Historical Dictionary of Science Fiction

For sci fi fans who enjoy getting lost in internet rabbit holes


If you're a science fiction fan who enjoys getting lost in internet rabbit holes, may I suggest the Historical Dictionary of Science Fiction? The site—newly revamped by Jesse Sheidlower, formerly of the Oxford English Dictionary and the Historical Dictionary of American Slang—offers definitions and tidy timelines for such terms as grandfather paradox. You can click through to see the pulpy pages where many of those phrases first appeared.

The updated dictionary's big brag is that it contains more than 400 antedatings, or uses of words earlier than their previously established origins. Thought-controlled, once thought to have emerged in 1977, is now known to date back to 1934, for instance. And a use of graviton in 1929 establishes that what eventually became a real scientific term was coined first in science fiction.

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  1. graviton in 1929 establishes that what eventually became a real scientific term was coined first in science fiction.”

    We might note that the graviton is still theoretical. No one has ever observed one in a laboratory. We haven’t proven that the graviton really exists (or disproven that it doesn’t exist).

    Gravity is such a basic thing, and yet exactly what it is and how it works remains a mystery to science. We describe its effects and use a formula we know to be false to predict gravity’s behavior sufficiently for engineering purposes on the earth’s surface, but the most basic aspect of physics remains a theoretical construct invented to explain what we see rather than observed in a lab and described from observation.

    Einstein’s most important observations were thought experiments he concocted while sitting on a park bench. That was all he could do at the time. He didn’t have access to a lab.

    “Einstein’s thought experiments took diverse forms. In his youth, he mentally chased beams of light. For special relativity, he employed moving trains and flashes of lightning to explain his most penetrating insights. For general relativity, he considered a person falling off a roof, accelerating elevators, blind beetles crawling on curved surfaces and the like. In his debates with Niels Bohr on the nature of reality, he proposed imaginary devices intended to show, at least in concept, how the Heisenberg uncertainty principle might be evaded.”

    Talk about great science fiction! In this manner, Newtonian physics was slain.

    1. Ken Shultz (talking about physics): It was amazing how Einstein thought outside the box and created new paradigms.

      Ken Shultz (on American politics): You HAVE to vote for one of the two major parties.

      1. If you’re intellectually incapable of understanding the implications of Duverger’s law, that doesn’t mean the rest of us (or anyone else here) necessarily suffers from your limitations.'s_law

        1. Contemplate this: the two parties we currently have are not the same two parties we had at first.

          How did that evolve? Did it change by everyone back in the middle of the 1800s sheeplike adherence to voting Democrat or Whig?

          Contemplate this in the above context (that the two major parties change every once in a while): the current Republican Party is badly divided to the point where it may not be able to win a Presidential election ever again. Trump, who is responsible for the fracture, is the subject of persistent rumors that he will found a new party.

          1. Your failure to comprehend the implications of Duverger’s law does nothing to suggest that you’re capable of understanding the implications of Duverger’s law. It doesn’t say that third parties will never emerge. It suggests that they may displace one of the two major parties at some point–and then having single member districts will continue to favor a two-party outcome. It also doesn’t say that third parties can’t exist in a permanent state of irrelevancy.

            It certainly doesn’t say that sometime between midnight on the day before the election and the time the votes are tallied, support for a third party will magically emerge from the ballot box like a miracle and Jojo will somehow win. On November 3, 2020, there were only two possible outcomes–a win by the Democrats or a win by the Republicans. One of those parties’ candidates were substantially more authoritarian and socialist than the other. Because of Duverger’s law, as the Democrats become more authoritarian and socialist, it is reasonable for libertarian capitalists to become increasingly Republican to oppose those authoritarian and socialist policies.

            If and when the more authoritarian and more socialist Democrats lose their power in 2022 or 2024, it is highly improbable that it will happen because so many people voted for a third party. Ross Perot won 20% of the popular vote nationally, and because of single-member districts and Duverger’s law, that netted Ross Perot exactly zero delegates to the electoral college. They had no direct influence in Congress either. Ross Perot did about 20 times better than the Libertarian Party has ever done, and it availed him nothing!

            The best that libertarians can reasonably hope for, over time, is that we become so influential among average people that one of the two major parties decides to adopt much of our platform–much like FDR and the Democrats did when they adopted the 1928 platform of the Socialist Party of America.


            Libertarian capitalists may ultimately triumph, but when we do, we probably won’t be called the Libertarian Party. Because of Duverger’s law, it will probably be because we infiltrated and took over one of two major parties. I suggest we concentrate on the one that isn’t fundamentally hostile to capitalism. In the meantime, voting for the party that is far less authoritarian and far less socialist is the best way to keep the country from falling off the rails.

            I’d love to go back to a time when voting Libertarian was a perfectly legitimate thing to do–like when it really didn’t matter whether Bush or Obama was president because their policies were more or less the same. However, as the Democrats became increasingly authoritarian and increasingly socialist, it was only reasonable for libertarian capitalists to become increasingly Republican. Joe Biden’s authoritarian and socialist policies were not only foreseeable but also foreseen.

            If you don’t understand this (or any other) logic well enough to criticize it, reasonably, there’s nothing I can do to help you with that. So far, you don’t even seem to care whether what you say is rational or irrational or what the difference is between them, and you really shouldn’t expect rational people to converse with you under those circumstances. They should probably just tell you to go fuck yourself.

