May 26, 2024


Science It Works

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

The game gets played between writer and reader, for sure, but also among writers, and between all the writers and all the readers. Some words get used again and again, becoming a meta-canonical corpus as allusive as classical haiku. It’s a game so complicated that it’d be nice to know the rules, maybe see the shape of the pieces. That’s where a lexicographical mad scientist named Jesse Sheidlower comes in. His creation, the Historical Dictionary of Science Fiction came to life online this week—1,800 entries dating back to the beginning of the 20th century, with not only definitions but the earliest known uses, links to biographical information about the writers, and links to more than 1,600 scans of the original pages where the words appeared. It’s a wormhole into not just one alternate universe but a lexicographic multiverse, where time-traveling canons overlap in unexpected ways with each other and with whatever universe the reader happens to be sitting in. Cool concepts from your favorite movies turn out to precede those movies by decades; science fiction gets things right before science. It’s a trip, and it might just lead to some answers about what science fiction is and what it means. It’ll definitely start—and finish—some arguments.

Nearly two centuries before my WIRED colleagues Jeff Howe and Mark Robinson neologized the portmanteau “ crowdsourcing,” the Oxford English Dictionary started recruiting readers and users to mail in new words, their definitions, and their etymology and usage history. It’s how the OED got done.

For the first decade of the 21st century, Sheidlower ran a subset of that kind of project. An editor at large for the OED, he managed the Science Fiction Citations Project, a crowdsourced effort to collect words from science fiction and their histories, attempting to collate and contextualize the made-up terms and phrases that characterize and in some ways define the genre.

It was a success, and it even led to a book by one its website’s moderators—Brave New Words. But by 2020, the Science Fiction Citations Project was mostly fallow—Sheidlower had left the OED years before, and the website Sheidlower set up to acquire and organize them was in an attenuated state of cryosuspension, living on a computer in his New York apartment.

But if there’s one thing mad scientists like, it’s resurrecting frozen corpuses. Fans, being fans, wouldn’t let the project go. And neither could he. “People were still sending things in, but they couldn’t go anywhere, which was very frustrating,” he says. “Even though there were discoveries, they couldn’t go in.” He dreamed of spinning it up again, of turning his team’s word-collecting effort into a useful reference site.

Then, two things happened.

First, the classic pulp magazines of the mid-20th century got scanned, almost en masse, into the Internet Archive. Research that used to require nerds digging around in older nerds’ basements could now take place anywhere with Wi-Fi.

Second, there was a pandemic. “I haven’t left my apartment in a year,” Sheidlower says. “Nothing else to do on weekends.” He got the OK from OED to take control of the old project and run a little digital lightning through its neck bolts. Behold! Sheidlower’s Modern Promethesaurus lives again!

It wasn’t easy. Part of the job is finding first uses and good examples, and for that you need access to the whole of the genre. Before the pulps came online, there weren’t many databases, and copyright meant lots of early science fiction wasn’t available. “And science fiction presented another difficulty,” Sheidlower says. “A lot of science fiction is not held in libraries traditionally. Many forms of pop culture, libraries just ignore them, even research libraries, because it’s not ‘important’ or not literary, or not the kind of thing they collect.”