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Leonard Nimoy William Shatner Star Trek 1968

Beam me up, dictionary: Star Trek in the OED

Star Trek is one of the most successful science-fiction franchises of all time: since the original TV series first aired in 1966, there have been four further live-action TV shows (plus an animated series), twelve films, and innumerable books. Only Star Wars and (particularly for the British) Doctor Who have achieved a comparable level of recognition among the general public.

It’s probably fair to say, though, that Star Trek is still perceived as a cult favourite, rather than having the wide appeal of a Star Wars. This is partly due to the attention given to the details of the imagined future in which Star Trek is set: rather than broad brush-strokes depicting the setting for an adventure story with scientific trappings, the technologies and cultures of the various species inside and outside the Federation are explored at length.

There are invented scientific processes and terminology, spaceship components and other imaginary technology, and scores of alien races, the vast majority of which would mean nothing to someone who’d never seen Star Trek. However, a small number of words and terms have embedded themselves in the English language sufficiently to be used and understood by many the world over. What are they, and what is it about them that enabled them to boldly go where so many failed?

Set phasers on stun…

A few of the Starship Enterprise’s many scientific wonders have entered more general parlance. Both of her types of armament, the phaser and the photon torpedo, are included in the Oxford English Dictionary. In the case of phaser (a word that already existed, but which had not previously been applied in this way to mean a weapon that produces a laser, or similar, beam), the similarity with the recently-coined maser (1955) and particularly laser (1960) is clearly intentional, and gives the impression that this is a futuristic device similar to, but not the same as, what was then cutting-edge technology.

The combination of photon and torpedo achieved a similar effect, by marrying a term from particle physics with the signature weapon of the submarine to create a new compound meaning a hypothetical nuclear weapon which uses the collision of matter and antimatter to generate a destructive force. As with starship itself (not a Star Trek coinage; this OED entry has not yet been updated, but our current evidence for this word in its science fiction sense dates back to the 1930s; when the entry is updated, it is likely that this will go back at least to the mid-1920s), the term implies a similarity between seagoing vessels and the spacecraft of the future.

Fortunately for the reputation of the Federation, some less bellicose features of starship design have also made it into the OED. Long before Star Trek first aired, science fiction writers had already ‘solved’ the problem of faster-than-light space travel in a post-Einstein world by invoking the principle of the (space) warp, a localized distortion of space-time that enables spaceships to circumvent the restrictions of general relativity. In Star Trek, though, ships not only travel at warp speed, they can also exceed the speed of light at different warp factors, thereby quantifying space travel in a layman-friendly fashion. This terminology now serves to give the hyperbolically-inclined a new way of saying ‘very quickly’.

Finally, although it cannot take the credit for teleport, and the relevant sense of transporter has not (yet) entered the OED, it seems that Star Trek did give us this sense of beam v.:

 To transport (someone or something) through space as if along a beam of light or energy (esp. up to a spacecraft)

 … as well as the corresponding intransitive sense (‘to travel through space in this way’). The phrase ‘beam me up, Scotty’, expressing one’s wish for a quick and painless escape from an undesirable situation, was inspired by, but not quoted directly from, the dialogue of the original TV series.

As we might expect, these entries relate to the most crucial of the Enterprise’s systems – how it moves through space, how it fights, and how its crew travel from ship to planet. Compared to these functions, even the handy tricorder (a hand-held scanning and data recording device) is of strictly secondary importance. It is a measure of Star Trek’s impact that these terms have joined death ray, hyperspace, and other indispensable components of the common lexicon of science fiction. However, they don’t really convey anything about the franchise beyond its popularity – after all, every common or garden space opera features energy weapons and exotic modes of transportation. Does our next category of words and expressions indicate something more distinctive?

Live long and prosper

The Klingons, of course, have been a proud and dangerous (albeit fictional) spacefaring race ever since the 1960s, and they have had such a cultural impact that they warrant their own entry in the OED, covering the two senses of the noun (and their adjectival equivalents): ‘A member of a fictional humanoid alien race featuring in the U.S. television series Star Trek and in subsequent associated series, films, publications, etc.’, and the language they speak, famous in its own right as an example of an impressively thorough and detailed artificial language.

However, as the definition given above indicates, in general English usage the word Klingon is usually a mere synonym for ‘alien’, maybe ‘hostile alien’, but lacking the resonance of the proud warrior culture familiar to all Star Trek fans. Perhaps this is partly due to their initial status as recurring antagonists in the original 1960s series, out of which their more distinctive features only gradually developed. In any event, as far as the non-fan is concerned, there is little that makes a Klingon different from a Martian.

The same, however, cannot be said of the Vulcans, as we can see from sense 6 of this recently updated OED entry:

‘A member of a fictional human-like alien race in the U.S. television series Star Trek, and related films, books, etc. Also in extended use: a person perceived as having characteristics typical of this race; spec. someone who is excessively logical or who demonstrates suppression of normal human emotions, a lack of humour, etc.’

The Vulcans’ influence does not end there. Alongside Vulcan as a noun and adjective, the OED includes the Vulcan nerve pinch, that notorious one-handed knockout move, and the Vulcan mind-meld, which, as it sounds, is the psychic fusion or two or more minds. For an imaginary species, the Vulcans have had an impressive effect on the English language! Or at any rate, one particular Vulcan has…

As the definition at VULCAN n. 6 goes on to note:

 The half-Vulcan, half-human Mr Spock is one of the principal characters in the series, and is characterized esp. by his logical, unemotional thinking and pointed ears.

It is of course Spock, despite his half-human heritage, who typifies the Vulcan race as far as Star Trek is concerned, and Spock who first demonstrated the unearthly effects of the nerve pinch and the mind meld. The latter two items we might perhaps dismiss as mere plot devices that have somehow become fixed in the pop-culture driven collective unconscious of modern society, but I am inclined to think it really rather interesting that a fictional alien race has become so well known that it can be used to say something, no matter how small, about the human condition. As Spock himself might say, illogical – but fascinating.


Photo credit: “Leonard Nimoy William Shatner Star Trek 1968” by NBC Television [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons.

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