Interview: Jeff Prucher
by Gayle Surrette
Review by Gayle Surrette
SFRevu.com *Interview ISBN/ITEM#: INTJeffPrucher
Date: 01 May 2009
Links: Review: Brave New Words / Jeff Prucher's Blog /
SFRevu: I'm always curious with this type of work about how the words were chosen for inclusion in the dictionary. Did you have a limit of how many references or citations it had to have to be included or was it a recognition or popularity?
Jeff Prucher: I didn't have a firm policy, but in general I wanted at least five citations from different authors. There might have been a few that snuck in with fewer citations, if I knew the word was more common than my citations would suggest. If a word is associated with a particular work or franchise, I also wanted citations from outside that universe. More broadly, the words had to relate to science fiction (including SF fandom) in some way. In most cases, they were coined in SF stories (books, films, comic strips, etc.) or by SF fans or with reference to SF (such as names of genres); a very few, like "cyborg", don't fit this definition, but were included anyway because I felt that leaving them out would have left a noticeable gap.
SFRevu: On the reverse side, how were words chosen for exclusion from the work. You gave a short answer on the Words Not In page. Was there a formal list of rules for exclusion?
Jeff: Well, the biggest reason for exclusion was if the word had nothing to do with science fiction! After that (and acknowledging that there's a big fuzzy area around what actually constitutes "science fiction"), I did have a few guidelines. One, that I mentioned above, was that words had to have some usage outside their originating universe, whether by other SF authors (such as "ansible" -- a word very much associated with Ursula Le Guin's Ekumen books, but which has been picked up by many other writers) or in the non-SF English lexicon (like Orwell's "newspeak"). I also had a cut-off date of 2000 -- any words coined in 2000 or later were not considered. This was partly to prevent project creep, but also because it takes time for new words to become established. Many words that seemed SFnal to me turned out to have non-SFnal origins; I was pretty ruthless in omitting these as well.
SFRevu: Are there any words that you've learned about since or that were excluded that you really wish you'd been able to include? Will there someday be a revised and expanded dictionary of science fiction words?
Jeff: Well, it's been fun watching "frack" take off; the reimagined Battlestar Galactica had only been on for a season or so when I started working on the dictionary, and it was too soon to be able to tell whether it would catch on or not. And paranormal romance has come out of hiding as a dominant subgenre in the time since the book was written. Some words have come to light that I just missed entirely: "zap" and "zap gun" have entries in the OED with science-fictional coinages (the former first appears as part of the sound effect "Br-r-rr-r-z-zzz-zap" in a Buck Rogers comic strip). Lots of new suggestions have come into the OED's Science Fiction Citation project, too; some of my favorites are "autodoc", "ether ship", and "spacewreck". And I've recently read a couple books that feature the old SFnal time measurement "tenday", which is probably absurdly common, but which I had no citations for when I was writing. I would love to do a second edition at some point, but there are no current plans for one.
SFRevu: I've been dipping into this work since the hardcover edition first appeared on my desk. Do you have some favorite words? Were there any real surprises for you when you put the volume together?
Jeff: I do have to confess to liking some of the goofier words, like "fugghead" (it means pretty much what you think it does) and "smeg" (from Red Dwarf), and I've always liked that fact that characters who serve primarily as cannon-fodder can be called "redshirts", after the eponymously-clad crewmembers of the starship Enterprise. I also really like some of the more obscure ones, like "doomwatch", which is from the name of an old BBC television show. I'm also very fond of some of the early terms for SF and fantasy: "different story", "off-trail", "impossible story", "fantascience", "pseudo-science", the list goes on. It's fun to watch the different reviewers, editors, and fans struggling with what to call the nascent genre.
One surprise was "anti-agathic", a life-prolonging drug. James Blish coined this word, intending the meaning "anti-death", but the Greek word agathos actually means "good". What's surprising to me isn't so much that Blish got his Greek mixed up -- everybody makes mistakes -- but that the word caught on anyway. Another surprise was discovering that the phrase "beam up" or "beam me up" can be a reference to crack cocaine use.
SFRevu: What's your current project(s)? It looks like from Words to Watch that you haven't just put this out of your mind...so, is it like the project that just won't let you go?
Jeff: It is totally the project that just won't let go. My first child was born a few months after I turned in the manuscript, and I'd sit there in the middle of the night, rocking her to sleep, compulsively flagging new words in whatever book I happened to be reading. I still do it, too. I have some ideas for more projects, but I don't have anything in the works right now.
SFRevu: Thank you, Jeff for taking the time to answer our questions.