A new way to retrace the history of invented words in science fiction


The game is played between writer and reader, of course, but also between writers, and between all writers and all readers. Certain words are used over and over again, becoming a meta-canonical corpus as allusive as classical haiku. It’s such a complicated game that it would be nice to know the rules, maybe see the shape of the pieces. This is where a mad lexicographical scholar named Jesse Sheidlower comes in. His creation, the Historical Dictionary of Science Fiction emerged online this week – 1,800 entries dating from the turn of the 20th century, with not only definitions but the first known uses, links to biographical information on writers and links to over 1,600 scans of the pages original where the words appeared. It’s a wormhole in not just one Alternative universe but a lexicographic multiverse, or time travel the canons unexpectedly overlap with each other and with the universe the reader is in. favorite movies turn out to predate these films by decades; science fiction puts things right before science. It’s a journey, and it could lead to answers about what science fiction is and what it means. It will certainly start – and end – some arguments.

Almost two centuries before my colleagues at WIRED, Jeff Howe and Mark Robinson, neologized the coat rack ” crowdsourcing,” the Oxford English Dictionary started recruiting readers and users to submit new words, their definitions, etymology, and usage history. This is how the AGE made.

During the first decade of the 21st century, Sheidlower led a subset of this type of project. An editor in general for the AGE, he managed the Science Fiction Citations Project, a participatory effort to collect sci-fi words and their stories, attempting to bring together and contextualize the invented terms and phrases that characterize and in some ways define the genre.

It was a success, and it even led to a book from one of his website moderators –Brave new words. But by 2020, the sci-fi quotes project was mostly fallow – Sheidlower had left the AGE years before, and the Sheidlower website set up to acquire and organize them was in a toned down state of cryosuspension, living on a computer in his New York apartment.

But if there’s one thing mad scientists love, it’s resurrecting frozen corpora. The fans, as fans, would not let go of the project. And neither did he. “People were still sending things, but they couldn’t get anywhere, which was very frustrating,” he says. “Even though there were discoveries, they couldn’t get in.” He dreamed of relaunching it, turning his team’s word-gathering effort into a useful reference site.

Then two things happened.

First, classic mid-twentieth-century pulp magazines have been scanned, almost en masse, in the Internet archives. Research that once required nerds rummaging through old nerds’ basements can now take place anywhere over Wi-Fi.

Second, there has been a pandemic. “I haven’t left my apartment for a year,” Sheidlower says. “Nothing else to do on the weekend.” He got the OK from AGE to take control of the old project and run a little digital lightning bolt through its neck bolts. See! Sheidlower’s modern Promethesaurus comes back to life!

It was not easy. Part of the job is finding early uses and good examples, and for that you have to have access to the whole genre. Before the pulps came online, there weren’t a lot of databases, and copyright meant that a lot of early science fiction wasn’t available. “And science fiction presented another difficulty,” Sheidlower says. “Much science fiction is not kept in libraries traditionally. Many forms of pop culture, libraries just ignore them, even research libraries, because it’s not “important” or not literary, or not the kind of stuff they collect.

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