31 Essential Science Fiction Terms And Where They Came From

There are so many words and phrases that we use in science fiction—and even science—without giving it much thought. But where did we get terms like "death ray," "terraforming," "hive mind," "telepathy," and "parallel universe"?

Top image from Philip Barshofsky's One Prehistoric Night as published in Wonder Stories, an early science fiction example of using "alien" to mean "a being from another planet."

Key sources for this post include Jeff Prucher's wonderful Brave New Words: The Oxford Dictionary of Science Fiction (Prucher also wrote the fascinating post on scientific words that originated in science fiction), the Oxford English Dictionary science fiction words citation project, and the Oxford English Dictionary itself. They're all great places to get lost for a few days.

I've tried to find the earliest citation of each word, but other than cases in which someone clearly coined a term, it's possible that earlier examples of these words exist. Still, the very early uses of these words provide an interesting look into our literary, linguistic, and even scientific history.

31 Essential Science Fiction Terms And Where They Came From

1. Alien: Alien is a word that has long been used to refer to something foreign, but when did it become the go-to term for a being from another planet? The first person to use alien this way was probably Victorian historian and essayist Thomas Carlyle, who at one point during his life, left behind his literati lifestyle to serve as a tutor to a farmer's son in Yorkshire. In a letter to a friend, Carlyle is deliberately (and amusingly) melodramatic about life in York and his inability to fit in amongst his new neighbors, "I am like a being thrown from another planet on this dark terrestrial ball," he wrote, "an alien, a pilgrim among its possessors." In science fiction, "alien" isn't used as a catch-all term for extraterrestrial beings until 1929, when Science Wonder Stories published Jack Williamson's story The Alien Intelligence. It didn't necessarily catch on right away; many sources cite the first use of "alien" for extraterrestrial beings in science fiction as Philip Barshofsky's 1934 story One Prehistoric Night, which refers to Martians as aliens. It would certainly be an auspicious introduction for the word; the story involves Martians traveling to prehistoric Earth to battle dinosaurs.

2. Android: Long before the invention of the word "robot," humans dreamed of mechanical beings. Clockwork artisans would construct all manner of automata—birds that flap their wings, monks that shuffle in silent prayer, dolls that pretend to serve tea or play the dulcimer. Naturally, legends popped up about automata that could do incredible—for the time and technology available, impossible—things. One of those legends surrounded the 13th-century Catholic saint Albertus Magnus, who was supposed to have built a mechanical head that could answer the questions posed to it. When Ephraim Chambers wrote his 1728 Cyclopædia, he paired the Greek prefix for "man" ("andr-") with the suffix for "having the form or likeness of" ("-oid") when describing Albertus Magnus' mythical construct, dubbing it an "androides." By the 19th century, the word was well in vogue, used in patent applications for human-shaped automata. Lucasfilm holds the trademark on the shortened form of the word "droid"; the first instance of that form of the word may be in Mari Wolf's 1952 story Robots of the World! Arise!—but it never got a toy line.

3. Ansible: Ursula K. Le Guin coined this word for a device for instantaneous communication across the vast distances of space in her 1966 novel Rocannon's World. She used it in her later works and soon it spread across the works of other science fiction authors as well. But where does the word come from? A 2001 Usenet post by Dave Goldman claims that Le Guin told him "ansible" comes from the word "answerable" and that she was amused to learn that word is also an anagram for "lesbian."

4. Beam: While the word "beam" evokes visions of Captain Kirk saying, "Beam me up, Scotty," beam already refers to the transport of matter in the "Matter Transmitter" entry in the 1951 Dictionary of Science Fiction. "Beamed" is used as a verb to describe how matter transmitters work in stories like A. E. van Vogt's The Story of Null-A and The Last Spaceship by Murray Leinster (a story filled with fighting-beam, pain-beams, and all other manner of beams), but neither of those stories themselves use "beam" as a verb. It's an example of a term coming about not from science fiction itself, but from descriptions of science fiction.

