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Tech-word origins: stranger than science

A lexicographer describes where science fiction struck first.

By Staff Writer for The Christian Science Monitor / May 26, 2009



Scientists are uniquely qualified to describe the universe in numbers and equations, but sometimes it takes an imaginative novelist to distill discoveries into words.

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For his book “Brave New Words,” freelance lexicographer Jeff Prucher uncovered a slew of words that many people assume came from science, but actually originated in the pulpy pages of early science fiction. Here are four of his favorites.

Zero-gravity: While most people associate the term with outer space, “zero gravity” first described the center of the Earth. In 1938, fairly obscure writer Jack Binder imagined a momentary weightlessness while traveling from our planet’s core to the surface. Arthur C. Clarke later shortened it to “zero-g” in his 1952 space novel “Islands in the Sky.”

Computer virus: Dave Gerrold is probably most famous for his “Star Trek” episode about a different kind of overproducing nuisance (“The Trouble With Tribbles,” first broadcast in 1967). But in 1972, he used the analogy of a “virus” to describe self-replicating software in his book “When Harlie Was One,” about a computer that thinks it’s human.

The term actually appeared in print a short time after researchers spotted the first computer virus spreading through ARPANET, the precursor of the Internet.

“It’s hard to tell if the author knew about viruses when he wrote it,” says Prucher. But he’s pretty sure that “they didn’t call that first computer virus a virus.” The earliest scientific reference came a decade later, according to Prucher’s research.

Robotics: In 1920, a playwright coined “robot” from the Czech word for “forced labor.” It took two decades for science fiction writer Isaac Asimov to expand the word into the field of “robotics.” Prucher says that it took another two decades for mainstream outlets, such as the Times (London), to write about the real-world study of “robotics.”

“A lot of people know this came from science fiction,” Prucher says. “But I include it on my list because it’s one of the only real sciences to have been originally named in science fiction.”

Pressure suit: This defining piece of an astronaut’s wardrobe came from E.E. Smith. “Curiously, his pressure suits were furred,” says Prucher, citing his list, “an innovation not replicated by NASA.”

Of course, just as with science, this list constantly changes as new information comes to light. Last month, Prucher thought that author Jack Williamson invented the term “genetic engineering” in 1941. Mr. Williamson had come up with it on his own, but an online commenter directed Prucher to an interview in which the sci-fi writer admits that “now I understand that some scientist beat me by a couple of years.”

Prucher welcomes such corrections. “I certainly can’t read everything,” he says. “So, my book was partly crowd-sourced.”

“Brave New Words” and his continuing work contribute to the Oxford English Dictionary’s science fiction project, currently posted at jessesword.com/sf. At the website, fans can contribute to the etymologies of more sci-fi firsts, such as “deep space,” “ion drive,” and “gas giant.”

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