Atomic Bombs, Time Machines, and Lurve: Words from H. G. Wells

British writer H. G. Wells was born today in 1866. Dubbed “The Father of Science Fiction,” Wells was also “a prolific writer in many other genres.” But we know and love him best as the creator behind The Invisible Man, War of the Worlds, and The Time Machine. Time travel with us as we look back on 10 words and phrases Wells coined or popularized.

atomic bomb

“His companion, a less imaginative type, sat with his legs spread wide over the long, coffin-shaped box which contained in its compartments the three atomic bombs, the new bombs that would continue to explode indefinitely and which no one so far had ever seen in action.”

The World Set Free, 1914

An atomic bomb is “a nuclear weapon in which enormous energy is released by nuclear fission.” According to the Online Etymology Dictionary, the phrase atomic bomb was first recorded in the above 1914 work of Wells.

Later terms include the shortened atom bomb – about 1921, according to the Oxford English Dictionary (OED) – and even shorter A-bomb (about 1945). Real-life atom bombs were developed in the 1930s.

fourth dimension

“Really this is what is meant by the Fourth Dimension, though some people who talk about the Fourth Dimension do not know they mean it. It is only another way of looking at Time. There is no difference between time and any of the three dimensions of space except that our consciousness moves along it.”

The Time Machine, 1895

The fourth dimension refers to “time regarded as a coordinate dimension and required by relativity theory, along with three spatial dimensions, to specify completely the location of any event.”

While the term had been in use since about 1875, says the OED, it was in Charles Howard Hinton’s 1880 article, “What Is the Fourth Dimension?” that the idea of time as the fourth dimension was first implied, and in Wells’s The Time Machine that an explicit connection was made between time and the fourth dimension.


“In the road lay a group of three charred bodies close together, struck dead by the Heat-Ray; and here and there were things that people had dropped–a clock, a slipper, a silver spoon, and the like poor valuables.”

War of the Worlds, 1898

Wells’s heat-ray weapon, says the Online Etymology Dictionary, was a precursor to the ray gun, a staple in science fiction which originated around 1923. X-rays, “relatively high-energy photon[s] having a wavelength in the approximate range from 0.01 to 10 nanometers,” were discovered in 1895.

invisible man

“I have walked through Moscow’s snowy streets and felt that I must be an invisible man as the pedestrians passed me by with apparently unseeing eyes.”

W.W. Chaplin, “Russians Friendly, But Just Try to Get Any Military Secrets!” St. Petersburg Times, December 21, 1942

H.G. Wells’s novella, The Invisible Man, was published in 1897, and the term, invisible man, is now used literally and figuratively to mean someone who cannot be seen or is willingly unseen. Ralph Ellison’s novel, Invisible Man, was published in 1952. From an article by Eugene Kane in The Milwaukee Journal, September 7, 1986:

After that experience, I tried to find other writings by Ellison, but was frustrated by the lack of his books at libraries or bookstores. In a way, he himself became an invisible man.


“I am pleading the cause of a woman, a woman I lurve, sorr—a noble woman—misunderstood.”

The War in the Air, 1908

While lurve, an alteration of love, may seem like a modern term, it has long been a British colloquialism, says the OED, first recorded as a verb in Wells’s writings in 1908, and as a noun in 1937.

Lurve may be based on the rhoticity – the pronunciation of “the letter r … after vowels,” says Dialect Blog – of some British accents.


“My professional gifts give me a kind of Rasputin hold on one or two exalted families.”

Star-Begotten, 1937

Rasputin, Russian for debauchee, is the “acquired name” of Grigory Yefimovich Novykh, says the Online Etymology Dictionary, “mystic and faith healer who held sway over court of Nicholas II of Russia.” Wells’s seems to be the earliest recorded example of Rasputin used figuratively for anyone “felt to have an insidious and corrupting influence.”

scientific romance

“In many respects it began in 1894, in two rooms at No 12 Mornington Road (now Terrace), Camden Town, where Wells, having ditched his first wife, lived in adultery with Jane, his second, and secured his first contract writing ‘scientific romance’ for the Pall Mall Budget.”

Gerald Isaaman, “Books: Review – HG Wells: Another Kind of Life,” Camden New Journal, May 27, 2010

Scientific romance refers to both science of a speculative nature and what is now know as science fiction. Wells didn’t coin the term scientific romance, but his writings, along with those of Jules Verne, were some of the earliest examples.

Romance in this context means “an invention; fiction; falsehood,” or “a tale or novel dealing not so much with real or familiar life as with extraordinary and often extravagant adventures.”


