Brave Old Words

It’s the time of year when the Merriam-Webster Dictionary’s editors tell the world what “new words” have been added since the last edition. (Note: Some of these words appear in the wire service story, but not on the Merriam-Webster Dictionary webpage.)

The editors really like to make sure a “new” word has sticking power before dignifying it with an entry in their pages. Half a century is not too long to test a newcomer. Or even longer.

Consider “new” entry fan fiction, defined as “stories involving popular fictional characters that are written by fans and often posted on the Internet.” It dates back to World War II and has just now been added.

The Merriam-Webster Dictionary entry says “fan fiction” originated in 1944. It doesn’t identify the source of the date, which would be interesting to know because the science fiction field can document even earlier usages. Brave New Words cites an example by Bob Tucker from a 1939 issue of Le Zombie.

However, Tucker used it as an implied contrast with pro fiction, which is not the meaning that’s brought the term into common usage. Brave New Words‘ earliest example of that meaning (stories using popular characters) is from Star Trek Lives! in 1975. I wonder which meaning was intended in the Merriam-Webster staff’s 1944 example?

Another “new” dictionary entry that should resonate with science fiction fans is “flash mob”, dated to 1987 and defined as “a group of people summoned (as by e-mail or text message) to a designated location at a specified time to perform an indicated action before dispersing.” Fans know Larry Niven coined essentially the same term in his 1973 story “Flash Crowd” to describe a side-effect of the worldwide system of teleport booths.

[Thanks to Andrew Porter for the story.]

Up To Your Wiki in Ghu

It’s right here in the Wikipedia, says Richard Johnson. “The word ‘God’ in English is ultimately derived from the Proto-Indo-European word ‘Ghu’!”

Ghu, of course, is the satirical deity invented by 1930’s science fiction fans.

Read for yourselves the entry for God, and pay particular attention to Note 4:

The ulterior etymology is disputed. Apart from the unlikely hypothesis of adoption from a foreign tongue, the OTeut. “ghuba” implies as its preTeut-type either “*ghodho-m” or “*ghodto-m”. The former does not appear to admit of explanation; but the latter would represent the neut. pple. of a root “gheu-“. There are two Aryan roots of the required form (“*g,heu-” with palatal aspirate) one with meaning ‘to invoke’ (Skr. “hu”) the other ‘to pour, to offer sacrifice’ (Skr “hu”, Gr. ???i;?, OE “geotàn” Yete v).

So that, as clear as is the summer’s sun.

[Thanks to Bjo Trimble for the story.]

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.)

This Week in Words: Fandom’s Silent H

Bill Warren sent me a great fannish trivia question:

Whence and when came the fannish fad of tossing a silent H into words ordinarily without it, like ‘bheer,’ ‘Ghod,’ etc.  I know that it was most prevalent in the late 50s, well after Ghu, but may relate to that august deity somehow.  But someone else says it began when Bob Stewart typoed his name as ‘Bhob Stewart’ and then kept using that spelling (he still does, in fact).

There’s probably a real answer, but even such an authority as Harry Warner Jr. wasn’t able to track it down when he wrote his first great volume of fanhistory:

Other manifestations of fanspeak are less confined to newly created words. As if by instinct, fans have inserted from time immemorial the letter h as the second letter in many words that begin with a consonant. Donald A. Wollheim attributed it to the all-powerful influence of GhuGhuism. It is equally possible that there is a rational explanation: Mencken’s fondness for ‘bhoys,’ perhaps, or the frequency in fantasy fiction of ghost and ghoul. [All Our Yesterdays, p. 41]

Neither does Jack Speer identify anyone as the originator of the fannish h in his early fanhistory Up To Now, but on page 19 he gives many more examples of the extra h being added to words appropriated for GhuGhuistic parodies:

ghughu was a burlesque on religion, the combination ‘gh’ being frequently applied in such words as ghod and demighod, gholy ghrail, etc, the cult worships ghughu, who, they claim, is wollheim.

Knowing what influence New York fans had on early fanspeak, it’s worth noting that the 19th century New York gang called the ‘Bowery Boys’ dates to the time when “b’hoy” was local slang:

B’hoy and g’hal (meant to evoke an Irish pronunciation of boy and gal, respectively) were the prevailing slang words used to describe the young men and women of the rough-and-tumble working class culture of Lower Manhattan in the late 1840s and into the period of the American Civil War. They spoke a unique slang, with phrases such as ‘Hi-hi,’ ‘Lam him’ and ‘Cheese it’.

