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The Oxford English Dictionary has just become bigger—and weirder. Now the OED wants you to volunteer your time and your book collection to add science fiction-based words to the dictionary. And when the 20-volume OED speaks, it uses all the words in the English language to make itself heard.

According to editor Jesse Sheidlower, the project "relies heavily on the work of volunteers." That means you, your friends, and even chatroom flamethrowers can add to the pages of the dictionary. Sharp-eyed readers can submit words to the project, with the caveat that the reference must come from a print source. Words dredged from the Internet therefore are as verboten as deer hunters at a PETA gathering. But by all means, scour books, newspapers, and magazines.

So how do you make literary history? Unfortunately, the way you cite a source is about as fun as it was to do at university, but without the all-night keggers. The rules and regulations can be found at this site.

Science fiction has done more than spark the imaginations of engineers and designers; now we can say with certainty that it has also influenced language. "Outer space," a term coined in 1874, or 1870—ah, the debate rages—now is as ubiquitous a phrase as "mega-mall." Yet it was once was a rare and mysterious concept, like a good Jerry Bruckheimer movie.

Some of the words in the OED project, like "space-ray," are throwback words that reflect the genre as of the 1950s. Other words, however, are alive and well and shaping the future. "Martian," for example, is a common enough adjective now that the Mars Rover has explored the surface of the planet, looking for all things Mars-like. "Jack in" describes an everyday occurrence to those of us with Internet access. And "nanotechnology" is promising to be to science in the coming years what "artificial intelligence" is today. (Beyond that, "terraforming?")

That science fiction language influences science should not come as a surprise to readers: science fiction writers are often moonlighting scientists; Arthur C. Clarke's name graces the phrase "Clarke orbit," based on his work with geosynchronous satellites. Typically, the OED takes care to detail the etymology of words they list (the noun "mow," for example, has roots in Old Icelandic, Norwegian, and Old Swedish). But unlike most words found in the dictionary, science fiction-based words come from the imagination of the author.

Amazingly, this dictionary project only contains words and word origins, but not definitions. So unless you happen to be ensconced within the world of fandom, words like "apa" (Amateur Press Association; "apa" is to blogging as a game of marbles is to Duke Nukem) might fly over your head like a "rocket-ship."

When the project was originally announced in December 2001, editor Jesse Sheidlower was deluged with submissions of words like "bot," "filk," and "multiverse." A recent OED newsletter updates the project's progress: while this endeavor continues nicely, they still need volunteers, especially those with a love of science fiction. "The fans are particularly committed, often have linguistic interests, and are computer literate."

The project doesn't pay cash, but you do get a lifetime supply of bragging rights. OED researcher and genre fan Sue Surova helped antedate the 1954 entry "mutant" back to 1938. If that isn't worth the right to slap back the bigmouths in chatrooms, what is?

For more information, see the home page of the OED SF project.




When Carol Pinchefsky is not writing or editing, she works for Space Future, a website dedicated to space tourism. She lives in New York City with her husband and her books.
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