One has finally received from the library Brave New Words: The Oxford Dictionary of Science Fiction by Jeff Prucher. Boy, has Oxford really loosened up lately. They’ve got the adorable Erin McKean running the show in the States, they look online for citations, and, impressively, they canvassed openly for terms for this dictionary (via a confusing page at Jesse Sheidlower’s site).

It never ceased to be surprising how many science-fiction words date back to the 19th century (time travel[l]er, antigravity, dystopia) and how many to the early 20th (extraterrestrial, homeworld, humanoid).

But the thing that gets me – and let me speak as a linguist here – is how many “sci-fi” terms you hear once and instantly and perfectly understand. The biggie is terraforming. The first time you ever heard that word you immediately knew what it meant. And you never, ever had cause to use it in conversation. (But quick: Infer vs. imply? Lay vs. lie?) I suppose bionic. Maybe stasis. (It’s given here in its invariant singular form; “stases field” was a source of an argument between me and WGBH over Star Trek captioning.) Alien means “foreigner” only in the context of a U.S. green card.

There are, however, too many words having to do with fans (or faans or faaans, but don’t trust the listed pronunciation). Let’s not pretend this dictionary is strictly descriptivist and he’s just writing down what’s out there. Servo isn’t in the book, but a dozen words with three to five citations having to do with being some kind of superfan (or whatever) are all listed. Edit, please. These words are insufferable, like the fans themselves. (But where is the word fanboy?)

I would have expected more terms from The X-Files. (X-Phile is in there.) Bibliographies of one form or another take up more than 60 pages, rather badly typeset at that. I think the Whole Earth Catalog (early editions) would be a good citation source.

More annoying is the typography. It’s about as bad as you can get without actually using Arial, or while actually telling yourself you know what you’re doing with typography.

  • Body copy in Utopia, citation text in Bell Gothic (oddly). The tracking is erratic (look at first citation for mutant). There isn’t enough lead. The measure is too wide. (Two sides of the same coin.)
  • They use fake small caps, sometimes with true caps.
  • The term ’bot is continually written as ‘bot, a smart-quotes aberration anyone could have caught at any time in the production process. (Shoot ‘Em Up?)
  • Speaking of which, this is yet another book with the Microsoft Word/Web-page deviancy of a blank line between paragraphs and no paragraph indention. It works onscreen and in business letters; it’s ignorant and second-rate in a printed book. (However, a useful transplantation from online text is the book’s practice of differentiating ellipses used in the original from ellipses added editorially […]. Prucher also keeps track of ambiguous line-break hyphens in original sources.)
  • Chapter-break pages giving cute little synopses of different themes (time travel, weapons, Star Trek) use Utopia Italic when necessary, but with additional fake italic sloping. I don’t know how you manage that apart from defining a style to use an italic typeface and also “adding italic.”
  • Font sizes changes randomly, as in the two spellings of relaxicon. Character sizes in IPA text are variable.

To mention a few lexemes:

  • Isn’t a flash crowd really a flash mob?
  • The infix -h- is pleasingly listed as indicating the word “is being used humorously or in a fannish context.” Hence the currently popular ghey (it’s two syllables with an epenthesized vowel), which I adore.
  • Homo superior: No citation from Pete Shelley? It’s clearly the same sense.
  • A few of the definitions simply aren’t that great. Look at 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.” Is that long enough for you? (“Hence”?) Time paradox: “An event or condition, caused by something a time travel[l]er does while in the past, that is logically impossible based on the state of the universe in their original time.”
  • I remember being a schoolboy and actually believing that real people referred to the sun as Sol. Can’t you just imagine Isaac Asimov uttering that word in some kind of CBC Radio interview? And nobody else saying it out loud, ever?

Now, what is the most agreeable term in the dictionary?

sense of wonder
[A] feeling of awakening or awe triggered by an expansion of one’s awareness of what is possible or by confrontation with the vastness of space and time, as brought on by reading science fiction.

In the immortal words of Martin Prince, keep watching the skies.

The foregoing posting appeared on Joe Clark’s personal Weblog on 2007.09.24 15:48. This presentation was designed for printing and omits components that make sense only onscreen. (If you are seeing this on a screen, then the page stylesheet was not loaded or not loaded properly.) The permanent link is:

(Values you enter are stored and may be published)



None. I quit.

Copyright © 2004–2024