prime directive n.

a chief objective, goal, or requirement; a rule or law that overrides or guides other rules or laws; (specif.) a rule forbidding interference in the affairs of less developed planets or cultures

Although Prime Directive was popularized on Star Trek, it was in use earlier in science fiction.

SF Encyclopedia

Star Trek

  • [1940 Washington Post 17 Feb. 10/4

    The prime directive of all working-class groups—unions, political parties, social organizations—is to keep this Nation from embroilment in a new holocaust.]

  • 1947 J. Williamson With Folded Hands… in Astounding Science Fiction July 18 page image Jack Williamson bibliography

    ‘I prefer to run my own business, and support my own family, and take care of myself.’ ‘That is impossible, under the Prime Directive…. Our function is to serve and obey, and guard men from harm. It is no longer necessary for men to care for themselves.’

  • 1956 P. Anderson Live Coward in Astounding Science Fiction June 111/1 page image Poul Anderson bibliography

    All of a sudden the Prime Directive was repealed… ‘Under no circumstances whatever may the Patrol or any unit thereof kill any intelligent being.’

  • 1964 ‘G. Walters’ Last Order in Fantastic Jan. 110/1 page image George Locke bibliography

    What had made the robot, whose prime directive was never to harm human life, kill?

  • 1966 Return of the Archons (Star Trek episode) (transcription)

    Spock: Captain, our Prime Directive of non-interference. Kirk: That refers to a living, growing culture. Do you think this one is?

  • 1974 J. Blish Star Trek 10 143 James Blish

    It’s added up a few scanty observations—and clicked to the conclusion I’ve violated the Prime Directive!

  • 1985 B. Hambly Ishmael xviii.235 Barbara Hambly

    They’d seen thousands of them on planets that the Prime Directive had forbidden them to touch.

  • 1990 D. Kramer-Rolls Home is Hunter ii. 12

    Attention to the Prime Directive meant trying not to come stomping through people’s backyards with a veritable army.

  • 1995 D. W. Smith & K. K. Rusch Star Trek Voyager: Escape xxii. 223 Dean Wesley Smith Kristine Kathryn Rusch bibliography

    She knew that with the same bone-deep certainty she had had when she had stared in the face of the Prime Directive and decided to strand her people in the Delta Quadrant rather than take the easy route home.

  • 1996 W. Shatner Return i. 5 William Shatner

    Though the ship was beyond salvage, in accordance with the Prime Directive no trace of it could remain on this world.

  • 1997 J. Sherman & S. Shwartz Vulcan’s Forge xiv. 166 Susan Shwartz Josepha Sherman bibliography

    It was one thing to, well, bend the Prime Directive a bit.

  • 2001 Sci Fi June 6/2

    It’s safe to say that the closest Lexx will ever come to a Prime Directive is that, no matter how dire the situation, Stanley Tweedle shall not lose his hat.


Research requirements

antedating 1956

Earliest cite

Poul Anderson, "The Live Coward"

Research History
Rick Hauptmann submitted a 1947 cite from Jack Williamson's "With Folded Hands".
Dave Langford pointed out that the sense of the phrase there was of inbuilt programming, similar to Asimov's laws of robotics. He submitted a 1956 cite from Poul Anderson's "The Live Coward", in which the phrase was used in the "non-interference" sense popularized by Star Trek.

The OED has later cites from Star Trek, and other, non-sf, sources.

Last modified 2021-05-03 14:55:23
In the compilation of some entries, HDSF has drawn extensively on corresponding entries in OED.