Science Fiction Citations
for the OED

Hunting for the earliest citations of sf words

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Curious which decade has been responsible for the most words? See a graph showing the distribution of earliest citations by decade for each category.

This page is a pilot effort for the Oxford English Dictionary, in which the words associated with a special field of interest are collected so that knowledgeable aficionados can help the OED find useful examples of these words. This, our first project, is science fiction literature.

The OED aims to include all words that are frequently used in any field, and attempts to find the earliest example of every sense of every word it includes. For SF the OED needs earlier examples of terms it already includes, early examples of terms that have been slated for future inclusion, and any examples of terms that have not yet caught the editors' attention but are common in SF. Words used infrequently, words associated chiefly with a single author, or words so specialized that they are found only in a single subgenre, are not high priorities for inclusion.

The page was started under the guidance of Mike Christie, an OED volunteer, and Sue Surova, a freelance researcher for the OED. It is now chiefly maintained by Jeff Prucher and Malcolm Farmer. The idea started when Sue posted a message on a discussion group looking for early examples of the SF usage of mutant 'a person with freakish appearance or abnormal abilities as a result of a genetic mutation'. The earliest example the OED had for this sense was 1954; OED editors knew the word must have been used earlier. A 1938 example was quickly found, and a plan for further research was formed.

The links below will display tables showing the current state of play, generated dynamically from our working database. All the words we're interested in are listed in alphabetical order. The earliest citation found so far is given, and credit is given to the finder. In many cases we haven't (yet!) beaten the OED's earliest citation. More words are being added as the work progresses.

There are several different things we're looking for here. An antedating is a word that is earlier than the earliest example we currently know. Most words will be in this category. An interdating is a word that fills a (large) gap in the record--if we had an example from 1928 and then nothing until 1995, we'd probably want something in between to show that the word had been in use in this period. A postdating is a word that is later than the latest example we have; if we are looking for one, it is probably because we believe that a word is still current but we don't have an example in any recent decade. Finally, any evidence means just that: we know that a word exists, but we have little or no direct evidence for it. In this case we really do want anything, but it's best to provide examples from important sources, and early examples (or information about coinage/early uses) are always welcome.

If you find a citation that antedates the best we have listed, or otherwise fulfills a specified criterion, please email us--but before you do, please read our guidelines on how to send in a citation. In particular, please note that for now we are only able to include citations from dateable printed sources. E-books, Web pages, and movies are not acceptable sources for the Oxford English Dictionary (though Web pages may provide useful historical information that can be used to track down print examples, and physical copies of movie scripts can be used). Due to the volume of correspondence and the need to check the accuracy of responses, it may some time to acknowledge submissions; please be patient. We'd also be interested in suggestions for other words that belong on this page. The criteria for inclusion are subjective, but come down to: does the word sound familiar to a long-time SF reader? In general, we try to avoid terms that are very rare or that are so specific that many SF fans would still not be familiar with them.

For general SF citations--ones for terms that appears in actual science fiction writings/movies/etc.--and for citations relating to SF fandom, please get in touch with Malcolm Farmer. For citations relating to SF criticism--that is, terms that are used in reference to science fiction, but are not used in actual SF writings/movies/etc.--please get in touch with Jeff Prucher.

This list is not meant to be an absolutely comprehensive glossary of SF terminology. We aim to include only those words that are established in the corpus of science-fiction writing, criticism, or fandom. Marginal terms, as mentioned above, are excluded. However, this site's editors do maintain separate lists of potential terms that are candidates for inclusion in the main lists. If you've come across something that you think belongs here, please let us know.

We would like to thank Jesse Sheidlower (Principal Editor of the North American Editorial Unit of the OED) for the resources that he and the OED have made available for this project. It's been fun finding early citations and trying to get new words into the OED. Good hunting!

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