Brave New Words: Did you know words like ‘robots’ and ‘genetic engineering’ originated in SF?
Imagine yourself as a writer almost a century ago, writing a science fiction play about human-like machines, or ‘manufactured artificial people’. What do you call them? You can’t go through a whole play with three acts and an epilogue calling them ‘artificial people’ or even ‘automaton’, because these are more than just mechanical devices.
This was the question that was troubling the Czech writer, Karel Čapek, in 1920. After giving it some thought, he decided on ‘Labori’, the Latin word for labor. Not satisfied, he called upon his brother, Josef Čapek, also a writer, who suggested ‘Roboti’, meaning ‘hard work’ or ‘servitude’ in Czech. Thus it came to be that the play was titled R.U.R. or Rossum’s Universal Robots and introduced the word ‘robot’ to the English language, years before robots went from science fiction to science fact. The play portrayed a world taken over by robots, many decades before Skynet was a gleam in James Cameron’s eye.
What’s more, the word used to describe this field of study, and the term for a person working in this field – Robotics and Roboticist, respectively – were coined by another science fiction author, the great Isaac Asimov.
Speaking of naming an actual science, another term that was first coined in a science fiction story is ‘Genetic Engineering’. The term first appeared in Dragon’s Island by Jack Williamson to describe the process of creating a better race of humans through genetic manipulation, while it was another sci-fi author, Poul Anderson, who named the occupation ‘Genetic Engineer’ a few years later.
Science fiction has been rightly called the ‘Literature of Ideas’. And new ideas need new words. That’s where sci-fi authors don’t just play god creating new worlds, but new words as well. The language of today’s science and technology is replete with terms, words and phrases that first saw the light of day in the pages of a science fiction story and were not actually coined, as we would expect, by Nobel laureates or at institutions such as NASA or CERN.
Like ‘Cyberspace’. Another common enough term, one used almost as a synonym for the internet. The first use of this term as we know it today, to describe ‘the notional environment in which communication over computer networks occurs’, was in the 1982 short story Burning Chrome by author William Gibson. But it was with his highly influential debut novel, Neuromancer, that the term truly took off. Neuromancer’s impact was so big that some have suggested that Gibson’s vision of cyberspace may have inspired the way in which the Internet developed. If you haven’t already, I highly recommend you give it a read quickly.
It’s not just about coining new words or phrases, but also through the recontextualisation of existing words, that science fiction has left its mark. Take the word ‘virus’, for example. Contrary to what WhatsApp forwards would have us believe, it isn’t an acronym and does not stand for ‘Vital Information Resources Under Siege’. Drawing an analogy from the biological world, the first usage of virus as a malicious computer program was by Gregory Benford in The Scarred Man, where the malicious program was in fact also called ‘VIRUS’. Meanwhile, another type of malware, the Worm, was so named by John Brunner in his 1975 novel Shockwave Rider.
Here’s just a few more oh-so-familiar words and terms birthed by science fiction:
Flash Mob: Larry Niven in Flash Crowd, 1973, to describe people using teleportation booths to participate in large gatherings and riots
‘Time Traveller’ and ‘Time Machine’: HG Wells in The Time Machine, 1895. Wells also coined the term, ‘Parallel Universe’ in his 1923 novel, Men Like Gods and ‘Atomic Bomb’ in his 1914 novel, The World Set Free.
Zero Gravity: Jack Binder in a If Science Reached the Earth’s Core, 1938; shortened famously to Zero-G by Arthur C Clarke in Islands in the Sky, 1952
Gas Giant: Used to describe large planets, like Jupiter, that are largely composed of gaseous material – James Blish, Solar Plexus, 1952
Terraform: The process deliberately modifying a planet’s atmosphere, topography or ecology to make it habitable and Earth-like, by the aforementioned Jack Williamson in Collision Orbit, 1942. Willamson also coined the term ‘ion drive’.
What about the term ‘science fiction’ used for the genre itself? The credit for that goes to Hugo Gernsback, a better publisher than a writer. You could even say he kick-started the modern era of science fiction in 1926 by starting Amazing Stories, the first sci-fi magazine. One of the most coveted awards in sci-fi, the Hugo Award, is named after him. Interestingly, while he was the first in using the term ‘science fiction’ and popularizing it, he personally preferred another term he’d coined, Scientifiction.
I want to end by directing your attention to an excellent book, Brave New Words: The Oxford Dictionary of Science Fiction. A book so awesome and interesting, it won a Hugo Award when it came out. Filled with facts and stories of words, themes and concepts of science fiction across books, TV and film and how these have evolved over time.
But don’t order the book just yet or go looking for it! Because for those of you who are creative, this book will come to you.
All you have to do is tell us your brave new word.
Coin a new word or phrase. Or recontextualize an existing one, and tell us what it means or should mean. Make it meaningful. Or witty. Creative. Science fiction-ish? It’s up to you. It’s your word after all. So go on, put on that thinking cap, crank them grey cells and share your brave new word with us, by leaving a comment below or tweeting to us with the hashtag #NWWonFD before July 25, 2016. And the best word wins this book.
That’s it for now. I hope to see you next week, when I’ll be telling you why I’m a Dickhead (and proud of it!).
Live Long and Prosper!
Addendum (not footnotes!)
1. This post is titled Brave New Words not because of the Oxford book. Neither is it a pun on Ironmaiden’s Brave New World. This post, the book and the Ironmaiden album all derive their title from a science fiction novel, the highly prescient 1931 classic Brave New World by Aldous Huxley. Huxley in turn, derived the title for his book from William Shakespeare’s The Tempest, when Miranda says: “O wonder! How many goodly creatures are there here! How beauteous mankind is! O brave new world, That has such people in’t.”
2. William Gibson’s Neuromancer, which was the first novel to win all the ‘Big Three’ — the Nebula Award, the Philip K. Dick Award, and the Hugo Award – has IMHO one of the most evocative and best opening lines in literature, ‘The sky above the port was the color of television, tuned to a dead channel.’ And this is how his description of cyberspace begins, “Cyberspace. A consensual hallucination experienced daily by billions of legitimate operators, in every nation.” Sounds familiar?
3. A few people asked me what I am currently reading. I just started on Neal Stephenson’s latest novel Seveneves, which begins with the words, “The Moon blew up without warning and with no apparent reason.” Yes, an extinction-level event that sets off a mad scramble by the nations of Earth to put together a plan to ensure the survival of humanity. Here’s a funny story about the book. On being asked why he created an extinction event for Seveneves, Neal Stephenson replied, “It was the only way I could kill more people than George R.R. Martin.” Hehehe.
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