Historical Dictionary of Science Fiction

Anyone who’s into both word lore and science fiction will have a fine time exploring the Historical Dictionary of Science Fiction. Call it cyberspacefaring.* Launched in early 2021, the HD/SF was once an official project of the OED but is now run independently by lexicographer Jesse Sheidlower. A work in progress, it aims to:

illustrate the core vocabulary of science fiction; it also aims to cover several related fields, such as critical terms relating to science fiction (and other genres of imaginative fiction such as fantasy and horror), and the vocabulary of science-fiction fandom.

Definitions are ‘comprehensive but brief’ and are supplemented by ample literary quotations, aka citations. These, ‘the most important part of this dictionary’, show each word or phrase in use, from the earliest detected case to more recent examples. Some entries also have etymologies, usage labels, historical notes, and so on.

Logo of the Historical Dictionary of Science Fiction, with the title in a classic vintage sf typeface (which I haven't identified)

This beautiful retrofuturist typeface is Sagittarius by Hoefler&Co.
see the link for an account of its inspiration and development.

The HD/SF is still compact enough to offer a scroll bar with the full list of entries without it being unwieldy, so you can easily find topics of interest or just browse for material that catches your eye. Scrolling through, I learned that hive mind dates to 1943, that ant-man was coined by H. G. Wells, and that weirdist is an obsolete word for ‘an author or fan of weird fiction’.

There’s a nice author-search feature: Type in a writer you like, such as Ursula K. Le Guin or Philip K. Dick, and you’ll get a page with all their quotations in the dictionary, along with links to other resources. There are also useful tags, so you can see a list of entries related to aliens, genres, science, SF criticism, or vehicles, for example.

In general the dictionary does not include words that are ‘restricted to a particular author or universe’ (hence, perhaps, the absence of Stanisław Lem, despite his lexical inventiveness: see this Twitter thread for examples). However, words used in a narrow context can make the cut ‘if they are, nonetheless, known outside of that context’:

Thus, waldo was coined by Robert Heinlein, but it is widely used by other writers; likewise Ursula Le Guin’s ansible. The word psychohistory is used chiefly by Isaac Asimov, but he uses it in a wide range of works, and it is often discussed by other writers, even though they refer to it as an Asimovian term. Similarly, J. R. R. Tolkien’s primary world and sub-creation are used frequently by later critics.

Representation matters, and Sheidlower tells me he makes an effort to include citations from female, Black, Asian, queer, trans, etc. writers. But he can’t include terms from such groups unless they’re in broader use among SF writers, and the fact is that most SF – at least on a vocabulary basis – remains ‘white-guy space-adventure stuff’, as he puts it.

The dictionary is intended as a communal effort and is seeking volunteer editors/moderators, outlining 10 possible ways to help. It also invites ‘comments, of any kind, on individual entries’. It keeps a long list of potential entries, and there are regular updates and additions; @SFdictionary records these on Twitter.

Image from the film Starship Troopers, showing an explosion in space, above a planet. Along the bottom is the text, in all caps: Would you like to know more?

If knowing more is now your prime directive as an earthling, the HD/SF has lots of background info you can view on your visiscreen. You can also hear Sheidlower discuss this thoroughly impressive project in episode 22 of the Because Language podcast. Go suit up and jack in.


Another podcast worth listening to: Word of Mouth, where Sheidlower talks to Michael Rosen about the HD/SF.


* From cyberspace (coined in 1982 by William Gibson) + spacefaring (1942, Duncan Farnsworth).


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