New BB series! “Updating the Historical Dictionary of Science Fiction”

Even when Boing Boing wrote about the Historical Dictionary of Science Fiction (HDSF) at its launch, in January 2021, the project was already evolving. The HDSF — based on the OED Science Fiction Citations Project, a 2001 effort to crowdsource quotations for the  Oxford English Dictionary — is a full-fledged dictionary of SF on historical principles, meaning that every entry is illustrated with contextual quotations showing exactly how a term has been used over time. This allows the reader to see that teleport has been in use since 1878, that the hypospray was a real (and trademarked!) device two decades before Star Trek, and that biotechnician was used in SF before it came to refer to an actual laboratory worker. One can also directly see the importance of early writers such as E. E. “Doc” Smith, John W. Campbell, Jr., and Edmond Hamilton, who coined so many of the terms that established the core vocabulary of modern science fiction.

The HDSF focuses on brief, accurate definitions and documentable history of terms; it sits alongside (and links to) other reference projects, such as the comprehensive Science Fiction Encyclopedia, and, for the world of fandom, the Fancyclopedia. Since its launch, the HDSF has improved its bibliographic records, linking most authors and entries with the Internet Speculative Fiction Database; added many more links to the original, full-text versions of SF stories (often in the Internet Archive); and added new features for navigating the data. 

Of course, the most important feature is the continued addition of new entries. Since the launch, we have continued to unearth new information, and we are excited to be able to share it with readers. The over 200 new entries (as of this writing) include accidental omissions (Vulcan); terms from proto-SF (space senses of fleet, battleship, and warship, all from around 1900); and genuinely recent entries that came to prominence after the original project began (cli-fi (2009), murderbot (2006), Nnedi Okorafor’s Africanfuturism (2018)).

Research has also targeted several semantic clusters of entries, such as adjectives derived from authors’ names (Asimovian (1942), Ballardian (1964), Campbellian (1949), Ellisonian (1954), Gernsbackian (1952)); demonyms, or names of beings from particular locations (Aldebaranian (1930), Alpha Centaurian (1931), Betelgeusean (1921), Callistan (1932)); names of languages (Anglic (1950), Galactic (1954), Jovian (1932), Neptunian (1930)); and names of recent subgenres (grimdark (2008), New Weird (2002), mundane (2004)).

We have also taken some steps to extend the project to cover related fields, such as gaming (beast mode (1991), power up (1983)), anime/manga (mecha (1986)), and comics (Kryptonite (1943), spider sense (1975, with earlier parallels in the Spider-Man comic and elsewhere)); continuing this work will require input from people familiar with the history of these fields and knowledgable about how to research them. 

Yet the majority of the new entries are simply common SF terms that never made it into the original: cityship (1953), doppel (1981), the proto-SF ether ship (1883), ion gun (1935), the fandom word kipple (1960), pseudopod (1929), skin job (in an original (1958) and a Blade Runner sense (1981)), star liner (1932), timequake (1954).

While the core coverage is reasonably complete, there are still many terms from classic SF that remain unresearched, and, as new resources are put online, the revision of existing entries will benefit. Beyond documenting the past, the project also aims to capture the ways science fiction continues to evolve. We’re looking forward to bringing more insight into how the language of SF was formed, and how it continues to grow. To that end, Boing Boing will be syndicating new entries from the HDSF on a regular basis. There are hundreds of draft entries in the database; though some of these are probably too marginal to include (words found only once or twice, or associated solely with a single author’s work), many others are solid candidates for inclusion, and we look forward to sharing these with readers.

[If you want to see all the new Historical Dictionary of Science Fiction entries, bookmark the HDSF tag]

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