never mind the nitpicking, though — it’s a terrific thing to have, and I’m adding it to the sidebar.

And it turns out Jennifer Schuessler has a good NY Times piece about it; thanks, Eric! It includes an important qualification about coverage:

The citations lean toward so-called hard science fiction (defined as science fiction based on hard science, which does not violate known scientific laws), and origin dates thin out in recent decades. The most cited authors are Robert Heinlein, Poul Anderson and Isaac Asimov. But if an author is not represented, Sheidlower emphasized, that’s not a value judgment.

“The harder your science fiction, the more likely you are to be using terms other people are using,” he said. But writers of “soft science fiction” (defined in the dictionary as science fiction based on soft sciences like anthropology or sociology, or in which science plays a relatively small role), he said, may actually be more innovative in their language. He mentioned N.K. Jemisin, whose Broken Earth trilogy, published between 2015 and 2017, won three consecutive Hugo Awards. “She’s not, for the most part, using words everyone is using.” he said. “The fact that she’s not in here doesn’t mean she’s unimportant. It can actually mean the opposite.”

Comments

  1. January First-of-May says:

    I pretty much had to check whether it now includes sol “solar day, esp. Martian” – as discussed in this StackExchange question (where I had participated, almost exactly five years ago).

    Turns out it still doesn’t. Not sure why. Perhaps the term is too recent; or perhaps it just doesn’t show up in sci-fi.

  2. But I said “to some extent” above because it unaccountably drops entries that were in the book, like anti-agathic “something (such as a drug) that prolongs life,” created by James Blish and with citations ranging from 1954 to 2004.

    Thanks for the kind writeup! There are a hundred-odd entries in Brave New Words that aren’t on the site, in most cases simply because these were entries that Jeff edited for the book alone, and were not on the original OED SF Citations site, and I didn’t want to simply copy them. In some cases I’d drafted entries already and just not put them live. You will now find entries on the site for anti-agathic noun and adjective, though.

  3. Excellent, thanks for the update!

  4. John Cowan says:

    I only remember seeing sol in scientific sources like articles in Science and in NASA press releases. I don’t recall any SFnal usage.

  5. Odd; I remember it from sf, and it’s been used quite a few times.

  6. January First-of-May says:

    and it’s been used quite a few times

    That’s the proper noun Sol “the star that Earth orbits” (note the capital), as opposed to the common noun sol “a planetary, usually Martian, synodic day”. Perhaps it really was invented for the 1976 Viking lander(s) and only caught on after that.

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