31 Essential Science Fiction Terms And Where They Came From

5. Blaster: Who shot a blaster first? The (rather mysterious) writer Nictzin Dyalhis is believed to have first referred to a scifi gun as a "blastor" (with an "o") in When the Green Star Waned, an early entry into the space opera genre, published in Weird Tales in 1925:

Well it was for me that, in obedience to Hul Jok's imperative command, I was holding my Blastor pointing ahead of me; for as I blundered full upon the monstrosity it upheaved its ugly bulk—how I do not know, for I saw no legs nor did it have wings—to one edge and would have flopped down upon me, but instinctively I slid forward the catch on the tiny Blastor, and the foul thing vanished—save for a few fragments of its edges—smitten into nothingness by the vibration hurled forth from that powerful little disintegrator.

This may also be the first use of the word "disintegrator" to refer to a weapon in science fiction.

6. Credit: The universe's most generic form of currency first shows up John W. Campbell's The Mightiest Machine, which was serialized in Astounding starting in December 1934 and stars Campbell's recurring character Aarn Munro, when one character complains about having to build "a five-million-credit flying laboratory." Later, the same character proposes naming a rocketship "Little credit-eater" after the hull alone costs him a jaw-dropping two and a half million credits.

31 Essential Science Fiction Terms And Where They Came From

7. Cryostasis: The word "cryogenics," the study of materials at low temperature, comes from "cryogen," a word coined in 1875 to describe substances used to obtain low temperatures, refrigerants. Robert Ettinger, who would come to be known as the "father" of modern cryonics, would seize on the idea of freezing one's body for future revival after reading Neil R. Jones' 1931 story The Jameson Satellite when he was just 12 years old. In the story, a professor wants to see his corpse preserved forever and so has it sent into the cold of space upon his death, only to later be revived by members of an advanced alien species. After learning of the cryogenics research of Jean Rostand, an adult Ettinger would write his own science fiction story, The Penultimate Trump, which was published in Startling Stories in 1948. But it wasn't until 1965 that Karl Werner, then an industrial design student at the Pratt Institute, came up with the term "cryonics" to describe the preservation of bodies through freezing. And Alice Bradley Sheldon, writing as James Tiptree, Jr., would use the "cryo-" prefix for "cryostasis," placing human bodies in suspended animation for long journeys through space in her 1975 story A Momentary Taste of Being.

8. Cyberspace: "Cyberspace" is one of those words that has quickly traveled from science fiction into the mainstream vernacular. The word comes, not surprisingly, from that cyberpunk master William Gibson, appearing first in his 1982 short story Burning Chrome. (Gibson actually first read the story aloud in 1981, but it wasn't published in Omni until the following year.) Here, "Cyberspace Seven" is the name applied to a computer, but the concept of cyberspace gets a more complete definition in Gibson's 1984 novel Neuromancer:

Cyberspace. A con sensual hallucination experienced daily by billions of legitimate operators, in every nation, by children being taught mathematical concepts . . . A graphic representation of data abstracted from the banks of every computer in the human system. Unthinkable complexity. Lines of light ranged in the non space of the mind, clusters and constellations of data. Like city lights, receding....

31 Essential Science Fiction Terms And Where They Came From

9. Death Ray: Here's a rare phrase whose first appearance is believed to come not from literature, but from film. In 1914, Whartons Studios and the Pathé Exchange released The Exploits of Elaine, a 14-part film serial in the style of The Perils of Pauline. Chapter Nine of Exploits is titled "The Death Ray" and involves a scientist named LeCroix who develops an instrument that concentrates infrared rays into a deadly beam that could kill a person if aimed at their brain, one that could only be deflected by a platinum shield backed with asbestos. While it's likely the source of the term "death ray," it's hardly the first story to feature one. George Griffith's 1903 story The World Masters features a terrifying ray weapons; it's just not explicitly called a "death ray."

