This Week In Words: Coining “Sci-Fi”

I wrote a response to Dave Locke’s comment about “sci-fi” with some kind of bug in my code that keeps all the text from displaying. I couldn’t find the problem,  so I will post a blog entry instead because that’s working fine.

Dave, this may be a Lone Ranger/Tonto “what you mean, ‘we'” moment. I’ve been reading Ackerman tributes like the one in the LA Times giving him credit for coining “sci-fi”. None of the ones by fanzine fans have, except mine. Now I’ve outed myself. Last spring I was also the only sf fan in the room who didn’t know that “Ego” was Arthur C. Clarke’s nickname.

The OED sf word webpage has Heinlein down for using it in a 1949 letter published in Grumbles from the Grave. Has anybody got a copy of that? Who is the letter to? Heinlein did coin a couple words in his career, but he was also a very reserved fellow — did he really just spontaneously toss “sci-fi” into a letter to somebody? Somebody who would have picked it up and run with it?

You have piqued my curiosity, because even if Ackerman didn’t invent the term, I’d like to be convinced that Heinlein got people using it.

The term “sci-fic” was around for awhile, but it seems fairly obvious that “sci-fi” rhymes with “hi-fi”, the heavily-marketed term for expensive stereo components. Apparently that term came into use in America after World War II when the beginnings of that technology were brought over from Germany. That’s early enough to have influenced Heinlein’s verbal imagination.

Do you know where Ackerman credited Heinlein for inventing the term? (Warner’s two fanhistories don’t include “sci-fi” in the index, so no quickie answer there.)

13 thoughts on “This Week In Words: Coining “Sci-Fi”

  1. With Ackerman’s death, I believe that leaves only seven people still living who attended the first (1939) worldcon: Dave Kyle, Bob Madle, Erle Korshak, Ray Bradbury, Langley Searles, Art Widner, and Fred Pohl (who gets an asterisk on this, for an obvious reason). I would appreciate knowing if there are any others that I’ve omitted.

  2. I don’t think anyone was aware that Heinlein used the term “sci-fi” before Forry did until the publication of GRUMBLES FROM THE GRAVE. Forry didn’t.

  3. The Heinlein quote appears on page 110 of the mass market edition of Grumbles from the Grave. “October 1, 1949: Robert A. Heinlein to Lurton Blassingame

    I have two short stories that I am very hot to do, one a bobby-sox for Calling All Girls and one a sci-fi short which will probably sell to slick and is a sure sale for pulp. The first is “Mother and the Balanced Diet,” using the same characters as [in] “Poor Daddy,” as the editors requested. The other is “The Year of the Jackpot” based on cycles theory — 1952, the year that everything happens at once.”

    Heinlein scholars might know whether Blassingame was in a position to spread the term sci-fi into any popular use, but I personally doubt that it was spread beyond this letter.

  4. Having once discovered that something astonishing in a published letter was actually a mistranscription from the original, I’m inclined to wonder if someone should check Heinlein’s deposited papers and see if he really did indeed write “sci-fi” in 1949.

  5. Heinlein’s letters are available on-line at http://www.heinleinarchives.net/ In view of the preceding comment from DB, asking someone to double-check the “sci-fi” reference, I ordered and downloaded the pdf that contains a photo of the letter in question, which is dated Oct 1, 1949. Heinlein did *not* write “…a sci-fi short…” as shown in that quote; in the letter he actually wrote “…a sci-fic short…”

    So Grumbles From the Grave contained an intriguing typographical error and Heinlein did *not* coin the phrase “sci-fi” in that 1949 letter after all.

  6. Quite right you are, Christopher. I coughed up the two bucks for the appropriate Heinlein/Blassingame file and the carbon copy couldn’t be clearer, it says — “a sci-fic short.”

  7. Fascinating stuff! I’ve notified the OED sf citations project via Mike Christie, who’s been working with them.

    What the OED also needs is a proper Forrest J Ackerman print cite from 1954. Where did he first use it in writing? A fanzine?

  8. I’d like to get a copy of the letter for the OED. Which letter is it that I would need to download? Unfortunately I don’t own a copy of “Grumbles from the Grave”.

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