Brave New Words (or rather, a few more of them)

Gautham Shenoy April 14, 2018 4 min

Robot. Cyberspace. Gas Giant. Zero-G. These are just some of the words that first saw light of day in a work of science fiction, as we saw in one of the earliest editions of this column.

And then there are words that have entered the English language as adjectives, words not created by any author, but referring to the authors themselves. Like Orwellian, to refer to any government or dystopian surveillance society that feels ‘big brother-ish’ (Big Brother in itself being a phrase we owe George Orwell). Phildickian, used to describe anything that resembles or is suggestive of the conditions described in the works of Philip. K. Dick, such as pseudo-realities, simulated humans, drug-induced epiphanies, and techno-surveillance paranoia. To describe anything reminiscent of the oppressive or nightmarish qualities of Franz Kafka’s fictional worlds, we have the word, Kafkaesque. Rounding off this quartet of (dystopian) adjectives is Huxleyan, to refer to a specific kind of dystopia characterised by democratic totalitarian systems, an excess of choice but suppressed freedom, as portrayed in Aldous Huxley’s 1932 novel, Brave New World.

There are words that are most familiar to SF readers and have almost made it out of sci-fi fandom into slang. Like these three words coined by Douglas Adams in the must-read classic Hitch Hiker’s Guide to the Galaxy: Sass, Hoopy, and Frood. Meaning ‘know, be aware of, meet’, ‘a really together guy’, and ‘really amazingly together guy’ respectively. Usage: “Hey, you sass that hoopy Ford Prefect? There’s a frood who really knows where his towel is!”

But the three words I’d really love to see being used more often than they are currently, are these three neologisms introduced (along with many others) in the 1963 novel, Cat’s Cradle by Kurt Vonnegut: Wampeter, Foma and Granfalloon. What do they mean? In the words of Vonnegut himself, “A Wampeter is an object around which the lives of many otherwise unrelated people may revolve. The Holy Grail would be a case in point. Foma are harmless untruths, intended to comfort simple souls. An example: ‘Prosperity is just around the corner’. A Granfalloon is a proud and meaningless association of human beings.”

Or ‘Grok’ for that matter. Quite possibly the only English word that derives from Martian. Well, the Martian word as coined in the landmark 1961 novel, Stranger in a Strange Land by Robert Heinlein, the writer often referred to as the ‘dean of science fiction writers’, and who – along with Isaac Asimov and Arthur C. Clarke – is often considered be among the Big Three of the golden age of sci-fi. Grok has entered a lot of sub-cultures, and for a while has a bad reputation because of one of the malware tools used by the U.S. National Security Agency (NSA), the one used to log keystrokes was called GROK. The Oxford dictionary defines ‘Grok’ as, understand (something) intuitively or by empathy, or to ‘establish a rapport’. And of all the words mentioned here, this one’s perhaps the most tricky to pronounce, because as per Robert Heinlein, Martian words are guttural and jarring, with Martian speech described as sounding ‘like a bullfrog fighting a cat’. So, ‘Grok’ is generally pronounced as a guttural ‘GR’ terminated by a sharp ‘K’ with very little, or no, a vowel sound. Try it. It’s a good workout for the throat.

Speaking of workouts, it’s time again to give the little grey cells a good workout, with this edition’s New Worlds Weekly giveaway. In keeping with the theme, we’re giving away a copy of the Hugo Award-winning Brave New Words: The Oxford Dictionary of Science Fiction!

Brave New Words is the first historical dictionary devoted to science fiction, and what makes it a very interesting read is that it contains a comprehensive listing of all the words and phrases that have originated in science fiction, but also the terms often used in this genre – across books, television and film – tracing how these SFnal terms have developed over time, for good measure.

All you have to do is give us an example of any 2 of these 3 words coined by Kurt Vonnegut: Wampeter, Foma and Granfalloon (for their definition, see above). Keep it serious, make it funny, make it creative, what form your entry takes is up to you. And yes, you can send in multiple entries! The only rule being each entry has to contain examples of any two of these words. Bonus points for giving your entry(s) an Indian context. Another thing to note, this time it’s not going to be a lucky draw. The winner will be chosen on the merit of his/her entry(s). So get thinking about wampeters, foma and granfalloons, and send in your entries before Sunday 22nd April, 2018. You can tweet your entries to us with the hashtag #NWWonFD, use the comments section below, or leave a comment on the FactorDaily facebook page with the #NWWonFD hashtag.

All the best! Live long and prosper!!


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