“He abbreviated every word he could; he would have considered himself the laughing-stock of Wood Street if he had chanced to spell socks in any way but ‘sox.’”

Kipps, 1906

Sox is an alteration of socks. The baseball team formerly known as the White Stockings were dubbed the White Sox in 1901, according to Slate.

time machine

“Godfrey’s time machine – also known as The Baseball Card Shop in Hoover – has proved resilient, transporting fans back and forth through the game’s history, even as many of his competitors have closed their doors during the past decade.”

Tom Bassing, “The Time Machine: Sports Memorabilia Shopkeeper Transports His Customers,” Birmingham Business Journal, July 27, 2003

A time machine is “a fictional or hypothetical device by means of which one may travel into the future and the past,” and first appeared in Wells’s 1898 novel of the same name. The term may be used literally or figuratively, as above.

time travelling

“I am afraid I cannot convey the peculiar sensations of time travelling. They are excessively unpleasant. There is a feeling exactly like that one has upon a switchback—of a helpless headlong motion!”

The Time Machine, 1895

Time traveling is “hypothetical or fictional travel at will to the past or the future, typically by means of a machine. . .or a wormhole.” The term first appeared in Wells’s 1895 novel, The Time Machine. For more time traveling words, see this list.

Word Soup: Science Fiction

In celebration of the birthdays of Isaac Asimov (designated as National Science Fiction Day) and J. R. R. Tolkien this week, we’re celebrating science fiction words and language all week here at Wordnik. Today’s Word Soup is a special installment of some of our favorite words from and about science fiction television shows.

Warning: some of these quotes may be spoilers for some of you, and, as usual, some words are NSFW.

Slang & Expletives


Ellen Tigh: “You don’t wanna frak with me, Bill. Try to remember that.”
Adama: “Don’t frak with me either, Ellen.”

“Tigh Me Up, Tigh Me Down,” Battlestar Galactic, March 4, 2005

Frak, which replaces expletives such as fuck, shit, and damn, first appeared in the 1978 Battlestar Galactica series as frack. For the “re-imagined” version, frack was revised as frak, since “the producers wanted to make it a four-letter word.” Frak is a play on fuck, and is reminiscent of the intensives, freaking, fricking, and frigging.

Fracking refers to hydraulic fracturing, “a technique in which a mixture of water and sand is forced down an oil well (or similar) in order to create fractures in the oil-bearing rock and thus release more oil.” Fracking was mentioned in “Fracked,” an episode of CSI: Las Vegas, which featured Katee Sackhoff, who portrayed Lt. Kara “Starbuck” Thrace on Battlestar Galactica.


Mal: “We didn’t pick the cargo.”
Badger: “And I didn’t flash my ass at the gorram law.”

“Serenity,” Firefly, December 20, 2002

Gorram is most likely a corruption of goddamn with what may be a Chinese accent. The show ”takes place in a multi-cultural future, primarily a fusion of Occidental and Chinese cultures,” and as a result, “Mandarin Chinese is a common second language” often used as expletives.


Jayne [about taking on new passengers]: “Pain in the ass.”
Kaylee: “No, it’s shiny! I like to meet new people. They’ve all got stories.”

“Serenity,” Firefly, December 20, 2002

Shiny in this context means “excellent; remarkable.” Other words that have evolved into slang with a similar meaning include cool, neat, swell, groovy, radical, bitchin, and phat. See this list for more.


Tigh: “Before the attack on the Colonies, we didn’t know the skinjobs existed. Turns out there’s another kind of Cylon we didn’t know about, and I’m one of them.”

“Revelations,” Battlestar Galactica, June 13, 2008

Skinjob is a derogatory term for a Humanoid Cylon, “indistinguishable from organic-humans due to their creation through synthetic-biology.” Skinjob pays homage to the film, Blade Runner, which uses skin-job as a derogatory term for replicants, which have similar qualities as Cylons and Humanoid Cylons.


Rimmer: “Why don’t you smegging well smeg off, you annoying little smeggy smegging smegger!”

“Only the Good,” Red Dwarf, April 5, 1999

Smeg, like frak, replaces other expletives, and was popularized by the British science fiction comedy, Red Dwarf. The word is reminiscent of the word smegma, “a whitish sebaceous secretion that collects between the glans penis and foreskin or in the vulva.” Smegma comes from the Greek word smekhein, “to wash off.”

Enemies & Alternates


Q: “The Borg is the ultimate user. They’re unlike any threat your Federation has ever faced. They’re not interested in political conquest, wealth or power as you know it. They’re simply interested in your ship, its technology. They’ve identified it as something they can consume.”

