A New Way to Trace the History of Sci-Fi’s Made-Up Words

One thing nerds like to argue about is what nerds are allowed to argue about. If you agree to stipulate that science fiction is often one of those things—and, hey, we could argue about that—then a problem to solve is the boundaries of that genre, the what-it-is and what-it-isn’t. That’s not straightforward. Finding the edges of science fiction is like taking a walk around a hypercube in zero-gee; you keep bumping into walls and falling into other dimensions. Reasonable people don’t even agree on when it started— FrankensteinThe Time Machine? Gilgamesh? A story where a ghost kills people is horror; what if a robot did it? What if the universe has robots and spaceships but also magic and destiny?

It does seem all but inarguably true about science fiction, though, that the genre radiates neologisms (new words) and neosemes (new concepts made of old words) like an overloading warp core emits plasma and neutrinos. Just to be clear, that’s a lot.

Don’t get mad, romance and mystery fans; you are great. But the point is, if you’re doing it right, science fiction packs in new concepts, even entirely new languages—Klingon, for example, and that inkblot thing the heptapods squirted in Arrival. (What’s that you say? Fantasy has Elvish and Dothraki, why am I leaving those out? Let’s take that to the comments.) It’s where writers need words—or, if need is too strong, maybe want—for rockets propelled by impossible technology, people who are also machines, guns that shoot light instead of bullets, and all sorts of other things that don’t exist and therefore don’t (yet) have names. “Naming things well—and I’m not purporting to be someone who does that—but as a reader it’s so satisfying, because it can be exposition without being expository,” says Charles Yu, occasional WIRED contributor and author of How to Live Safely in a Science Fictional Universe and the National Book Award–winning Interior Chinatown. “And it’s so much fun too.”

That doesn’t mean it’s easy, of course. Those neologisms and neosemes exist within an individual story, but also in a larger conversation among every story, in a genre with fiercely loyal adherents. “The thing about making up new terminology—and this is a place that writers can fall down—is that, like anything else, it has to make sense not only within the universe that you’re building but also in the universe of the reader,” says John Scalzi, author of Old Man’s War and The Last Emperox, among other sci-fi works. “It has to be a term that is easily graspable, so they can put it into their lexicon and not have to think about it again, but at the same time it wants to be distinctive enough that when they see it they are reminded of you.”

Read more: Wired

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