A Dictionary of Science Fiction Runs From Afrofuturism to Zero-G
The long-running project found a new online home, one that showcases the literary genre’s outsized impact on popular culture
In the summer of 1987, movie audiences first met Robocop in the science fiction classic about violence and corrupt corporate power in a future, dystopian Detroit. But the title word is much older than that, going back at least to a 1957 short story by writer Harlan Ellison, in which a tentacled “robocop” pursues a character. The prefix “robo-,” in turn, dates at least to 1945, when Astounding Science Fiction published a story by A.E. van Vogt mentioning “roboplanes” flying through the sky. “Robo-,” of course, comes from “robot,” a word created by Czech author Karel Čapek in his 1920 play R.U.R.: Rossum's Universal Robots, about synthetic humans created to perform drudge work who eventually rebel, destroying humanity.
This is the kind of rabbit hole a reader can go down in the Historical Dictionary of Science Fiction, a resource decades in the making that is now available to the public in an accessible form. Lexicographer Jesse Sheidlower started the project years ago, when he was an editor at the Oxford English Dictionary.
The OED is the best-known historical dictionary in the English-speaking world, and Sheidlower notes that it was also a crowdsourcing project long before the internet made it easy. When it was just starting out in the 19th century, he says, the OED put ads in literary magazines looking for volunteers to hunt around old books in search of particular words and their usage.
“People would mark up books, send in the notes,” he says. “To this day, it’s still how the system works to an extent.”
When the internet did arrive, the dictionary’s editors quickly took advantage. For example, Sheidlower says, at one point they were looking for early uses of the word “mutant” in the sense of a genetically mutated being with unusual characteristics or abilities. The earliest they’d found was from 1954, but they were sure earlier examples must be out there. So a freelance editor posted a query on Usenet newsgroups and quickly received an example of a use of the word from 1938.
Soon, the editors started looking for other online projects.
“This was at a time, around 2000, when there was the internet… and people were online, but it wasn’t universal like it is now,” Sheidlower says. “We wanted to do a project where people devoted to a particular field, fans, could make contributions.”
Not only were science fiction fans particularly likely to be online, but they were a valuable source of material. The world’s most prestigious libraries, where OED researchers did much of their work, generally didn’t carry back issues of pulp magazines of the mid-20th century, such as If or Amazing Stories. But many fans, it turns out had cartons full of them.
The new project, researching the history of key words used in science fiction, was written up on early blogs and sites like slashdot. Over the decade that followed, it attracted hundreds of contributors. In 2007, editor Jeff Prucher published a book based on the work, Brave New Words: The Oxford Dictionary of Science Fiction.
The project might seem to have run its course, but Sheidlower, who managed the project when he was with the OED, thought there was still work to be done on it. When he left the publication in 2013, he didn’t lose track of the project. Eventually, he got permission to revive it as a personal project. He continued to add terms and references, something made easier by two factors. First, over the past year, the forced inactivity during the pandemic gave him time to work. And second, staff and volunteers of the Internet Archive have uploaded more than 1,000 science fiction pulp magazines, making their entire contents accessible and searchable online.
Elizabeth Swanstrom, co-editor of the journal Science Fiction Studies and an English scholar at the University of Utah, says the dictionary is “a fantastic resource” not just for fans but for scholars interested in the history of science and technology.
“It’s not uncommon in science fiction to see ideas that are being explored later being put into actual practice” she says.
In some cases, science fiction authors are also scientists who bring real research developments into their writing. Others alter the culture’s understanding of new technologies even without technical expertise. Swanstrom notes that the author William Gibson created the idea of cyberspace back in 1982 and helped found the cyberpunk genre, despite not knowing a huge amount about how computers work.
“The terminology that came out of that genre really shaped culture, and continues to do so” Swanstrom says.
Isiah Lavender III, a professor of English at the University of Georgia and co-editor of the science fiction journal Extrapolation, says the dictionary could help in the academic analysis of issues like the social and economic issues reflected in authors’ depictions of robots. He notes that Čapek’s original robots were essentially enslaved beings with human-like thoughts and feelings. Isaac Asimov’s Laws of Robotics, introduced in 1941, could be seen as reflecting slave codes or the Jim Crow laws that still constrained many black Americans’ lives at that time.
“Having these origin dates in mind can help a student or scholar build a framework to analyze something like the concept of the racial ‘other’ where robots and androids (as well as aliens) are stand-ins for oppressed peoples,” Lavender says.
Lavender notes that the dictionary quotations, derived largely from mid-20th century pulp magazines, don’t reflect the diversity of the science fiction world. Many current black science fiction writers, such as Nalo Hopkinson and N.K. Jemisin, don’t make an appearance.
“From the little bit that I have explored in the dictionary, it comes across as a tool that supports a monochrome future envisioned by the golden age editors of the SFF magazines,” Lavender says. “So it’s problematic in that way.”
Sheidlower acknowledges that the dictionary is limited in the authors and terms it references, but he argues that this is a product of its mission: documenting the “core” vocabulary of science fiction that turns up again and again, both in stories and in the real world.
“When writers do more ‘interesting’ things, it becomes harder to include them in what is meant to be a study of the core vocabulary,” he says. “Samuel Delany is quoted a number of times when he's writing about the usual space-travel stuff, but not much when he goes out of that range. There's only one quote from [Delany’s dense, stylistically complex] Dhalgren, for example, but a lot from Babel-17, just as the OED has ten times more quotes from Ulysses than from Finnegans Wake.”
In general, Sheidlower says, to qualify for inclusion in the dictionary, a word must either be adopted widely within science fiction or become part of the broader culture. “Ansible”—a word for a device allowing faster-than-light communication coined by Ursula K. LeGuin—makes the cut because other authors also use it. Jemisin’s “orogenes”—people with the ability to control tectonic energy—do not because it’s a concept unique to her Broken Earth trilogy. Similarly, “Wookiee” is in the dictionary because Chewbacca is a familiar cultural figure, but dozens of other named alien species from the Star Wars universe that you can learn about on Wikipedia (or Wookieepedia) don’t merit entries.
Of course, it’s easy to find deep dives about nearly every science fiction universe on Wikipedia or elsewhere on the internet. Sheidlower says the dictionary’s mission is different.
“A dictionary’s not an encyclopedia,” he says. “There’s a reason for encyclopedias and there’s a reason for dictionaries.”
The dictionary is a streamlined way to see how terms have evolved over time, and read historical quotations that illuminate their meaning. It also links many of its quotations to the Internet Archive, where readers can see their context and even read the entire story.
Sheidlower says the dictionary, which he is continuing to update as a hobby, is still a work in progress. He anticipates expanding into related fields such as gaming, comics and anime. He also hopes to systematically add entries and quotations from books that have appeared in the ten years since the original phase of the project wrapped up. While Sheidlower has been doing most of the recent work himself, he is looking for volunteers to help out with tasks like checking citations, looking for quotations and drafting entries.
“I do hope there will be interest here,” he says. “For now, I’m still doing everything myself but the system does allow for other people doing that work.”