“Q Who?” Star Trek: The Next Generation, May 8, 1989

The Borg is “a fictional pseudo-race of cybernetic organisms depicted in the Star Trek universe,” as well as “one who proselytises or assimilates.” The word Borg comes from cyborg, “a human who has certain physiological processes aided or controlled by mechanical or electronic devices.” The word cyborg is a blend of cybernetics, “the theoretical study of communication and control processes in biological, mechanical, and electronic systems,” and organism, “a body exhibiting organization and organic life,” and was coined “in 1960 when Manfred Clynes and Nathan S. Kline used it in an article about the advantages of self-regulating human-machine systems in outer space.”


Number Three: “Or would you raise your children with stories of the Cylon, the mechanical slaves who once did your bidding, only to turn against you?”

“Exodus (Part 2),” Battlestar Galactica, October 20, 2006

In the original Battlestar Galactica series, Cylons were not “the mechanical foils” seen in the re-imagined BSG “but an advanced reptilian race who created the robots.” In the re-imagined series, “Cylons were created by humans as cybernetic workers and soldiers.” As for the word’s etymology, cy- comes from cybernetics, while cylon in Latin seems to mean “hollowness of the eyes,” implying the visage of a machine. Derogatory slang for Cylons include bullet-head, chrome job, clanker, and toaster.


Walter: “[The password] was a song lyric. And Fauxlivia ruined U2 for all of us.”
Nina: “Fauxlivia?”
Peter: “That’s what Walter’s calling her now. Fauxlivia as in ‘fake Olivia.’”

“Reciprocity,” Fringe, January 28, 2011

Fauxlivia, a blend of faux and Olivia, refers to the alternate universe version of the character, Olivia. Having posed as Olivia, to residents of the primary universe, Fauxlivia is false or fake, ie, not the “real” Olivia. Other faux portmanteaus include fauxhawk, fauxtography, fauxmosexual, fauxhemian, and fauxpology.


Simon: “What happens if [the reavers] board us?”
Zoe: “If they take the ship, they’ll rape us to death, eat our flesh, and sew our skin to their clothing. And if we’re very very lucky, they’ll do it in that order.”

“Serenity,” Firefly, December 20, 2002

Reavers are “a group of humans in the television series Firefly and the movie Serenity who live on the fringes of civilized space and have become animalistic.” The original meaning of reaver is “one who reaves or robs; a plundering forager; a robber,” and comes from the Old English reafian, “to rob something from someone, plunder, pillage.”

Show Me

Henry Higgins: “I’m gonna need you to Show Me. You know I can’t put this cab into drive without your I.D.”

“Olivia,” Fringe, September 23, 2010

The Show Me is a form of personal identification in the Fringe alternate universe. The phrase show me has various implications. “Show me who you are,” the requester may ask. “This shows me,” the ID holder might say. Show Me is an example of anthimeria, “the use of a word from one word class or part of speech as if it were from another.” Show Me is a verbal phrase used as a noun, turned back into a verb in the quote.


Walter: “Walternate found a cure. He found a cure for Peter… and — and it works, Carla. It’s not too late. I can save him.”

“Peter,” Fringe, April 1, 2010

Walternate is a blend of Walter and alternate, and is the alternate universe version of the character Walter.



Drunk Guy [to Mal]: “Six years [ago] today, the Alliance sent the Browncoats running, pissing in their pants. You know your coat is a kinda brownish color.”
Mal: “It was on sale.”

“The Train Job,” Firefly, September 20, 2002

Browncoats refer to the independence fighters on Firefly (so named for the color of their uniforms) as well as fans of the show. The word is reminiscent of redcoat, Brownshirt, and turncoat.


“[Norman Lovett] is returning to the role in the current series [Red Dwarf] after an eight-year break, though he has been regularly attending ‘Dwarfy’ conventions in the meantime.”

James Rampton, “Comedy with James Rampton,” The Independent, February 15, 1997

A Dwarfy is a fan of the British science fiction show, Red Dwarf. Dwarfy plays on Trekkie, a fan of the show Star Trek, and may be used as a noun or an adjective.


“There are a specific sect of ‘Battlestar Galactica’ fans that truly eat [the love storyline] up. They are known. . .as ‘Shippers,’ and if they had their way, Adama and Roslin would be replaced by Victor Newman and Katherine Chancellor.”

Michael Hinman, “Battlestar Galactica’s Young and the Feckless,” Airlock Alpha, February 8, 2007

A shipper is “one involved in shipping (fan fiction based on romantic relationships between characters),” and is short for relationship.


