Posts Tagged ‘language’

It’s the end of finals week here.  This is first finals week in years where I wasn’t staring at a stack of student essays to grade.  Not having any grading to do was pretty amazing, to be honest, but I did sort of miss the puzzling, and sometimes entertaining, errors in usage/word choice/phrasing that students make.

So, since I didn’t get to snicker at hurried, end-of-term, student essays with somewhat understandable mistakes, I kept a list of annoying word usages that I came across in more official/professional writing. I found enough that this could be a weekly thing.  These are a few I think most worthy of comment and debate:

Luddite (context: nearly every article about Thomas Pynchon allowing his catalog to be digitized): 

I’ll concede that arguing this one is a lost cause, and I’m all for the evolution of language and words.  However, as someone who has read extensively on the history of technology and industrialism, I can’t just let it slide without getting a little pedantic.  While the modern usage means something like: “A person who eschews, or even fears, modern technology,” the source of the term implies something a bit different (and there’s this word “technophobe” one might use instead).  The original Luddites weren’t against technology . . . not in the broad sense.  Luddites were rebelling against specific technologies in the textile industry that supplanted them as workers and, basically, made them beggars.  For right or wrong, there was a political and ethical motivation to the Luddites’ position that went beyond mere technophobia . . . a motivation that was a precursor to other workers movements.  It is worth remembering that.

(You may want to read Thomas Pynchon’s essay “Is it OK to be a Luddite?”)


At the prompting of a friend, I read this Slate review of Jane Rogers’s The Testament of Jessie Lamb, which recently won the Arthur C. Clarke Award.  I have yet to read the book, but in a brief note thanking my friend for the heads-up I couldn’t help but add:

“The Slate reviewer really should know better than to use “sci-fi” as a shorthand for “science fiction” if she wants people who read the genre to not dismiss her opinion offhand.”

Snarky? Nitpicky? Maybe. However, I doubt most regular readers of science fiction who have followed the genre for a while would not also notice the usage in the review, which implicates the  author as somewhat unaware of the genre’s history (and, as my response implies, therefore maybe not particularly qualified to review the book?).**   The term “sci-fi” is contentious for many people who write and read science fiction, and when they use it, it is often aimed at “low-brow,” space-opera stuff.  Wikipedia has a reasonably good summary of the history of the term in the article on Science Fiction:

As science fiction entered popular culture, writers and fans active in the field came to associate the term with low-budget, low-tech “B-movies” and with low-quality pulp science fiction.[39][40][41] By the 1970s, critics within the field such as Terry Carr and Damon Knight were using sci-fi to distinguish hack-work from serious science fiction,[42] and around 1978, Susan Wood and others introduced the pronunciation “skiffy“. Peter Nicholls writes that “SF” (or “sf”) is “the preferred abbreviation within the community of sf writers and readers”.[43]David Langford‘s monthly fanzine Ansible includes a regular section “As Others See Us” which offers numerous examples of “sci-fi” being used in a pejorative sense by people outside the genre.[44] The abbreviation SF (or sf) is commonly used instead of “sci-fi”.

So, people within the science fiction “community” saw that “sci-fi” was being used in the mainstream to label and discuss the genre; simultaneously they noticed that the genre was seen as trashy, juvenile, escapist, et cetera by this same mainstream (at least in part because a bunch of it, like any other genre, actually was all of these things, which is not necessarily a bad thing). So the response to this, rather than anything more nuanced, was to distinguish between “science fiction” (or “SF”) and “Sci-Fi.”  The former is serious and important (or at least tries to be).  The latter looks something like this:

Note that one of the authors featured in this issue is also mentioned in the wikipedia entry cited above.