Where Do Common Science Fiction Terms Come From?

Science fiction is filled with made up words, and sometimes entire languages. Here we explore the origins of 7 common ones.
Christopher McFadden

Science fiction, like any fiction, makes use of a wealth of terms and words to take us on a journey of adventure. But sci-fi writers, in particular, are famed for their inventive use of new terms and words to describe future technologies and alien worlds.

Here we highlight seven such terms and attempt to answer some common question about made-up languages from the world of science fiction.


What is a made-up language called?

The official technical term for a made-up language is artificial, or constructed language. This can sometimes be abbreviated to conlang, for short.

Such languages, like Dothraki and Klingon, tend to be invented and developed by a single person or small group of individuals, rather than a natural development over time as part of an established culture, as happens with most languages. 

"Some constructed languages are designed for use in human communication (like Esperanto). Others are created for use in fiction, linguistic experiments, secret codes, or simply because the maker likes to play language games.

Constructed languages can be split into a priori languages, which are developed from scratch, and a posteriori languages, which borrow words and grammar from existing languages," according to The Art of Language Invention (via Wikipedia).

What are the two fictional languages Duolingo teaches?

If you are interested in learning some fictional languages, you might want to consider downloading Duolingo. This free-to-use app can help teach you many languages, such as French and Spanish, from around the world, and from other worlds including, amusingly, Klingon (from Star Trek) and High Valyrian (from The Game of Thrones). 

For many fans of these two fictional series, both languages have taken on a cult status of their own, with some fans spending the time to flesh out an entire lexicon and grammatical structure for them.

Klingon itself was developed, it is commonly claimed, by Marc Okrand, James Doohan and Jon Povill in the 1960s. According to some sources, as of 1996, there were around a dozen or so "fluent" speakers. 

It has since become one of the most commonly-learned fictional languages around the world.

High Valyrian, or the language of the old Valyrian Freehold on the Eastern continent of Essos, was developed by George R. R. Martin and David J. Peterson. According to Peterson, when he first created High Valyrian for Season 3, there were about 500 words in it - and by Season 8, there were around 2,000 words in it.

Since we are on the subject of The Game of Thrones, another popular language, Dothraki, was also originally developed by George R. R. Martin and later fleshed out by David J. Peterson.

Amazingly, according to the Huffington Post, in 2018, 560 girls were given the Dothraki name "Khaleesi" in the U.S. alone.

Some examples of science fiction terms

Here are some selected science fiction terms that have made it into common parlance. Some of them have even made it into official dictionaries. 

Trust us when we say the following are far from exhaustive and are in no particular order. 

1. "Utopia" and "Dystopia" are actually quite old sci-fi terms

The word utopia is one of the more commonly used terms in science fiction, but where does it come from? As it turns out, the word is quite an old one.

It first appeared in Thomas More's 16th century works on political philosophy. It is a construction of the Greek words for "not" (ou), and "place" (τόπος), a pun on the almost identical Greek for "good" (eu) "place." More may have been trying to imply that a perfect place does not exist.

The term dystopian ("bad place") first appears in an 1868 speech by John Stuart Mill (a British philosopher) in the British House of Commons. Mill was reflecting on the impossibility of establishing a utopia because all natural laws are influenced by human will, which is imperfect. 

2. "Cryostasis" entered the sci-fi lexicon in the 1970s

Cryostasis, or keeping someone in suspended animation for extended periods of time, is a common theme in science fiction films and literature. Its origins come from the word cryogen which was first coined in the late 19th Century to describe substances used to obtain low temperatures like refrigerants. 

The concept was more widely applied to preserving humans in the 1960s when Robert Ettinger, inspired by a book he read in his youth, founded the Cryonics Institute in Clinton Township, Michigan. Ettinger had also used the term in a short story he wrote in 1947 and later published a popular book on the subject.

It wouldn't be until the mid-1970s that the actual term would first appear. Cryogenics as a term was first used in Alice Bradley Sheldon (writing as James Tiptree Jr.) in her book A Momentary Taste of Being.

3. "Hive Mind" is another common sci-fi term

sci-fi terms hive mind
Source: Rebecca Leaman/Flickr

This is another common theme and term used in science fiction. It first appears in James H. Schmitz's 1950 story Second Night of Summer.

In this story, humans on a planet are attacked by an alien race, the Halpa, who are believed to be connected through a "hive mind" intelligence. 

According to sites like Gizmodo, it would reappear as a word in the early-1970s when it appears in an article by the Daily Telegraph:

"The social and aesthetic attitudes have been passed through the homogenizer of the bureaucratic hive-mind."

4. "Blaster" also has an interesting origin

According to the Merriam Webster dictionary, the word blaster has its origins in the mid-1570s. But it doesn't necessarily have the meaning we tend to associate it within science fiction:

"Someone or something that blasts something. Such as:

  1. One whose work is shattering or demolishing something (such as rock) with an explosive device or agent
  2. something that produces a loud sound."

5. The rise of the robots!

In its more modern use, this sci-fi term seems to have first appeared in Nictzin Dyalhis' 1925 work When the Green Star Waned. But it should be noted it was spelled with an o rather than an e. 

sci fi terms robot
Source: Dick Thomas Johnson/Flickr

"Robot" is probably one of the most widely used science fiction terms and one that is also common in everyday speech. It is also a word that has one of the most famous origins. 

Karel Čapek, for his 1921 play Rosumovi Univerzální Roboti (Rossum's Universal Robots), used a Czech word for forced feudal labor, robota. But, it should be noted that these were more like artificial humans than the mechanical machines we tend to think of as robots today. 

An associated term, robotics, first appears in Isaac Asimov's later works. 

6. Posthuman had a different meaning originally

The term 'posthuman' is another word commonly used in science fiction literature and films. It appears to have been used in H. P. Lovecraft's 1936 novel The Shadow Out of Time.

However, unlike how we tend to associate this with superhumans, it was originally used to refer to a species that might follow us after our extinction. 

It would later become associated with critical theory.

7. "Spaceship" has been used for a while now

sci-fi terms spaceship
Source: Pixabay

The term "Spaceship" is commonly used today. The origin seems self-explanatory - simply adding "space" in front of a common nautical term, but its origin is older than you may first think.

Its first use appears to have been in a January 1880 Pall Mall Gazette review of Percy Greg's novel Across the Zodiac. Others often cite as its first use John Jacob Astor IV's 1894 novel, set in the year 2000. It's called A Journey in Other Worlds: A Romance of the Future.

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