10. Dystopia: The word "utopia" was famously coined by Thomas More for his 1516 work of political philosophy, using the Greek words for "good" (ευ), "not" (οὐ), and "place" (τόπος) so that utopia at once means "good place" and "not place." Dystopia also first shows up in a work of political philosophy, in a 1868 speech by John Stuart Mill before the British House of Commons. We could have ended up with a different word to describe our anti-utopias, however; in 1818, Jeremy Bentham (the same man whose skeleton and head sit preserved in University College London) coined the term cacotopia (from the Greek κακόs, meaning "bad"), a word that Mill also uses in his speech to the House of Commons.

11. First Contact: Murray Leinster didn't just coin the phrase with the title of his 1945 novella First Contact; he was also may have introduced the concept of the universal translator. First Contact finds two technologically advanced meeting in deep space and figuring out a way to trade technology while dealing with their mistrust. After Star Trek: First Contact came out, Leinster's heirs sued Paramount Pictures for trademark violation. A judge ruled, however, that Leinster didn't own the term because he had allowed it to proliferate throughout other writers' fiction.

12. Force Field: The phrase "force field" first appears in a 1920 report of the British Association for the Advancement of Science: "Each atom must form the centre of an electromagnetic field of force. These force fields were first dealt with by Humphreys." In science fiction, it shows up starting in 1931. John W. Campbell's 1931 novel Islands of Space mentions a force field surrounding an alien city. That same year, E.E. "Doc" Smith published his serialized Spacehounds of IPC, which contains a few references to "force-field" theory and generators.

31 Essential Science Fiction Terms And Where They Came From

13. Generation Ship: The phrase "generation ship" likely came from a classic, but largely forgotten, novel about the concept, E.C. Tubb's The Space-Born, which was originally serialized as Star Ship in New Worlds Science Fiction before being published in book form in 1956. The novel focuses on the 13th and 14th generations of a generation ship where each person is born, learns a task for operating the ship, and is executed at the command of the computer that runs the ship. Things become a bit less routine when the police chief tasked with carrying out the executions decides he won't carry out his own death sentence.

14. Hive Mind: James H. Schmitz was the first person to dub a collective alien intelligence a "hive mind" in his 1950 story Second Night of Summer, in which humans on another planet are attacked by the Halpa, aliens who are believed to have "the hive-mind class of intelligence." The humans are saved, unusually, by an elderly woman, Granny Wannattel. In 1973, it would meander outside of science fiction to describe bureaucracy in a March 1973 edition of the Daily Telegraph, "The social and aesthetic attitudes have been passed through the homogeniser of the bureaucratic hive-mind." Now we use it to describe all sorts of social groups that seem to think and act with a single mind.

15. Homeworld: The term "home-world" or "homeworld" actually pre-dates "home planet" in science fiction by nearly four decades. The first use of the word appears to be from the pen of science fiction writer and explorer George Griffith, who had plenty of his own adventures to draw from when imagining a pair of newlyweds traveling through the solar system in a 1900 serial for Pearson's Magazine. Eventually, the voyage of his spacesuit-wearing travelers would be collected as the novel A Honeymoon in Space, but that term "home-world" appears in the very first installment, A Visit to the Moon:

Zaidie stood gazing for nearly an hour at this marvellous vision of the home-world which she had left so far behind her before she could tear herself away and allow her husband to shut the slides again. The greatly diminished weight of her body destroyed the fatigue of standing almost entirely. In fact, on board the Astronef just then it was almost as easy to stand as it was to lie down.

31 Essential Science Fiction Terms And Where They Came From

16. Jack In: Robert Silverberg's Hugo and Nebula-nominated 1970 novel Tower of Glass was the first to use the electronics jack as a verb, connecting a sentient being to a computer. In the book's 24th century, a race of androids, created by the scientist tycoon Simeon Krug, serves humanity, and Krug's right-hand android, Alpha Thor Watchman, spends hours each day "jacked into" computers, "buoyantly riding the data-tide." In later works, humans would be able to "jack in" as well.