“I am, as I have mentioned before, one of the original Trekkies, who watched the show for the character relationships, the science, and the social commentary (who was it who said science fiction is the modern equivalent of philosophy?), not the fight scenes.”

Kathy Ceceri, “This Trekkie Is Happy,” Wired, May 8, 2009

A Trekkie is a fan of the TV show, Star Trek. The word was coined in 1967 by science fiction editor Arthur W. Saha, and is also known as a Trekker, though some argue Trekkers are truly serious fans while Trekkies are poseurs. A Niner is a fan of the Star Trek spinoff, Star Trek: Deep Space Nine.


“We X-Files fans–or X-philes, to be annoying–are double sufferers. Maybe even triple sufferers, since we are afflicted not only by history and by our own fantasies but by ‘creator’ Chris Carter’s as well.”

John Cloud, “Cinema: An X-Phile Confesses,” Time, June 22, 1998

The word X-phile means literally “love of X,” where phile comes from the Greek philos, “loving, dear,” and is a pun of file. Other phile words include bibliophile, a lover of books; cinephile, a movie enthusiaist; Anglophile, “one who admires or is friendly to England”; and many more.


Riker’s beard

“It really was hard to take Jonathan Frakes seriously that first season of TNG, and it wasn’t entirely because his uniform was a bit too tight. He just looked a bit too much like an overgrown boy scout, and the beard really did help a lot.”

Matt Blum, “10 Geeky Swear Words That Don’t Exist (Yet),” Wired, August 31, 2010

Riker’s beard refers to the phenomenom that before Commander Riker, the character played by Jonathan Frakes, grew a beard, the TV show, Star Trek: The Next Generation, was mediocre. After Riker grew his beard, “the show kicked ass.” The opposite of Riker’s beard is jump the shark, referring to the decline of a show after a ludicrous event.


“Being a ‘Red Shirt’ on the USS Enterprise is one of the most dangerous jobs in any (imaginary) military. . . .SiteLogic founder Matt Bailey crunched the numbers: 13.7% of Kirk’s crew died during their three-year televised mission. 73% of the deaths were Red Shirts.”

David Axe, “Star Trek “Red Shirts”: the Harsh, Statistical Truth,” Wired, April 11, 2008

A redshirt is “an unimportant character introduced only to be killed in order to underscore the peril to the important characters; an expendable character.”


Buffy [to Giles]: “I cannot believe that you of all people are trying to Scully me.”

“The Pack,” Buffy the Vampire Slayer, April 7, 1997

Scully refers to Dana Scully, an FBI agent on the TV show, The X-Files. Whereas her partner, Fox Mulder, readily believed in the paranormal, Scully was always skeptical, casting doubt on Mulder’s seemingly incredible theories. To Scully is to cast doubt on a far-fetched belief. Scully is an anthimeria, “the use of a word from one word class or part of speech as if it were from another,” as well as an eponym, “a word or name derived from the name of a person.”


“Immersed in Treknobabble — the pseudo-scientific tongue spoken in the ‘Trek’ universe — he recalled details from long-ago episodes of the spin-offs ‘Star Trek: The Next Generation’ and ‘Star Trek: Deep Space Nine.’”

Warren Kagarise, “Boldly go: Sammamish actor seeks out new civilizations in ‘Star Trek’ homage,” Issaquah Press, August 10, 2010

Treknobabble is a play on technobabble, “technical jargon.” Technobabble – also known as technospeak – is a blend of technology and babble, and originated in the 1980s, “derived from or inspired by psychobabble, the title of a 1977 book by Richard Rosen.”

This list is by no means complete. What are you some of your favorite words from SF TV?

[Photo: CC BY 2.0 by Hey Paul]

Tolkien and the Bestiarium of Fantasy

We’re celebrating science fiction words and language all week at Wordnik. Today in honor of J. R. R. Tolkien’s birthday, we’re excited to have a guest post from Peter Gilliver, associate editor of the Oxford English Dictionary and author of The Ring of Words: Tolkien and the Oxford English Dictionary.

It is one thing to invent a word and give it life in some specific context; it is quite another to launch it successfully into the mainstream of language. The former is perhaps particularly easy in science fiction and fantasy, where there are new and invented worlds in which new and invented things must be called by their names, but often the exotic nature of the setting ensures that the new name remains confined to its original context. Sometimes a novel concept takes the fancy of other writers, and reappears in their writings under the same name; only rarely does it have enough universal appeal to break out into general circulation, as with H. G. Wells’s time machine and Karel Čapek’s robot (and Isaac Asimov’s robotics).

