Sunday, April 22, 2007

Science Fiction Citations for OED

I just stumbled on the Science Fiction Citations for OED site run by Jesse Sheidlower, Editor-at-Large of the Oxford English Dictionary.

The project grew out of regular work that was being done for the OED's reading programs. Briefly, research for the OED takes two main forms: general reading, in which a variety of texts are read for any interesting words that are encountered, and targeted research, in which particular terms are specifically analyzed. This can consist of doing searches in electronic databases, sending general researchers to a library to see what they can find, or asking specialists for help in their subject fields. The purpose of this site is, in effect, to bring together SF enthusiasts with detailed lists of what we need their help with. In the process, the site has developed--is developing--into a general resource for the vocabulary of SF, instead of a mere catalogue of OED needs.

Some of the terms have been around since the beginnings of the science fiction genre, such as "death ray" (1915). Others are of recent coinage, such as "jump gate" (1995). Not surprisingly, there are a few bioscience-related terms in the database. Some examples:
I'm a bit surprised that "genome" and "genomic" aren't included, nor are "virus" or "viral" in either the biological or the computer sense. I guess they can't include everything.

If you know of earlier usage of these terms in printed sources, you can send the OED your citations. For some words, they'd like additional citations, even if they don't antedate the earliest known reference. I know I'm going to keep my eyes open for such terms when I'm reading science fiction, particularly from the Golden Age and earlier.

UPDATE: Last week Jesse Sheidlower kindly wrote to me to explain how the OED selects their included terms. (Reproduced here with his permission)
While there is of course a great deal
of overlap between science fiction and (real) science, our
goal is to show terms that are _specifically_ connected with
science fiction, not terms that are associated with other
fields that happen to occur in science fiction books. Thus,
where _genome_ is used in SF contexts, it tends to be used in
its regular scientific sense.

There are some cases where terms that are now used as part of
the regular vocabulary of science, arose in SF--_neutronium_
is one example. And there are cases when scientific terms are
used in SF with distinctive meanings or
associations--_antimatter_ comes to mind. These are both
included in the site. However, standard scientific terms that
are used, even frequently, in SF, are not likely to be
included. For another group of examples, note that we don't
include _laser_, but do include _laser cannon, ~ gun, ~
pistol,_ and _~ rifle_.
Thanks for the clarification!

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