Columnist Michael Cassutt shows how Trek and BSG's word building changed the world

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Dec 14, 2012

That's right—word-building, not world-building, which is a valuable sci-fi writer's tool in itself. It is the art of creating terms for beings, modes of transportation, ideas and eras that don't exist.

Aside from its usefulness to the craft of storytelling, word-building is one of the ways you give your work a chance at immortality. One of the hallmarks of a classic, be it fiction, film, television or game, is adding a phrase or word to the language.

It's easy to cite examples from mainstream literature. Catch-22. Babbitt. "We made him an offer he couldn't refuse."

Sci-fi has its own contributions, from 1984 to Brave New World. From "Beam me up, Scotty"* to "TANSTAAFL" ("There Ain't No Such Thing as a Free Lunch"). From "terraforming" to "genetic engineering" (both from the same writer, Jack Williamson).

The computer universe is to word-building what a roiling sea mount is to island growth. New terms bubble out of it daily, most of them demanding acceptance. "byte, cookie, java, spam, wiki, podcast, zip file." This month's inescapable terms are "twitter" and "tweet."

There's a lot of overlap between the two fields, but sci-fi writers have been at this a lot longer, close to 100 years of looking ahead in time—or at least, looking elsewhere (to the distant past, to alternate worlds)—and giving names to the so-far un-nameable.

There are a variety of ways to word build. The easiest is to just make up a word. Years ago, Larry Niven, one of the masters of the art, sat in a boring UCLA economics class simply making random compilations of vowels and consonants, coming up with "kzin", for example—which he later used as the name for a race of nasty aliens.

You can alter an existing word or modifier and come up with "psychohistory" or "transhuman" or "cyberpunk."

You can fuse one or more separate words into one, combining not only sounds but meaning. (These are known as portmanteau words.) Paolo Soleri's "arcology," a mash-up of "architecture" and "ecology". "Sci-fi" itself is an example.

You can import one from another language, like "robot."

You can re-brand a word already in use, as Joss Whedon is doing with "dolls". You can even re-brand an existing sci-fi term, as George Lucas did with "droid".

You can also just have fun at someone else's expense. I've read conflicting stories over the years, but I am convinced that Kubrick and Clarke were goofing on computer maker IBM by naming their sentient computer "HAL."

Future profanity always presents a temptation to a sci-fi writer, especially because made-up swear words slip right past young adult librarians or network censors. The most famous and successful bit of sci-fi profanity is Battlestar Galactica's "frak." Your character's dialogue acquires more realism and weight ... At no cost!

Of course, word-building is not static. Usage evolves over time.

Take, for example, a word to describe mechanical men or other artificial beings. Start with "metal men" in the early 20th Century. In 1921, Karel Capek's play "R.U.R" premiers in Prague. The title is an acronym (like NASA) for "Rossum's Universal Robots" and the story deals with a company that produces them. Capek's "robot" derived from a word in Old Church Slavonic, itself the source language for several European tongues, including Russian, for "serf labor" or "work". "Robot" is adopted ... er, universally (see Asimov, Isaac) as a term for mechanical worker.

But Capek didn't specify a mechanical origin for his robots. They could just as easily have been organic—artificial humans. Or what later sci-fi writers would term "androids."

And what George Lucas, in 1977, would re-brand as "droids"—which were again mechanical.

Along with "androids", you had "cyborgs"—cybernetic organisms, another kind of artificial human.

I had believed that "cyborg" was the root for "cylon" in the original BSG. Not so, I am informed: "cylon" came from "Cyclops," since the 1978 design for said beings featured one horizontal eye thing. Okay. Now, 30-plus years later, "cylon" shares an initial sound with words like "cyberpunk" or "cybernaut" that have grown in acceptance, so no matter how originally conceived, it works as a cousin of "cyborg."

There are new words for old things. 1982's Blade Runner gave us "replicant", another variation that has successfully made the leap to acceptance.

There are new words for new things. When I worked on Max Headroom, I was delighted to discover and use "blipvert" (a television ad compressed to seconds for greater impact).

There are new words for things that don't exist yet, like "ansible," Ursula LeGuin's coinage for a device that sends signals faster than light.

Of course, not all—not even most—sci-fi terms make that leap to classic, universal acceptance. Words can battle their way to the pages of the Oxford English Dictionary, the accepted authority on such matters, and still fall short of universal currency.

Take "spaceship" and "starship," which have been used in sci-fi stories and movies for 70 years without becoming universally accepted as everyday terminology. It may be because 50 years ago NASA decided to call its vehicles "spacecraft." ("Starcraft" pops up now and then, but hasn't caught on, either.)

It may also be due to the differing images triggered by "starship"—to me it suggests something large, possibly filled with passengers, and re-usable. None of those descriptions applied to, say, Mercury, Apollo or Soyuz spacecraft. They don't really fit the Space Shuttle, either, though it is large and has carried passengers. It doesn't fly to Mars or Alpha Centauri.

You don't worry about universal acceptance, of course, when you're just trying to write a story. Often you're just looking for a word—even a temporary word.

You don't want to overdo it, either. Your readers or viewers won't recognize most of your new terms... you have to introduce them cleverly and judiciously without having a character say something painfully expositional. "A 'ram scoop' is a type of starship that uses—"

Word building isn't just a challenge for sci-fi writers. Pity the poor journalists and pundits struggling with a term for the current economic situation. It's worse than a "recession", but can't (so far) be called a "depression". What then? Mash the two terms together and call this a "repression"?

Maybe we should just reach into the sci-fi word bank. Can we say we're just living in "Frakville"?


* Note: As with Rick's purported line from Casablanca ("Play it again, Sam"), this line does not actually appear in this form in the original Star Trek series. Nevertheless, it is in the language.

Michael Cassutt has created his share of sci-fi words, as author of thirty-plus short stories, novels Star Country and Dragon Season, and scripts for such series as Twilight Zone, Max Headroom and others. He also writes non-fiction, and teaches at USC's School of Cinematic Arts.

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