Science fiction fans know well that the power of the genre is not only in its stories, but also in its ideas, powerful and innovative, and encoded in a terminology sometimes invented, sometimes mutated from the vocabulary of science or society. Investigating in the terms of science fiction is what makes this unique newborn project, linked to the Oxford English Dictionary in its origins, and edited by Jesse Sheidlower.

The Historical Dictionary of Science Fiction chooses more than 1800 terms specific to the genre and their stories (or those who create them), as varied as Alfacentaurian, photon torpedo or soft science fiction, and tracks the first time they were used and how they went evolving in time through a timeline brimming with dating. A fascinating and revealing walk through the terminology of science fiction, analyzed through a multitude of sources and authors.

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Whoever first said “stun gun”

The answer is here. It’s just one of many words that Sheidlower became obsessed with, Unorthodox lexicographer who has published books like ‘The F-Word’, about the history of the Anglo-Saxon swear word by excellence. Among his most relevant recent work is that of having been a vocabulary consultant for the Amazon Prime Video adaptation of Philip K. D**k’s ‘The Man in the High Castle’.

The origin of the project is in an Oxford English Dictionary project started in 2001 and which resulted in a great book, ‘Brave New Words’, in 2007. But Sheidlower left the institution in 2013, and in 2020 asked permission to retake it in exchange for programming the web and sharing the contents with the Oxford English Dictionary. According to The New York Times, an unexpected bibliographic aid was found in this reformulation of the project: The Internet Archive’s impressive collection of classic pulp magazine scans.

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If you want to roam through the large word archive, a good idea is to browse through the topics that many of the words are classified into, ranging from ‘Aliens’ to ‘Armament’. The fact that the two categories with the most posts are ‘Criticism’ and ‘Fandom’ shows to what extent the dictionary is nourished not only by the genre’s own fictions, but also by those who have reflected and created on them.

It is fascinating, in any case, to take a walk through this graph that shows that most of the words of the genre were invented in the thirties of the past century. Which shows, on the one hand, the visionary imagination of its creators. And, secondly, that the one classified as the Golden Age is not called that for nothing.

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