Perhaps science fiction has the advantage over fantasy here: scientific or technological developments may give reality, or at least real-world meaning, to the originally speculative concept of a science fiction author, whereas the world evoked by a fantasy author is often deliberately removed from reality, its features too intrinsically ‘other’ to be readily transplanted into a non-fantastical context. In our exploration of J. R. R. Tolkien’s distinctive contribution to the lexicon of English, The Ring of Words (2006), I and my co-authors observed how some distinctively Tolkienian words have been taken up by other writers, such as waybread by Ursula Le Guin, or pipeweed by Terry Pratchett. Writers may use one of ‘his’ words when more familiar alternatives are readily available: when Dianna Wynne Jones wrote ‘confusticate Mrs Sharp!’ in Charmed Life, for example, her choice of confusticate rather than confound or bother was surely a tribute (conscious or unconscious) to Tolkien’s use of this rare word in The Hobbit. Such tributes and echoes reflect Tolkien’s pervasive influence.

The names of the creatures of Middle-earth are something of a special case. Some of Tolkien’s distinctive usages in this category have joined the common currency of fantasy: for example, the average fantasy reader (or writer, or role-player) would know what a barrow-wight was even in a non-Tolkienian context. This is not, in fact, Tolkien’s coinage—barrow-wights are to be found in the writings of William Morris and Andrew Lang—but he certainly brought it to a wider public.

Several others of his creatures owe their names to Tolkien’s characteristic philological tendency: that of imagining what role an obsolete or cognate word would have had if it were still in use in modern English. Knowing, for example, that ent had been an Old English word for some (unspecified) kind of giant, Tolkien found it a handy name for the particular kind of tree-giant that he found himself writing about in The Lord of the Rings. Similarly, when he needed a name for a particularly evil and powerful kind of wolf, he could draw on Old Norse (in which the word vargr meant both ‘outlaw’ and ‘wolf’) and Middle High German (in which the related warc was a kind of monster) to come up with warg.

And then, of course, there is orc: a word of uncertain origins which by the nineteenth century—insofar as it survived at all—was simply one of many scarcely-differentiated words for nasty creatures, used to pad out lists such as that in Charles Kingsley’s historical novel Hereward: ‘things unspeakable,—dragons, giants, rocs, orcs, witch-whales, griffins, chimeras, [etc.]’. Tolkien needed a word for a particular kind of goblin-like creature, and he wasn’t happy with hobgoblin, imp, kobold, or with goblin itself. He settled instead on orc, both for what he called ‘its phonetic suitability’ and for its connection with Old English orc ‘demon’, and also adapted the word for his invented Elvish languages. The concept developed in his imagination over the decades to provide the archetypal bad guys of Middle-earth, not to mention many other fantasy milieux.

Arguably even more significant, however, than all the creatures which Tolkien added to the bestiarium of fantasy—including Balrogs, Woses, wraiths, and many others, not to mention hobbit, perhaps the most successful of all—is the effect his writings have had on two of the most important pre-existing creature-names: dwarf and, especially, elf. Tolkien’s dwarves draw heavily on Northern legend and so are perhaps not especially innovative, but they are more thoroughly characterized than most of their predecessors. He even managed to bring about a shift in spelling: dwarves, the plural form that he preferred, is now more common when referring to these creatures (though dwarfs persists in other contexts, such as astronomy).

Tolkien also played a major part in the radical transformation of the meaning of elf. The earliest elves mentioned in English texts were supernatural beings with fearsome powers, which they most commonly used for evil purposes; but by the time of Shakespeare they had declined in fearsomeness—and indeed in size—to diminutive, whimsical creatures, little different from fairies. Tolkien was unhappy with this diminished conception, and to the ‘faery’ people of his poems and legends—something like humans, but somehow greater, more ‘high’—after experimenting with various other words (including fairy) he gave the name elf, and the word has never been the same since.

Citing Sci-Fi

This weekend I stumbled across the Science Fiction Citations project for the OED, run by noted lexicographer and F Word author Jesse Sheidlower. It’s an effort to enlist public help in finding antecedents for words commonly used in science fiction. Citations are added at a slightly slower rate than on Wordie (there’s been one addition to SF Citations so far this year, and four in all of 2006), and the process is, relatively speaking, somewhat rigorous, as you might expect of the OED. But if you’re a serious fan of either science fiction or the OED, it could be a lot of fun. And c’mon–getting a citation in the OED would give you mad, mad Wordie cred.