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Sci-fi online dictionary proves classic genre terms like 'warp speed' are older than you think

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Feb 1, 2021, 11:25 AM EST

One of the great joys of science fiction, whether you're a reader or a writer, is the constantly growing lexicon that always emerges anytime a new writer tries to weave their own science fictional universe. Whether creating new words whole cloth or repurposing old ones to give them new meaning, it's always fascinating to see the ways in which sci-fi works describe new technologies, new worlds, and new ways of looking at the universe. Now, one lexicographer is out to catalog them all, and the results of tracking the origins of these words might surprise you. 

Last week, former Oxford English Dictionary editor at large and lexicographer Jesse Sheidlower launched The Historical Dictionary of Science Fiction, an expertly crafted and organized compendium of nearly 2,000 terms (and growing) from throughout sci-fi prose and fandom that attempts to probe the origins of and provide accurae definitions for sci-fi words and phrases ranging from "aerocar" to "phaser" to "vibroblade" and more. 

As Sheidlower — whose past credits include language consultation on Amazon's The Man in the High Castle — explained to The New York Times, the dictionary began life as "The Science Fiction Citations Project" back when he still worked at O.E.D. Last year, Sheidlower resurrected the project with the OED's permission, combing through recently digitized old pulp magazines to further his research, and the result is a fascinating free web resource that charts the history of science fiction lexicography in a fascinating way. 

Scrolling through the hundreds of entries on the Historical Dictionary of Science Fiction website reveals a number of potentially surprising origins for many popular sci-fi terms. For example, the term "Droid," which we most closely associate with Star Wars, actually first appeared more than two decades earlier, in Mari Wolf's 1952 story Robots of the World! Arise! And "warp speed," a term we tend to associate with Star Trek, emerged in a story called "Yachting Party" published by Fox B. Holden in a 1952 issue of Imagination magazine. 

While you can browse the Historical Dictionary alphabetically, you can also scroll through its hundreds of entries in other ways, including by subject, and through a section that compiles credit for coined terms to various authors. The top word-coiner? Not Isaac Asimov or Robert Heinlein or even H.G. Wells, though they're all well represented. No, that honor at the moment goes to Edward E. Smith, one of the early practitioners of the space opera genre best known for his Lensman and Skylark stories from the 1940s and 1950s. According to Sheidlower's research, we can credit Smith for first use of terms like "blast off," "force field," and "tractor ray" in a science fiction context. 

So, if you're looking for some often-surprising insight into the origins of some of sci-fi's most-used terms, head over to the Historical Dictionary of Science Fiction. But be warned, you just might get lost in there for a few hours.