Sci-fi fans will appreciate this new online resource: The Historical Dictionary of Science Fiction. The field is now very large. Even if you know what a Dyson sphere is (“an artificial structure in the form of a hollow shell surrounding a star”), you may not know where, in science fiction and commentary, the term has been used. Many such examples are right there at the link. Many other terms are defined, like “Anglic” (future English) and “Belter” (resident of an asteroid belt). We may not need the definition if we are reading the book or watching the film but we will if someone uses the term in casual conversation.
The OED is the best-known historical dictionary in the English-speaking world, and Sheidlower notes that it was also a crowdsourcing project long before the internet made it easy. When it was just starting out in the 19th century, he says, the OED put ads in literary magazines looking for volunteers to hunt around old books in search of particular words and their usage.
“People would mark up books, send in the notes,” he says. “To this day, it’s still how the system works to an extent.”
When the internet did arrive, the dictionary’s editors quickly took advantage. For example, Sheidlower says, at one point they were looking for early uses of the word “mutant” in the sense of a genetically mutated being with unusual characteristics or abilities. The earliest they’d found was from 1954, but they were sure earlier examples must be out there. So a freelance editor posted a query on Usenet newsgroups and quickly received an example of a use of the word from 1938.Livia Gershon, “A Dictionary of Science Fiction Runs From Afrofuturism to Zero-G” at Smithsonian Magazine
The dictionary doesn’t list everything, Gershon notes. Like “Dyson sphere,” the term must have been used by other writers and thus have a chance at becoming part of the general sci-fi lingo: “ ‘Ansible’—a word for a device allowing faster-than-light communication coined by Ursula K. LeGuin—makes the cut because other authors also use it. Jemisin’s “orogenes”—people with the ability to control tectonic energy—do not because it’s a concept unique to her Broken Earth trilogy.”
The first reference the new dictionary makes to the term “science fiction” is from 1898: “1898 Bulletin of Pharmacy (vol. 12, no. 10) Oct. 466/1page image
Mr. H. G. Wells, the imaginative writer of science-fiction, has recently brought out a thrilling romance whose basis is the intended conquest of the earth by the inhabitants of Mars.” That would be a reference to Wells’s famous novel War of the Worlds, which came out that year.
The enormous body of fiction that has grown up around modern science is a testament to the human imagination, if not to any real-world possibility. And the dedication of the many volunteers who provided the references for the dictionary is a remarkable example of co-operative work. Maybe we don’t need the aliens to fix us after all.
Note: The illustration from War of the Worlds is the interior illustration by Frank R. Paul to H. G. Wells’s novel reprinted in Amazing Stories, August 1927. Public Domain.
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