This Week in Words: Bogosity

Bogosity has been around long enough to have appeared in ASCII files, if not cuneiform tablets. Hackers have long used the word to connote phoniness, i.e., “my bogosity meter just went off.”

When did Oxford professors start using the word? And why would the answer be of any interest? While researching another post, I discovered to my surprise that everyone’s favorite Professor of Anglo-Saxon, J.R.R. Tolkien, used the word in his February 1968 letter to composer Donald Swann. Commenting unhappily about the BBC documentary, Tolkien in Oxford, Tolkien said:

I am impressed by the complete ‘bogosity’ of the whole performance. The producer, a very nice, very young man and personally equipped with some intelligence and insight, was nonetheless already so muddled and confused by BBCism that the last thing in the world he wished to show was me as I am/or was, let alone ‘human or lifesize’.

In Memory Yet Mondegreen

When it comes to “new words,” your mileage may vary.

Everybody on the Internet seems to have heard the news that “fanboy” was recently added to the Merriam-Webster’s dictonary. “Fanboy” is defined as a “boy who is an enthusiastic devotee, such as of comics or movies.” And how many years has that been around?

Then another entry on the vaunted list of “new words” is “mondegreen” — “a word or phrase that results from a mishearing of something said or sung.” Good grief – Jim Hollander used that as the title of his weekly APA-L zine in 1970 and it’s just now making it into the dictionary?

This Week in Words: Monkeyspace

Plowing through the Hugo-nominated novels with the voting deadline bearing down on me was not very reminiscent of cramming for a final exam because all five writers made the experience far more entertaining.

Charles Stross’ Halting State is full of humorous and inventive computer jargon. Some terms are imported from the RPG-playing culture, and others are fabricated but sound authentic. All are half-casually sprinkled into the characters’ conversation. Every few pages I’d find myself going “What?” and laughing.

For example, “Monkeyspace” means everything “outside the game.” In a word Stross instantly conveys that there are players so consumed by the interactive gaming experience that real life feels like just another not-especially-interesting compartment of the RPG universe.

Some interactive RPG players genuinely worry that gaming is an addiction. A Google search for “monkeyspace” returned a blog entry about people trying to kick their World of Warcraft habit, or at least manage it. Someone suggested that WoW be redesigned to credit in-person contact with other players as a way of getting them to leave their computers and really meet people in monkeyspace. (But why would the owners of WoW want to do that?!)

This Week in Words: Nerdgassing

Early in June, John Scalzi invented the word “nerdgassing” It’s a wonderfully evocative word that means just what you think. But feel free to duck over there and read the definition. And the examples. And the comments. Enough fascinating stuff that I’ll probably need to rename this post “Next Week in Words” by the time you remember to come back.

When somebody invents a new word, how do you predict whether it will become popular? My suggestion is to try substituting it in a famous movie quote. The word should be a hit if it sounds good coming out of the mouths of famous actors and actresses…

From Spartacus:
Kirk Douglas: I’m nerdgassing…
Tony Curtis: No, I’m nerdgassing!
Everybody: I’m nerdgassing! I’m nerdgassing!

From Casablanca:
Captain Renault: I’m shocked, shocked to find that nerdgassing is going on in here!
Croupier: Your iPod, sir!

From Sunset Boulevard:
Norma Desmond: We didn’t need nerdgassing. We had faces.

From Jerry Maguire:
Renee Zellweger to Tom Cruise: You had me at “nerdgassing.”

From Apocalypse Now:
Lt. Col. Bill Kilgore (Robert Duvall): I love the sound of nerdgassing in the morning!

From Taxi Driver:
Travis Bickle (Robert DeNiro): You nerdgassing to me? You nerdgassing to me? You nerdgassing to me? Well, who the hell else are you nerdgassing to? You nerdgassing to me? Well, I’m the only one here.

Yes, our judges say it’s a winner!

This Week in Words: Worldconned

Colin Harris read someone claim on the Smofs list that there are people using “Worldcon” as a verb. He answered by creating this conjugation of the verb “to Worldcon”…

I worldconned this year, attended the Hugos and Masquerade and had fannish fun.”

You went to an SF convention and were a bit nerdy.”

He wasted a weekend with a bunch of badly dressed people with beards and glasses.”

(Harris chaired Interaction in 2005, so he is a fully qualified Worldcon artist.)