Crowdsourced SciFi Dictionary is Time Travel Gateway

By Scott Spangler on February 8th, 2021

As a word merchant, dictionaries are my favorite books whether they are online or old school paper, and not because I am a less than stellar speller. The most fascinating are historical dictionaries, like the Oxford English Dictionary (OED), that trace a word’s life from its birth of first usage through its lexical and linguistic maturation. Words cannot describe my joy at discovering the new Historical Dictionary of Science Fiction (HD/SF), because the aerospace endeavors we today take for granted were considered science fiction not that long ago.

prof-mad posterIts editor, I learned, is Jesse Sheidlower; he started this ongoing project when he was an editor at large at the OED. No longer formally affiliated with the OED, this work in progress continues to illustrate the core vocabulary of science fiction and related fields. Like the OED, the HD/SF employs crowdsourced research. (For an entertaining and informative explanation of how this process evolved, read The Professor and the Madman by Simon Winchester or watch Mel Gibson and Sean Penn in the title roles in the 2019 film on Netflix.)

As a work in progress (no dictionary is ever finished because our lovely language never stops evolving), the HD/SF is still collecting verifiable evidence in the form of quotations from printed sources. The site also seeks moderators who are dedicated science fiction and detail geeks who will actively edit its content. If this is you, check out How to Help.

Aside from the words that live in the dictionary, what makes it a worthwhile read is the many ways into it. One way is by subject, from Aliens and Dimensions to Propulsion and Weaponry. Or you can look at the list of Most Quoted Authors, starting with Robert A. Heinlein, with 178 quotations. For a quick read, the menu offers New Entries (since site relaunch), today topped by “Afrofuturism n. (1993)” defined as “a movement in literature, music, art, etc., featuring futuristic or science fiction themes which incorporate elements of black history and culture.”

If you like surprises, select the Random Entry menu item. F.M. Allen introduced The Little Green Man as the title of his book, published in 1895, the debut of “a stereotypical inhabitant of our space; a person of peculiar appearance.” Naturally, you can search the dictionary by headword and author. Or you can do what I did this weekend, watch it snow and scroll through the HD/SF’s 35 pages.

aerocarAerocar is the word that hooked me. The image the word brings to mind is Molt Taylor’s post-war flying car, which first flew in 1949. But I learned that Fred C. Smale introduced the word in a story he wrote in 1900 for Harmsworth Magazine, the “Abduction of Alexandra Seine.” And you can read it by clicking the “page image” button, and find the passage. “Bowden Snell was now developing the film in his room at the Flash office, and the aerocar which had brought him was still outside the large bay window swinging gently to and fro at its moorings in the summer breeze.” That sounds like urban air mobility to me.

If I haven’t already, I’ll stop here before I exemplify Sturgeon’s Law. Based on a statement by Theodore Sturgeon in the early 1950s, it wasn’t quoted as a humorous aphorism that maintains that 90 percent of a body of published material or knowledge is worthless, “usually later cited as 90 percent of everything is crap.”

If you enjoyed this story, why not SUBSCRIBE to JetWhine, if you haven’t already, and please share it with anyone who might find it interesting. – Scott Spangler, Editor


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