17. Mad Scientist: Mary Shelley's Frankenstein was 90 years old (and HG Wells' The Island of Doctor Moreau was 12) when Raymond McDonald apparently coined the term "mad scientist" in his 1908 episodic novel The Mad Scientist: A Tale of the Future. The book involves a so-called mad scientist with socialist leanings who uses his brilliant inventions against US business and the US government. For readers at the time, the book was probably less exciting for its use of the term "mad scientist" than for the cipher contained within its pages. The publishers offered a generous cash reward for the reader who sent in the best analysis of the cipher.

18. Moon Base: Another phrase that seems obvious now but turns up later in science fiction than we might expect is "moon base," likely a reflection of our changing sense of what lunar colonization would really look like. In Bryce Walton's 1947 story Assignment in the Dawn, Martians have set up moon bases, and the following year saw moon bases in Robert Heinlein's novel Space Cadet (high-ranking officers from a multinational military tried to take over the world from humanity's "Moon Base") and in L. Ron Hubbard's 240,000 Miles Straight Up (in which the "Moonbase" is a Russian outpost).

19. Multiverse: The term "multiverse" wasn't coined in science or science fiction; it actually comes originally from American philosopher William James' 1895 address to the Young Men's Christian Association of Harvard University, titled Is Life Worth Living? His meaning for multiverse is rather different from the modern one, however:

But those times are past; and we of the nineteenth century, with our evolutionary theories and our mechanical philosophies, already know nature too impartially and too well to worship unreservedly any god of whose character she can be an adequate expression. Truly all we know of good and beauty proceeds from nature, but none the less so all we know of evil. Visible nature is all plasticity and indifference, a moral multiverse, as one might call it, and not a moral universe.

The Oxford English Dictionary credits Michael Moorcock—that writer behind the capital-m Multiverse—with the first use of the word multiverse in the now-common sense of the word, referring to a realm consisting of multiple parallel universes. In 1963, in the pages of Science Fiction Adventures, Moorcock introduced us to the modern multiverse:

Yet within it there were many things, many intelligences who did not realise they dwelt in a multiverse since, within itself, it was comprised of many universes, each one separated from the other by dimensions, like leaves between the layers.

31 Essential Science Fiction Terms And Where They Came From

20. Parallel Universe: While "multiverse" may be a relatively modern term, "parallel universe" goes back to one of the authors who helped shape science fiction, H.G. Wells. In Wells' 1923 novel Men Like Gods, a man is transported to Utopia, which exists in a parallel dimension:

We accept your main proposition unreservedly; namely, that we conceive ourselves to be living in a parallel universe to yours, on a planet the very brother of your own, indeed quite amazingly like yours, having regard to all the possible contrasts we might have found here.

21. Posthuman: The term "post-human" pops up first in the works of horror writer H.P. Lovecraft, who uses the phrase in the 1936 novel The Shadow Out of Time in a way that will look familiar to modern readers (although as commenter bob_d notes, he's referring not to the transformation of humans, but the species who come after):

I shivered at the mysteries the past may conceal, and trembled at the menaces the future may bring forth. What was hinted in the speech of post-human entities of the fate of mankind produced such an effect on me that I will not set it down here.

After man there would be the mighty beetle civilisation, the bodies of whose members the cream of the Great Race would seize when the monstrous doom overtook the elder world. Later, as the earth's span closed, the transferred minds would again migrate through time and space—to another stopping-place in the bodies of the bulbous vegetable entities of Mercury. But there would be races after them, clinging pathetically to the cold planet and burrowing to its horror-filled core, before the utter end.

