Saturday, December 12, 2009

Brave New Words

From Ray Bradbury to Carl Sagan, from "The Twilight Zone" to "Battle Star Galactica", science fiction has emerged from the margins of popular culture to claim a significant presence across media in print, film, and television. It has shaped our vision of the future and the way we talk about it.

Consider the various opening monologues spoken by Rod Serling when introducing various episodes of "The Twilight Zone". They describe rather well the interaction of words, mind, ideas and imagination

"You're traveling through another dimension, a dimension not only of sight and sound but of mind; a journey into a wondrous land whose boundaries are that of imagination. That's the signpost up ahead - your next stop, the Twilight Zone!"

"There is a fifth dimension beyond that which is known to man. It is a dimension as vast as space and timeless as infinity. It is the middle ground between light and shadow, between science and superstition, and it lies between the pit of man's fears and the summit of his knowledge. This is the dimension of imagination. It is an area we call the Twilight Zone."

"You're traveling through another dimension, a dimension not only of sight and sound but of mind; a journey into a wondrous land whose boundaries are that of imagination - Next stop, the Twilight Zone!"

"You unlock this door with the key of imagination. Beyond it is another dimension - a dimension of sound, a dimension of sight, a dimension of mind. You're moving into a land of both shadow and substance, of things and ideas. You've just crossed over into the Twilight Zone!"

There was also one other monologue that was never used -

"This highway leads to the shadowy tip of reality: you're on a through route to the land of the different, the bizarre, the unexplainable...Go as far as you like on this road. Its limits are only those of mind itself. Ladies and Gentlemen, you're entering the wondrous dimension of imagination. Next stop....The Twilight Zone."

"Brave New Words", the first historical dictionary devoted to science fiction, has been described by the Library Journal as "an admirable and unique source that demonstrates on nearly every page the surprising extent to which the language of science fiction has entered everyday English terms." It shows exactly how science-fictional words and their associated concepts have developed over time, with full citations and bibliographic information. In addition, the book demonstrates how many words we consider everyday vocabulary-words like "spacesuit," "blast off," and "robot"-had their roots in imaginative literature, and not in hard science.

"Brave New Words" was first published in hardcover in May 2007. On August 9th 2008, the first edition was named recipient of the prestigious Hugo Award (for Best Related Book), given to the best science fiction titles of the previous year.

Consider the following summary of some of this book's contents.

The television show Star Trek, which first aired in 1966, is another show that had a great effect on the English language. It has had more of an effect than any other single science fiction creation, with the possible exception of George Orwell's Nineteen Eighty-Four. Words coined for the series and its spin-offs have stuck in the popular imagination, and are used by people in all walks of life. Some, like mind-meld and warp speed, are mainly used figuratively outside of science fiction. Starfleet has found a foothold in science fiction itself, while cloaking device and nanite straddle both worlds. Star Trek also introduced the world to Klingon, the language created by linguist Marc Okrand for the movie Star Trek III: The Search for Spock, and which has since taken on quite a life of its own.

Naval Terms

When SF writers want to describe the life of a spacefaring society, they frequently use nautical terms. The analogy between travel in space and travel on the seas is a straightforward one - both entail enclosing people in a self-contained vessel, protected from a hostile environment by only a thin shell, in which they may spend long periods of time between ports, whether on islands or planets. This analogy is most directly made by simply using a nautical term in an outer-space setting, so boat, craft, ship, and vessel, as well as cruiser, destroyer, and dreadnought, can describe both watercraft and spacecraft. Similarly, like a seagoing vessel, a spaceship may be composed of an external hull, punctuated with portholes, which encases and protects the decks, bulkheads, cabins, and bridge, not to mention the captain and crew. If it is a military vessel, it may belong to a navy, in which case the ship's captain probably reports to an admiral. Even the familiar science-fictional alien mother ship is an appropriation of a naval term. Frequently, SF writers take a nautical word and add "space" or "star" to it, as in space dock, space liner, space pirate, spaceship, starfleet, starport, etc. "Sea" can be replaced in compounds such as spacefaring, space-going, and space-sick, as can "ship," in words like spaceyard. Sometimes these appropriations and substitutions can be a matter of expedience, but there is a poetry to it as well; science fiction has often been a literature of exploration and adventure, and drawing on the language of the sea can hearken back to the excitement and romance of the Age of Sail.

It is just fascinating how words can take us from what we know to a new place that we want to know, that we are afraid to know or even to where we don't even know if we can know.

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