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News : “Warp speed,” “Prime Directive” predate Star Trek, per new reference tool

Screenshot from a Star Trek film.


Screenshot from a Star Trek film.
Enlarge / The term “warp drive” actually predates its first use in the long-running Star Trek franchise by 14 years.
Paramount Pictures

There’s no denying the profound influence that the Star Trek franchise has had on our shared popular culture. But it turns out that some of the best-known terms associated with the series—transporter, warp speed, and the famous Prime Directive—actually predate Star Trek: The Original Series by a decade or more. According to Jesse Sheidlower, a lexicographer and editor of the newly launched online Historical Dictionary of Science Fiction (HDSF), the first mention of those terms appeared in 1956, 1952, and 1940, respectively.

The origins of this new online resource date back to 2001, when Sheidlower was working for the venerable Oxford English Dictionary (OED). “OED has always been a crowdsourced entity,” Sheidlower told Ars. “In fact, it was probably the first crowdsourced thing.” Back in the late 19th century, OED editors typically placed notices in newspapers and magazines asking people to read various materials and contribute to their coverage of the English language.

While at OED, Sheidlower noted that science fiction was an area that was not very well served by scholarship, partly because science fiction hasn’t had much serious literary cache historically. That meant that the most significant (and rare) pulp magazines weren’t available in the usual archives, like the Library of Congress or the New York Public Library. So he set up a Science Fiction Citations Project (SFCP) and called on the science fiction community (fans and writers alike) to submit examples of the specialized terminology they found, all curated by moderators.

There was particular interest on “antedatings,” the earliest known examples of given words, which are of great interest to scholars. For instance, the OED had an entry for mutant—”in the sense of a person with unusual abilities or appearance that has arisen by a genetic mutation”—dating to 1954, but Sheidlower thought it was likely coined much earlier. He was right: the first appearance of the term was in 1934. The site remained active for many years, and one of the moderators, Jeff Prucher, even published a Hugo Award-winning book, Brave New Words, in 2007.

Over time, however, all that activity waned, and the site became effectively static. Sheidlower left OED in 2013 and no longer had access to the SFCP. Last year, he asked OED for permission to revive the project, including a major design overhaul. The pandemic meant he had sufficient time to undertake such a massive overhaul, and the fact that many rare science fiction sources had by now been digitized—including the original pulps—made it easier for him to do his own extensive research.

A sample entry for "chrononaut" in the Historical Dictionary of Science Fiction.
Enlarge / A sample entry for “chrononaut” in the Historical Dictionary of Science Fiction.
Jesse Sheidlower/HDSF

Like its predecessor, the HDSF helps improve and expand our knowledge of antedatings. Thus far, according to Sheidlower, the HDSF has found more than 400 antedatings. For instance, thought-controlled was thought to date back to 1977, but it has now been traced back to 1934. Deep space dates back to 1921 (instead of 1937), ray gun first appeared in 1923, deflector was first mentioned in 1931, and the notion of a mad scientist can be traced back to 1893. And the scientific terms biotechnician and graviton were first coined in science fiction, in 1940 and 1929, respectively.

The new HDSF also included some useful added features; it’s not just a list of words. Sheidlower went to great lengths to include links whenever possible to online source material—all added manually. For example, click on mutant, and you’ll find yourself on the entry page with a chronology of its usage starting with earliest mention to current usage. Click on the 1934 mention, and it will pull up an image of the actual page where the word first appeared.

“It’s turned from a site that was basically a notebook where people could write down the research they did into something that’s more broadly useful, making it both more fun to explore and more useful to those using it for serious scholarly efforts,” said Sheidlower.

There are currently no plans to adapt the HDSF into a print book, a la Brave New Words. But Sheidlower is hoping to continue to expand the resource, particular to include more 21st-century science fiction terminology. It already includes terminology from fandom communities (-con, faan, sercon), criticism, and particularly influential science fiction films and television shows (lightsaber, redshirt, TARDIS).

And while the HDSF has no official affiliation with the OED, apart from the association of its origins, at least one OED editor approves of the project. Executive Editor Peter Gilliver described it to The New York Times as “quite impressive, and very stylishly presented,” adding, “Jesse doesn’t like to leave any stone unturned. He’s a very dogged researcher.”

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