New life for the free Historical Dictionary of Science Fiction

In the early 2000s, lexicographer Jesse Sheidlower, an editor at the Oxford English Dictionary, managed an internal side project to create an online Historical Dictionary of Science Fiction that would, in part, be fueled by submissions from SF fans themselves. Eventually, Sheidlower left the OED and the SF dictionary became cobwebby. Finally though, the OED gave Sheidlower permission to reboot the project on his own. From Smithsonian:

He continued to add terms and references, something made easier by two factors. First, over the past year, the forced inactivity during the pandemic gave him time to work. And second, staff and volunteers of the Internet Archive have uploaded more than 1,000 science fiction pulp magazines, making their entire contents accessible and searchable online….]

Sheidlower acknowledges that the dictionary is limited in the authors and terms it references, but he argues that this is a product of its mission: documenting the "core" vocabulary of science fiction that turns up again and again, both in stories and in the real world.

"When writers do more 'interesting' things, it becomes harder to include them in what is meant to be a study of the core vocabulary," he says. "Samuel Delany is quoted a number of times when he's writing about the usual space-travel stuff, but not much when he goes out of that range. There's only one quote from [Delany's dense, stylistically complex] Dhalgren, for example, but a lot from Babel-17, just as the OED has ten times more quotes from Ulysses than from Finnegans Wake."

Sheidlower says the dictionary, which he is continuing to update as a hobby, is still a work in progress. He anticipates expanding into related fields such as gaming, comics and anime. He also hopes to systematically add entries and quotations from books that have appeared in the ten years since the original phase of the project wrapped up. While Sheidlower has been doing most of the recent work himself, he is looking for volunteers to help out with tasks like checking citations, looking for quotations and drafting entries.

"A Dictionary of Science Fiction Runs From Afrofuturism to Zero-G" by Livia Gershon (Smithsonian)

image: Amazing Stories, March 1956