10 Words Coined In The Sci-Fi Universe

Galaxies far, far away. Extraterrestrial lifeforms. Extraordinary futures for humanity, brimming with impossible-seeming technologies, from space travel to artificial intelligence. These are the dazzling, dizzying, reality-defying worlds of science fiction.

But, for as much as science fiction stretches our imagination, the genre is more down-to-earth than you may realize. Many of its writers created or helped popularize originally far-out words that have become part of our daily vocabulary—words based on ideas that are much older than you may think.

What's more, many of the ideas these sci-fi terms name have since become science fact! Well, we're still working on that whole time travel thing, but that term is a great place for us to start in our roundup of 10 words we owe to the science fiction universe.

time travel

While the concept of time travel ("hypothetical transport through time into the past or the future") has been featured in literature as early as, scholars argue, the ancient Indian epic poem the Mahabharata, H. G. Wells gave the English language the much-used terminology on the subject.

In 1894, Wells used the term time travelling (British English spelling uses two Ls) in an essay, "Time Travelling: Possibility or Paradox." A year later, in his novella The Time Machine, Wells explored time travel in more detail as an unnamed protagonist (known as the Time Traveller) moves backwards and forwards in time, encountering the mythical species of the Eloi and the Morlocks on his way.

Time travel as a noun and time-travel as a verb appeared by the early 1900s.

robotics

While the noun robotics is commonplace today, it wasn't back in 1941 when sci-fi master Isaac Asimov coined the term in a short story published in Astounding Science Fiction and Fact. It took another 20 years before the term really took off, but by the 1980s, robotics had firmly planted itself in the English language.

Robotics means "the use of computer-controlled robots to perform manual tasks, especially on an assembly line." The word is based on, of course, robot. Robot is also coinage. It entered English in 1922 based on the Czech robot.

Robot comes from Czech author Karel Čapek's 1920 play, R.U.R.: Rossum's Universal Robots. It is based on such Czech words as robota, "compulsory labor," and robotník meaning "worker." In Čapek's play, robots were artificially made, mass-produced workers.

zero-g

Zero gravity is the condition in which the apparent effect of gravity is zero, and objects float if they aren't tied down to something larger and more sturdy, like the wall of a spaceship.

The term is found as early as 1915, and its abbreviated form, zero-g, in 1950. But, it was the great science fiction author Arthur C. Clarke who helped bring the terms into the popular imagination with novels The Sands of Mars (1951) and Islands in the Sky (1952).

This concept of zero-g also took root with advances in flight and space exploration in the 1960s.

warp speed

If you're traveling in a spacecraft at a (very hypothetical) speed faster than light, you're moving at warp speed. This term was popularized by Star Trek the 1960-70.

Warp speed draws on earlier references to warps—metaphorical twists—in time and space during interstellar travel in science fiction. Dating back to science fiction in the 1930s, a time warp, for instance, would allow movement back and forth in time or suspend the passage of time. (Again, extremely hypothetical stuff.)

Since Star Trek, warp speed has spread as term for "an extremely rate of speed" more generally. Buckle up.

droid

Droid, or a robot in human-like form, is a shortened form of androidwhich actually was used as early as the 1700s, meaning "an automaton in the form of a human being." The word is based on a Greek andros, meaning "man."

Droid appeared in the 1950s in sci-fi short stories, but it was the 1977 blockbuster Star Wars that brought droid into mainstream usage, thanks in parts to such unforgettable droids as C-3PO and R2-D2.

alien

Alien ultimately comes to English from the Latin alienus, meaning "belonging to others, unnatural, unusual, foreign." When it first entered English in the 1300s, it referred to an outsider, someone born in another country, or someone who is unfamiliar.

It was not until the late 1920s that alien took on its sci-fi meaning of "an intelligent being from another planet." Similarly, when earthling first entered English in the late-1500s, it meant someone who lived on earth, not in heaven. Only in the mid-1800s did it take on the sci-fi meaning of a person who is from Earth, not another planet.

nanotechnology

In science fiction, nanites are self-replicating nanorobots, or robots built on the nanoscale. That's very small: nano- is a measurement on the order of one billionth (10−9).

A term dating back to the 1970s, nanotechnology is technology built for applications on such a scale—of atoms and molecules—to create computer chips and other microscopic devices, especially in medicine.

Perhaps one of the first writers to imagine nanotechnology was the Russian Nikolai Leskov, who wrote an 1881 story featuring a tiny, mechanical steel flea and describes magnification up to 5,000,000 times.

clone

When clone first entered English in 1903, it was used in the context of botany, for genetically identical plants. It comes from the Greek klon, meaning "twig."

Later, clone took on the sci-fi sense of "artificially duplicated person" thanks to Alvin Toffler's 1970 book Future Shock. While ethics have deterred the real-life cloning of people, in the 1980s, scientists started seriously discussing cloning animals, and in 1996 the first mammal clone was created in the form of a sheep named Dolly.

cyberpunk

The second half of the 20th century saw the birth of the cyberpunk sci-fi subgenre. Often set in industrial dystopias, cyberpunk features plots related to computing, hackers, and large corrupt corporations.

Perhaps the earliest recorded use of the term was in Bruce Bethke's story "Cyberpunk," published in 1983. One year earlier, William Gibson, an early and influential cyberpunk writer, coined the term cyberspace in a story he wrote for the popular sci-fi magazine Omni.

virus

Science fiction writers helped introduced the world to a new sense of virus: the computer virus. One of the earliest uses of this sense of virus comes from a 1970 short story by Gregory Benford in which a malevolent computer program called VIRUS infects computers via their modem connections.

Within the next several years, David Gerrold, Michael Crichton, and John Brunner had all published sci-fi novels featuring computer viruses, and from there, computers along with the viruses that aim to corrupt them became part of language and life beyond science fiction.

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