There is no denying the profound influence that the Star Trek franchise has had on our shared popular culture. But it turns out that some of the best-known terms associated with the series:conveyor, warp speedand the famous First guideline-actually older than Star Trek: The Original Series by a decade or more. According to Jesse Sheidlower, a lexicographer and editor of the recently launched online Historical Dictionary of Science Fiction (HDSF), the first mention of those terms appeared in 1956, 1952, and 1940, respectively.
The origins of this new online resource go back to 2001, when Sheidlower worked for the venerable Oxford English Dictionary (OED). “OED has always been a crowdsourced entity,” Sheidlower told Ars. “In fact, it was probably the first crowdsourced thing.” In the late 1800s, OED editors usually placed notices in newspapers and magazines asking people to read various materials and contribute to their coverage of the English language.
While at OED, Sheidlower noted that science fiction was an area not very well served by science, in part because science fiction hasn’t had much serious literary cache in the past. That meant that the most important (and rare) pulp magazines were not available in the usual archives, such as the Library of Congress or the New York Public Library. So he set up a Science Fiction Citations Project (SFCP) and called on the science fiction community (fans and writers alike) to submit examples of the specialized terminology they found, all compiled by moderators.
There has been particular interest in “antedating,” the earliest known examples of certain words, which are of great interest to scholars. For example, the OED had a listing for: mutated— “in the sense of a person of unusual abilities or appearance that arose from a genetic mutation” — dating to 1954, but Sheidlower thought it was probably conceived much earlier. He was right: The term first appeared in 1934. The site remained active for many years, and one of the moderators, Jeff Prucher, even published a Hugo Award-winning book, Brave new wordsin 2007.
However, over time, all that activity waned and the site basically became static. Sheidlower left OED in 2013 and no longer had access to the SFCP. Last year, he asked OED for permission to revive the project, including a major design overhaul. The pandemic had given him ample time to undertake such a major overhaul, and the fact that many rare science fiction sources had since been digitized — including the original pulp — made it easier for him to conduct his own extensive research.
Like its predecessor, the HDSF helps improve and expand our knowledge of antedates. According to Sheidlower, the HDSF has found more than 400 ancestors so far. For example, thought-driven was believed to date from 1977, but it can now be traced back to 1934. Deep space dates from 1921 (instead of 1937), blast gun first appeared in 1923, deflector was first mentioned in 1931, and the term a mad scientist can be traced back to 1893. And the scientific terms biotechnician and gravity were first conceived in science fiction in 1940 and 1929, respectively.
The new HDSF also included some useful extra features; it’s not just a list of words. Sheidlower went out of his way to include links to online source material whenever possible – all added manually. For example, click mutated, and you are on the home page with a timeline of usage, starting with the earliest entry to current usage. Click on the 1934 entry and a picture of the actual page where the word first appeared will appear.
“It’s gone from a site that was basically a notebook where people could write down their research into something more widely useful, making it both more fun to explore and more useful for those using it for serious scientific endeavors,” Sheidlower said.
There are currently no plans to turn the HDSF into a printed book, a la Brave new words† But Sheidlower hopes to expand the resource further, specifically to include more 21st-century science fiction terminology. It already includes terminology from fandom communities (-con, fan, sercon), criticism, and especially influential science fiction films and television programs (lightsaber, red shirt, TARDIS†
And while the HDSF has no official affiliation with the OED, at least one OED editor, aside from its origin, approves the project. Executive Editor Peter Gilliver described it to The New York Times as “pretty impressive and very stylishly presented”, adding, “Jesse leaves no stone unturned. He is a very persistent researcher.”