Friday, June 05, 2009

Science Fiction's Vital Contribution To The Life Of English

From The Guardian, this article: Science Fiction's Vital Contribution To The Life Of English. An excerpt:

If you measure the health of literature by its impact on language, than there's no genre in better condition than SF

I have a new test for checking English literary health. I make no claims for its originality, efficacy, scientific rigour or infallibility. But here it is: the more neologisms or new uses for existing words a literary movement donates to the English language, the stronger it is.

Coleridge and friends had their new uses for "sublime", new constructions like "unfathomable seas" and "organic form", new uses for "romantic" (of course), and totally new words like "reliability" (surprisingly). The Lost Generation, even though they tried so hard to do nothing fancy, still had "rotten shames", "lovely pieces" and thousands of new inflections to the words "hell" and "damn". The Beat Generation had, well, "beat", as well as a whole new vocabulary centred around dharma, jazz and smoking "tea". Writers in the Enlightenment went one better by inventing the modern dictionary, as well as a whole lexicon relating to "reason" and "capital" to add to it. Meanwhile, the king of them all – the one-man literary movement and word machine that was William Shakespeare - is credited with more than 2,000 neologisms - among them hundreds of words we now take entirely for granted: "articulate", "pedant", "accommodation", "addiction", "dislocate".

The New Puritans, in contrast, and so far as I know, didn't give us any. Nor, so far, have those poets ascribing to the New Sincerity - unless you include the contortions you have to go through to give them a moniker (New Sincerecists? Sincerelys?)

OK, I'm sure you can come up with plenty of counter-examples, but there seems to me to be something to the idea. And even if there isn't, it's fun to toy with it. Certainly, I've enjoyed the book that set this thought-train chugging through my head - Brave New Words, the Oxford Dictionary of Science Fiction, edited by Jeff Prucher. Here, a splendid case is made for the fecundity and inventiveness of the SF genre in the rich and frequently astonishing vocabulary it has donated to contemporary language.

Perhaps you won't be surprised to learn that "robot" is a relatively recent SF coinage. But if you're like me, you might be interested to discover it comes from the Czech word "robota", meaning forced labour. It was first used in a 1920 Czech play called RUR, Rossum's Universal Robots by Karel Capek and first came into English in Paul Selver's 1923 translation. It then appeared in the Times in the same year in the wonderful sentence: "If Almighty God had populated the world with Robots, legislation of this sort might have been reasonable."

A random trawl through the book uncovers hundreds of other such treasures. "Mutant", in the sense of genetic freak, first appeared in a 1938 edition of Astounding SF. "Alternate history" has a first citation from a 1954 Magazine of Fantasy and SF. "Fanzine" was first used by SF fans – the first citation the lovely "We hereby protest against the un-euphonious word 'fanag' and announce our intention to plug fanzine as the best short form of 'fan magazine'" from something called Detours in 1940. "Anti-gravity" appeared in 1896 in a story about Mars in the Massillon Independent; "tractor" (as in beam) in a 1931 story by EE Smith called Spacehounds of IPC. "Cyberspace" appeared in William Gibson's Burning Chrome in 1982. "Newspeak", of course, appeared in 1984, in 1949.

It's perhaps natural that a genre that deals so specifically with science and technology should have come up with so many new terms. Science, after all, is the single biggest contemporary fattener of dictionaries. But these words also bespeak active imaginations and that curious form of literary finesse that enables writers to label an object, and readers to understand that label, even though both label and object have never before been encountered.

It is, in short, difficult to come up with such inventions and neologisms.

Click here for the whole piece.


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