About This Site

This site is a historical dictionary of the vocabulary of science fiction. It is edited (and coded) by Jesse Sheidlower, formerly the Editor at Large of the Oxford English Dictionary (OED). It was previously an official project of the OED, aimed at crowdsourcing research materials; now it is an independent dictionary itself. While it is being run with OED approval, and we maintain an informal association (and maintain British practices of spelling, typographic features, and date formatting), it is no longer formally connected to the OED.

This site is a work in progress, meant to illustrate the core vocabulary of science fiction; it also aims to cover several related fields, such as critical terms relating to science fiction (and other genres of imaginative fiction such as fantasy and horror), and the vocabulary of science-fiction fandom. While most entries are complete, a small number remain mostly unresearched or unedited; we also maintain a fairly extensive list of entries for potential inclusion. It is hoped that the site will grow to include subfields or related areas, such as gaming, comics, or anime/manga. Editing will be open to dedicated moderators, and we are actively recruiting volunteers who would like to be involved. Please see How to Help for details.

What is a Historical Dictionary?

A historical dictionary illustrates the history of the words it covers, typically by including dated quotations (called citations or cites by dictionary editors) showing exactly how and when the word was used. The most famous historical dictionary is the OED, which, despite its size, is a general dictionary. There are specialized historical dictionaries devoted to chronological varieties of English, such as the Middle English Dictionary; to regional varieties, such as the Australian National Dictionary, the Dictionary of American Regional English, or the Dictionary of Canadianisms on Historical Principles; to registers of English, such as Green’s Dictionary of Slang; and to individual fields of interest, such as the Historical Dictionary of Golfing Terms.

The goal of historical lexicography is to find examples that show exactly how a word has been used throughout its history: how long it’s been around (twenty years? two hundred? a thousand?), who has used it (newspaper reporters? scientists? theologians? farmhands?), in what contexts it’s been used (formal sources? playground speech? science fiction?), etc. The citations were traditionally gathered by the simple process of reading something, taking note of interesting words, and filing them, originally on slips of paper. In more recent years, the process is enormously aided by the existence of searchable full-text databases. (The related field of computational lexicography also uses large databases of language to analyze it in ways that are not possible by individual examination.) Every entry in a historical dictionary is illustrated with citations ranging from the earliest example that can be found, to a recent example; in this way, readers can see for themselves exactly how the word has been used.

History of the Project

This project grew out of regular work that was being done for the OED’s reading programs. Briefly, quotation 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 work, in which particular terms are specifically researched. 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. This site was established by Jesse Sheidlower, who then ran the OED’s North American Reading Programme, as a targeted offshoot of the OED’s regular reading programs. The goal was to bring together SF enthusiasts with detailed lists of what we needed their help with. In the process, the site developed into a general resource for the vocabulary of SF, instead of a mere catalogue of OED research needs.

The site was started under the guidance of Mike Christie, an OED volunteer, and Sue Surova, a freelance researcher for the OED. The idea for a collaborative site began when Sue posted a message on a Usenet discussion group looking for early examples of the SF usage of mutant ‘a being that has arisen by genetic mutation, esp. one with freakish or exceptional anatomy, abilities, etc.’. The earliest example the OED had for this sense was 1954, but OED editors knew the word must have been used earlier. A 1938 quotation was quickly found, and a plan for further research was formed. (Since then, we have improved on this with a 1934 example; see the entry for mutant n.)

For a number of years, under the moderation of Mike Christie, Malcolm Farmer, and Jeff Prucher, evidence was gathered for a huge range of terms. In 2007, Jeff Prucher edited and published Brave New Words, a dictionary drawn from this site’s researches; it won the Hugo Award for Best Related Book in 2008. By the early 2010s, contributions were beginning to dwindle, and when I (Jesse Sheidlower, switching from the editorial we to the first person singular for this section only) left the OED, it severed my access to the OED databases, making it impossible to update the material, and the site became effectively static. In 2020, I received permission from the OED to restart the project. I moved the data into a new system, re-coded the site, and planned a variety of improvements and new features. My original plan was to continue as before, with appeals to dedicated volunteers, which would itself require a non-inconsiderable amount of training. However, two things made it possible to simply research and edit the project myself: the Covid pandemic, which gave me more downtime for editorial work, and the existence of the Internet Archive’s collection of pulp magazines, which made it possible to research an enormous amount of classic SF from my desk. While there are still many live entries in need of additional work, and many entries in a holding area awaiting completion, the core of the dictionary feels reasonably solid.

Acknowledgements

We are grateful to a number of people for their help.

Above all, we thank the hundreds of people who volunteered to help the OED Science Fiction Citations Project, whose names appear in the Research History section beneath each entry; and the dedicated moderators of that project, Mike Christie, the late Malcolm Farmer, and Jeff Prucher, whose outstanding dictionary Brave New Words showed that a serious treatment of the vocabulary of science fiction was both necessary and welcome.

At the Oxford English Dictionary, we thank Michael Proffitt, now the Chief Editor, whose enthusiastic support for the idea of crowdsourcing contributions allowed the project to happen in the first place, as well as former Chief Editor John Simpson, who likewise allowed one of his editors to spend time setting up a website for what then seemed like an uncertain chance of usefulness. Supporting the revival of the project are a number of former colleagues and still good friends, including Katherine Connor Martin, Peter Gilliver, and Graeme Diamond. Michael Proffitt’s continuing support means more than this project’s editor can adequately convey.

Regarding the use of the Oxford English Dictionary: In the compilation of some entries, HDSF has drawn extensively on corresponding entries in OED. The original project explicitly relied on OED for its definitions and other editorial material, where possible; this policy has continued for the HDSF itself, even though it is no longer an OED project. We are deeply appreciative to the OED for permitting this use. Similarly, many quotations have been drawn from Incomings, the OED’s internal quotations database; access to this is what made the project possible in the first place, and we are grateful to have been able to use that enormously useful resource.

For the new version, we are grateful to:

  • Robin Wellington for considerable user experience design assistance, and much help and support
  • Grant Bremer, Adam Turoff, Andrew Janke, and David Blackman for advice on infrastructure and programming issues
  • Sam Gold for the design
  • The Internet Speculative Fiction Database (and its senior developer Ahasuerus) for being an incredibly comprehensive and useful project
  • The Internet Archive, whose outstanding collections have contributed immeasurably to the research on this new edition
  • Jonathan Hoefler of Hoefler&Co for the Sagittarius, Whitney, and Decimal fonts, and decades of friendship
  • Vaughn Fortier-Shultz, Rachel Fletcher, and Maisie Sheidlower for bibliographic work