The Space-Time Continuum: Neologisms

Here’s my latest Space-Time Continuum column from the January 2023 issue of the Saskatchewan Writers’ Guild’s magazine, Freelance.

“When I use a word,” Humpty Dumpty said in rather a scornful tone, “it means just what I choose it to mean — neither more nor less.”

—Lewis Carroll, Through the Looking Glass

Humpty Dumpty, noted wall-sitter and un-put-back-togetherable faller-from-heights, may not have been a science fiction writer, but he clearly had a little of the science fictional spirit in him with his attitude toward language because one of the many things that sets science fiction apart from its more mainstream literary compatriots is the use of a great many made-up words, words that mean just what the authors choose them to mean—neither more nor less.

Such words are formally called neologisms, from the Greek néo (new) and lógos (speech, utterance), and one of the joys of writing science fiction is the creation of such words.

They are, in fact, almost a requirement of writing science fiction because science fiction stories often involve technology, concepts, places, creatures, and many other things that either do not yet exist or that we have not yet come into contact with. You need words to describe such things, and one way to both make them come alive for readers and establish that your story does not take place in the mundane here and now is to create those words.

Many such words have been crafted by science fiction writers over the years. (I’ve crafted a few myself.) Some of them have gone on to become an accepted part of the language (not mine), and fortunately for me and this column, a recent paper, “Is That From Science or Fiction? Otherworldly Etymologies, Neosemes, and Neologisms Reveal the Impact of Science Fiction on the English Lexicon,” presented to the International Conference on the Fantastic in the Arts by B.L. King in 2021, collects some of them.

King’s list is alphabetical, and he starts with a term that is everywhere today: “artificial intelligence” (AI). The term only dates to 1973—it was coined by the late Gardner Dozois, best known as one of science fiction’s great short-story editors, in his novella Chains of Sea.

More threateningly (or perhaps not, depending on how you feel about AI), “atomic bomb” also originated in science fiction, and a lot longer ago than you might think—H.G. Wells coined the term in his 1914 novella The World Set Free, a full 31 years before the first actual atomic bomb was detonated.

Some neologisms seem to have science fictional ideas baked into them. “Disintegrator” and “blaster” were both coined by Nictzin Dyalhis in 1925. (Most people on hearing “blaster” today think of Star Wars; another term familiar from Star Wars, “hyperspace,” came from John W. Campbell in 1934, with “hyperdrive” coming along in 1955. “Cyberspace,” famously coined by Canadian author William Gibson in 1982, grew out of “hyperspace.”)

“Extraterrestrial” was not coined by Stephen Spielberg: it dates to 1941 and came from “S.D. Grottesman,” a pseudonym of Cyril M. Kornbluth’s. The most famous science fictional neologism of all, “robot,” comes from a science-fiction play, R.U.R, written by Karel Čapek in 1920—although his robots (from the Czech word “robota,” meaning “forced labour”) were biological, not mechanical. Isaac Asimov and other writers turned them mechanical in the 1940s.

“Spacecraft,” an everyday word today, was coined by Philip Francis Nowlan in the Buck Rogers 2430 A.D. comic strip in 1923. “Spacesuit” appeared in 1929 in the magazine Science Wonder Stories, as did “spatial station,” which eventually became “space station.”

“Time machine,” of course, comes from H.G. Wells’s novel The Time Machine. (Technically, it’s not a neologism, it’s an example of neosemy—a new meaning adhering to an existing phrase.)

More recently, and rounding out King’s list, there’s “webcast,” another now-ubiquitous word: it originated in the novel Armageddon Blues by Daniel Keys Moran in 1987.

This brief list points to the outsized influence science fiction has had on the vocabulary of our increasingly technological society. Some of these coined words describe what became very real objects: spacecraft and spacesuits, space stations and atomic bombs. The existence of those words reflects the existence of the concepts behind them, and the fact those concepts existed, in turn, made it more likely—perhaps inevitable—that they would one day become a reality: and when they did become a reality, there was the word, waiting for them.

Science fiction, as I’ve said before and will now say again, is not about predicting the future: nevertheless, it is about thinking about the future and what it holds. The words science fiction writers use to describe the impact of science and technology on the future not only help us visualize the possibilities but give us the tools we need to talk, write, and argue about them.

Science fiction writers may not predict the future, but they have undoubtedly helped to shape it.

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