            1. I replied to the wrong comment!

            2. I agree with the observation, but I learn a different lesson.

              Given that my vote will not change the outcome of an election, if I’m going to vote, I might as well vote for my preferred candidate. This provides the two major parties with a better signal as to the policies that are most likely to earn my vote in future elections.

              This is especially true if it doesn’t really matter which major party wins the race.

              I think this holds even if you believe strongly that it matters who wins, harkening back to the observation that your vote will not change the outcome.

              I take solace in the fact that Democratic policies largely harm people who vote Democrat. Libertarians typically find ways to isolate themselves from the excesses of either party.

              For example, if you don’t believe in paper money, then it’s hard to get too emotionally caught up in the concept of inflation. It’s just another data point in your investment calculus.

              1. A lot, of course, depends on whether one lives in a “swing” state or not.

                Ken preaches at me that I have to choose between one of the two major party candidates, and that I wasted my vote by voting for Jo Jorgensen, but I don’t live in a “swing” state. My vote for the Libertarian Party helped it keep ballot access and relevancy.

              2. “Given that my vote will not change the outcome of an election, if I’m going to vote, I might as well vote for my preferred candidate. This provides the two major parties with a better signal as to the policies that are most likely to earn my vote in future elections.”

                This is more important when one of the candidates isn’t significantly more socialist and authoritarian than the other.

                Unfortunately, in 2020 one of them was far more authoritarian and socialist than the other.

                And it isn’t just your vote that counts. It’s also all the people like you. And it isn’t just your vote that counts. It’s also what you say to all the people around you. You have more influence than you realize. The reason Emperor Xi is obsessed with monitoring what his people say to each other online is because he’s smart. People talking to each other is always a serious threat to the people in power–even when they don’t hold elections.

                1. “Unfortunately, in 2020 one of them was far more authoritarian and socialist than the other.”

                  In your biased assessment, which you t try to give a veneer of rationality.

            3. “It suggests that they may displace one of the two major parties at some point…”

              And how do you suppose that happens?

              “If and when the more authoritarian and more socialist Democrats…”

              This is the fundamental flaw in your entire analysis of Republican vs. Democrat. You have some calculus that you use to conclude that Democrats are more authoritarian than Republicans. You think it is rational, but others (like me) can see that it isn’t rational at all; you have your thumb on the scale and knew what conclusion you wanted your analysis to come to before you even started.

        2. The avatar of Einstein in last year’s election was the career politician who says he has 3 things that he’s going to do, but can only remember 2. Even if you can point to an Einstein-esque genius who could fundamentally alter the government and political discourse in this country from the ground up, still better to vote for the career Democrats like Joe Biden. Anybody who divides rather than unifies his own party would be too disruptive and morally corrupted.

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    3. Ken, Newtonian physics still drive mechanical and aerospace engineering for the most part…and the physics that did change Newton and Maxwell was quantum which we are just starting to really use..and for the record Einstein never fully accepted it the Copenhagan intrepretation. Newton was a giant and still is.

  2. Yay for Reason’s SF nerd girl! I’ll check it out

  3. There goes my day.

  4. Thank you, Katherine! What fun!

    Along these lines, I recall seeing an essay about how SF authors had predicted just about every real-world technology except … the pocket calculator.

    1. Momentarily misread as pocket protector.

      1. Gee, you *are* a nerd!

    2. What? Didn’t Heinlein have pocket calculators? Maye you meant sci-fi movies. Remember when Spock had a slide rule and Sulu had an old style handheld flight computer?

      1. Tricorders presumably performed all manner of calculations. Do they not count as pocket calculators because they could also perform medical diagnostics, detect radiation throughout the spectrum, and perform complex elemental analyses?

        1. tricorders do not count as pocket calculators, because they don’t fit in a pocket, and Star Trek uniforms did not have pockets.

      2. The slide rule that Spock held in a several episodes is an E-6B, an aviation calculator. The prop was most likely provided by Roddenberry who was a pilot.

    3. It’s a contrived statement. The pocket calculator is, narrative-wise too mundane and nuanced a technology to fictionally ‘predict’. They probably didn’t ‘predict’ things like mechanical pencils or hand-held vaccuum cleaners either. Was the distinction between e-Ink/readers and tablet computers ‘predicted’?

      1. But they did predict the two way wristwatch radio.

      2. They didn’t predict the miniaturization of computers as we understand them.

        A tricorder is more of a detector. They were using it as a glorified geiger counter, not to answer questions.

  5. More like science fantasy today. Most written by girls or girlish men.

  6. People thought that “thought-controlled” only dated back to 1977. Oh you kids! Let’s see now… 1984. Not the years, I mean the book. Maybe that phrase was not in the book, but the concept of it is as old as dystopian fiction. Remember the movie The Manchurian Candidate (the original, not the shitty remake). Was that make before or after 1977?

    I could go on and on, but I’ll stop.

    1. ‘Thought control’ cites back to 1929, but ‘mind control’ cites back to 1921. Maybe Reason has a science editor they could lend.

      1. I tried to convince my wife I should get an original site in 2021 for ‘mind-not-thought control’ but she thought I was trying to gaslight her.

  7. I’d like to read the Douglas Adams section.

    1. Jackie Robinson Day is a day-long Douglas Adams pie in the face with the 42s everywhere

      1. Jackie Robinson is the meaning of life

  8. kewl. also i’m stealing big brag i like it

  9. This is why the internet is evil and must be regulated…

    … by monkeys.

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