The scene: You’re sitting on the sofa, cup of tea by your side, ready to crack open a brand new sci-fi novel. This tale promises to be full of exciting scientific advancements, great world-building, and a fast-paced plot. You open to the first page and begin to read…only to be pulled out of the narrative multiple times by clumsy pseudo-scientific jargon. And lots of it.
Lately, I’ve been devouring Cixin Liu’s sci-fi trilogy, Remembrance of Earth’s Past, and I’ve been consistently impressed by its seamless integration of novel words and terminology for new scientific concepts. Unlike some other sci-fi novels I’ve read (*cough* Hyperion *cough*), the author introduces new concepts without ever seeming forced or jargon-y. However, this is not always the case.
The proliferation of jargon in much of sci-fi makes sense: science fiction often deals with new technology, advancements in science, and alien life, and new concepts and ideas require new vocabulary. Yet, why is it that some books and movies introduce new words seamlessly, while other sci-fi terminology sticks out awkwardly from the rest of the text?
From Imagination to Reality
The English language has received many new words courtesy of science fiction, and some have become such a normal part of everyday speech that we hardly think about them at all. For example, the word robot was first coined by author Karel Čapek in 1921, referring to artificial humans; the term was based on the Czech word, robota, for “forced feudal labor.” Isaac Asimov later adapted this term and named the discipline of robotics. Sci-fi also gave us words like astronaut and genetic engineering.
So how do sci-fi creators come up with these new words, and what determines whether they work or don’t? Let’s first look at new words more broadly. In one of his books on the history of the English language, Bill Bryson claims that new words emerge in five major ways:
- Error (mistakes in communicating or transcribing words)
- Adoption (words borrowed from other languages)
- Creation (new words people create on purpose, hoping that they will be adopted)
- Change in context (words whose meaning changes over time as the context changes)
- Addition or subtraction (words derived from combining or modifying existing words).
Bryson is talking about language change in general here—the gradual evolution of words and usage over time—not authors creating new words for their fictional worlds. However, I think there’s some definite overlap.
New words in sci-fi often fall into the creation or addition/subtraction categories, though sometimes they are formed by using a common term and giving it a new meaning in the context of the story. Some sci-fi terms are created as totally new words, or protologisms, like Ursula K. Le Guin’s ansible. Many authors intentionally modify words from other languages to form new terms, like Frank Herbert’s Kwisatz Haderach or Orson Scott Card’s Pequeninos.
And we’ve all seen addition and subtraction in action: terraform, warp drive, hyperspace, force field. Common trends include creating portmanteaus (holoprojector, Newspeak), adding “on” to the end of related words to form the names of new particles (tachyon, philosophon), and adding “um” to create fictional elements (adamantium, unobtanium).
Other authors take everyday words and imbue them with new meaning; usually you can see these words’ connection to their original definition, as if the authors tried to mimic the natural shift of words’ meaning over time in new contexts. Cixin Liu’s use of hibernation in his aforementioned sci-fi series is a great example of this. We all know what hibernation means, but in his books, it refers specifically to the process of cryogenically freezing humans’ bodies so they can be awoken decades or even centuries in the future, as if no time had passed. The connection to bears’ hibernation is clear, and this term feels believable in the futuristic Earth he’s created.
Complicated Science Stuff
So, when does sci-fi lingo go awry? Personally, I notice this jargon most when it’s overused or when the terminology is overly complicated, where the author is clearly trying to sound complex and scientific without having to explain any actual science.
As the xkcd comic at the beginning of this post jokes, often new sci-fi words are just stand ins for terms that already exist…but futuristic and awesomer. When we want to show a computer process or scientific concept in a futuristic society, we often create big, complex-sounding words that are meant to dazzle rather than communicate.
Astrophysicist Katie Mack notes that this may feel disingenuous since most of the real words we have for “space stuff” today are actually very simple terms, like black hole and big bang. This is in marked contrast to the jargon used in sci-fi movies and books, with polysyllabic and complicated-sounding words signaling that they represent Super Complex Science Things:
“If you watch something like Star Trek, there’s always words like, you know, the inertial compensators, and you get these really multisyllabic constructions, and that’s how you know that you’re not supposed to understand it, and you’re supposed to file that away as ‘that’s a complicated thing.’”
In these instances, you’re supposed to be impressed by the big words, otherwise known as technobabble, or technical-sounding but meaningless words. This is so common, TV Tropes has a full page devoted to both scientific technobabble and sci-fi name buzzwords, and there’s even a technobabble generator you can use if you’re stuck for a nonsensical but sciencey-sounding term for your next novel or screenplay. (Speaking of which, it’s time to realign the automatic plasma flow inhibitor.) The TV show, Doctor Who, pokes fun at this as well:
The Doctor: Looks like a spatio-temporal hyperlink.
Mickey: What’s that?
The Doctor: No idea, just made it up. Didn’t want to say “magic door.”
The distinction between technobabble and innovative new words is not always super clear. But many readers can feel when a term is forced or used as a stand in for science that the author doesn’t care to explain in plain language. We can intuit when a writer is just trying to add space and technology flavor to their narrative, like adding too much pepper to an otherwise bland soup.
This discussion only scratches the surface of the world of sci-fi terminology. For example, phonetics also plays a huge role in how “real” a word feels to us. Certain sounds can feel soft or hard, round or spiky, harsh or smooth to us, and when a fictional word’s sounds don’t match up with what it describes, it can feel off (even though the words we use every day often don’t match sounds to meanings in this way). And there’s a ton of commentary on constructed languages in sci-fi and fantasy, or conlangs, and what makes them believable and suitably alien.
Want to learn more? These podcast episodes are a good place to start:
- The Allusionist: “Technobabble“
- Imaginary Words: “Technobabble“
- Very Bad Words: “Constructed curses in sci fi and fantasy“
- Lingthusiasm: “What words sound spiky across languages?“
However they’re formed, fictional words are fascinating: they can inspire loyal usage or mocking derision, and they have the potential to become “real” words if people like and use them enough. Science fiction authors are constantly creating new worlds, or at least new versions of this world, and making up words is its own kind of world creation too. I may mock the hegemonic tri-phase neurocopters of sci-fi nightmares, but if sci-fi authors didn’t go out on a mid-limb and create new terminology, no one would have ever invented speakers for the dead or doublethink or replicant. And that would be a shame.