22. Ray Gun: Before the pulp-era ray gun came the X-ray gun, ina 1916 motion picture titled The Intrigue. The film was about a young American inventor who perfects an X-ray gun that revolutionizes modern warfare. But the ray gun we imagine in our retro pulps starts with John W. Campbell's 1930 story The Black Star passes. But people had been killing each other with rays for ages in science fiction at this point. There's a heat ray in H.G. Wells' 1897 War of the Worlds, the aforementioned death ray in The Exploits of Elaine, even an ammunition-destroying ray imagined in George Bernard Shaw's 1919 play Heartbreak House. A ray gun was a logical imaginary weapon.

23. Robot: "Robot" has one of the most famous origin stories. Karel Čapek used a Czech word for forced feudal labor, robota, for the title of his 1921 play Rosumovi Univerzální Roboti (Rossum's Universal Robots). The robots in R.U.R. weren't the mechanical robots we think of today, but rather artificial humans. Once the play was translated into English in 1923, English-speaking writers picked up the word to describe their own constructs made in humanity's mental or physical image. But it wasn't until 1940 that Isaac Asimov first named a discipline of study "robotics" when he referred to a character as a "Roboticist." The shortened form "bot" first shows up even later, in Richard C. Meredith's 1969 novel We All Died at Breakaway Station.

24. Spaceship: "Spaceship" may seem like an obvious term now, and certainly it's part of a larger trend in science fiction of adding "space" to nautical terms, but even it has its origin. Its first known appearance is in the Pall Mall Gazette in January 1880 in a review of Percy Greg's novel Across the Zodiac, "The Apergy once mastered, it was comparatively easy to anticipate and improve upon the ideas of a trifler like Jules Verne, and build a space-ship." The first appearance of the word is frequently attribute to John Jacob Astor IV's 1894 novel A Journey in Other Worlds, which is set in the year 2000 and imagines a future with a global telephone network, solar power, and air travel—but also imagines that humanity has been able to reach Jupiter and Saturn. "Starship" doesn't turn up until much later, ushered into the world by Frank K. Kelly's 1934 story Star Ship Invincible.

31 Essential Science Fiction Terms And Where They Came From

25. Superhero: "Super-hero" was a term applied to actual people before it was applied to fictional characters. The OED's first citation for "super-hero" appears in 1899, during a discussion of the Alfred Dreyfus Affair, when a French artillery officer was tried and wrongly convicted of treason. Georges Clemenceau at one point comments that if Georges Picquart, who questioned Dreyfus' guilt and investigated the issue, was a hero, then Dreyfus' loyal brother Mathieu was a "super-hero." And it shows up in a fictional context in a 1924 New York Times article describing the hyper-competent protagonist of the (now lost) film Tongues of Flame. In science fiction, the first character to be named as a "superhero" may be Zarnak, a comic strip character, created by Max Plaisted, who appeared in the first eight issues of Thrilling Wonder Stories in 1936 and 1937. Zarnak was a scientific genius who traveled the planets, and he's called a "superhero" in a 1937 letter complaining about the declining quality of the strip:

Re 'Zarnak'; the strip started off very well, but I must agree with others that it is rapidly degenerating into the juvenile antics of a musclebound superhero. This latter sort of stuff may be all right in the Sunday comics but it is decidedly out of place in a respectable science fiction magazine.

Superman would make his debut in Action Comics in 1938. DC and Marvel now hold a joint trademark on the word "superhero."

26. Telepathy: "Telepathy" is a word that came about just as science fiction was emerging as a literary genre, but it's from science fiction itself. Poet and classicist Frederic W.H. Myers coined the terms "telesthesia" and "telepathy" in an 1882 edition of the Proceedings of the Society for Psychical Research to describe what had previously been referred to as "thought transference." Myers was himself a founding member of the Society for Psychical Research, an organization that promoted research into "allegedly paranormal phenomena." Myers also likely coined the word "telekinesis," which turns up in the society's 1890 proceedings. The less common word "telempathy" was invented specifically for science fiction, with the 1963 Vance Simonds story Telempathy.

