March 13, 2004

Science Fiction citations for the OED

The most recent OED Newsletter has an article by Jesse Sheidlower on a volunteer, web-based effort to track down the origins of science-fiction vocabulary. There is a web site for the project, including instructions for how to participate, and an interesting graph of the resulting word origins by decade (showing a lexicographic baby boom centered in the 1940s, and a mini-boom, half based on critical vocabulary, centered in the 1980s).

Some examples: empath originated in a 1956 story of that name by J.T. Mcintosh; force field has been dated to E.E. Smith's 1931 story "Spacehounds of IPC"; web cast has been dated to 1987 in "The Armageddon Blues" by Daniel Keys Moran. A word whose recent date surprised me is morph (as a verb meaning to change shape), which has been traced only as far back as a 1993 story "Being Human" by Mark Bourne.

This may turn out to be a pilot project for a net-based version of the distributed volunteer lexicography that has always been one of the OED's working methods. However, as Sheidlower writes

Science fiction has several advantages as a subject for this kind of investigation. The vocabulary is largely self-contained; SF terms tend to occur in SF and nowhere else, while, say, political language can be found anywhere and everywhere. The fans are particularly committed, often have linguistic interests, and are computer literate. They may also be more likely to be able to volunteer time than specialists in more academically oriented fields.

Posted by Mark Liberman at March 13, 2004 06:11 AM