27. Teleportation: While "telepathy" and "telekinesis" entered the lexicon in the late 19th century, "teleportation" doesn't appear on the scene until well into the 20th century. The word seems to have been coined by Charles Fort in Lo!, the second of his books documenting "anomalous phenomena." (The word "Fortean," used to describe paranormal phenomena, comes from his name.) Early in Lo!, Fort writes, "Mostly in this book I shall specialize upon indications that there exists a transportory force that I shall call Teleportation." Fort believed that teleportation could explain a number of unexplained events—although there was still the matter of explaining teleportation itself.

28. Terraforming: Jack Williamson invented numerous science fiction terms, and many of them (like ion drive and genetic engineering) turn up in science as well. Add terraforming to that list; Williamson first uses the term in his 1942 story Collision Orbit:

He had been the original claimant of Obania, forty years ago; and Drake was the young spatial engineer he employed to terraform the little rock, only two kilometers through—by sinking a shaft to its heart for the paragravity installation, generating oxygen and water from mineral oxides, releasing absorptive gases to trap the feeble heat of the far-off Sun.

29. Time Travel:H.G. Wells' seminal 1894 novel The Time Machine is the origin of the term "time machine," which we use to describe everything from our TARDISes to our WABACs. It also introducers the term "Time Traveller," which became another staple of the genre. Oddly, the term "time travel" doesn't turn up by itself until two decades later, in an article considering a journey through time in a 1914 issue of the Journal of Philosophy, Psychology and Scientific Methods. There are earlier time travelers in fiction—even Ebenezer Scrooge gets up to plenty of time traveling in A Christmas Carol. But Wells gave us the simple language to describe it: a time traveller and his time machine.

31 Essential Science Fiction Terms And Where They Came From

30. Tractor Beam: Star Trek has come to dominate the tractor beam landscape, but the matter-pulling tractor beam is an invention of E.E. "Doc" Smith's 1931 Spacehounds of IPC (also one of the earliest examples of force fields in fiction):

'We'll carry off the pieces of that ship, too, Quince—we may be able to get a lot of pointers from it,' and Brandon swung mighty tractor beams upon the severed halves of the Jovian vessel, then extended a couple of smaller rays to meet the two little figures racing across the smooth green meadow toward the Sirius.

31. Science Fiction: The origin of the actual term "science fiction" is a bit mysterious. The first use cited by the OED is in William Wilson's 1851 A Little Earnest Book upon a Great Old Subject. In it, Wilson looks at how a single object might be perceived through the eyes of six different animals: a bee, an ant, a spider, a perch, a robin, and a cat. Wilson terms this work "Science-Fiction":

We hope it will not be long before we may have other works of Science-Fiction, as we believe such books likely to fulfil a good purpose, and create an interest, where, unhappily, science alone might fail. [Thomas] Campbell says that "Fiction in Poetry is not the reverse of truth, but her soft and enchanting resemblance". Now this applies especially to Science-Fiction, in which the revealed truths of Science may be given, interwoven with a pleasing story which may itself be poetical and true – thus circulating a knowledge of the Poetry of Science, clothed in a garb of the Poetry of Life.

The term "scientific romance," which described early works in the genre, may have had a slightly earlier debut. It shows up in an 1845 North American Review article about Vestiges of the Natural History of Creation, a popular, anonymously published work of speculative natural history (which some suspected Charles Darwin authored but was actually the work of a different evolutionary thinker, geologist Robert Chambers). Other terms competed for the genre descriptor, including "scientific fiction."

The reason we call the genre "science fiction" today is thanks to pioneering scifi publisher Hugo Gernsback, for whom the Hugo Awards are named. Life Magazine actually credited Gernsback with coining the term and according to some sources, he hoped to trademark it. It wasn't Gernsback's first choice for the genre name, however; that would be "scientifiction."