Wormhole: a useful word from the dirt to the cosmos
Reading the news generally makes me want to read my own obituary, so I take refuge in comic books and science fiction. I also love science news, which often puts sci-fi to shame with headlines such as ‘Three New Species of Freaky Ghost Fish Were Discovered in The Pacific Ocean’ and ‘The Universe’s Strongest Material is a Cosmic Lasagna’. You can’t beat escapism that’s peer-reviewed.
Both science fiction and science fact frequently include a word that epitomizes the desire to escape: wormhole. From the grubby dirt to the final frontier – and a new use related to Bitcoin – a wormhole is an underappreciated tunnel to lexical wonder.
Like so many words, current OED research finds the first example in Shakespeare, who used it at least twice:
Old Will’s first example is literal, but the second takes the term in a metaphorical direction that foreshadowed a future beyond wood and fruit. As Marcus Woo describes in a recent Live Science article: ‘Wormholes are cosmic shortcuts, tunnels burrowing through hyperspace. Hop in one end, and you could emerge on the other side of the universe – a convenient method of hyperfast travel that’s become a trope of science fiction.’
Wormholes have been discussed in theoretical physics since the 1950s. The first known example is from a 1957 article by Charles Misner and John Archibald Wheeler in Annals of Physics, which mentions, ‘…a net flux of lines of force through what topologists would call a handle of the multiply-connected space and what physicists might perhaps be excused for more vividly terming a “wormhole”.’
This accessible term for a bananas concept has been embraced by science fiction. Wormholes have been prominent in Farscape, Interstellar, Stargate, and Star Trek. In the mythological sci-fi of Thor: Ragnarok, Sakaar is a planet surrounded by gateways, and the biggest is described as a wormhole: it’s also known as the Devil’s Anus. But if wormhole and Satan’s pooper seem too crude for naming such a fabulous cosmic construct, you can always use the term Einstein-Rosen bridge.
I asked Jeff Prucher, editor of the Oxford Dictionary of Science Fiction, about wormhole. He said, ‘the earliest SF use I’m aware of is Joe Haldeman’s ‘The Forever War’ (first pub. 1974)’ but he suspects the term may have appeared earlier than that. ‘It’s such a convenient thing,’ Prucher said, ‘you’d think someone would have noticed that physicists were talking about it, but you never know.’
Outside science and sci-fi, wormhole can offer instantaneous travel to more down-to-earth destinations. An example from the Los Angeles Times collected on the Merriam-Webster website shows the term’s versatility: ‘The most massive rap website to emerge from the era was WorldStarHipHop, which rewrote the template in comic sans and offered dystopian wormholes of street rap, twerking videos and amateur fistfights shakily taped on cellphones.’ An article about college football shows how easy it is to get lost in statistics: ‘Iowa football #PaintedTower Mailbag: Let’s go down the QB completion percentage wormhole.’ Dan Rather has called the Donald Trump era ‘a wormhole of the absurd’. A mysterious gift on a recent episode of The Big Bang Theory opened up ‘The Wedding Gift Wormhole’.
These examples are close cousins of rabbit hole, which involves a more adorable mammal but a similar lexical journal. Literal rabbit holes have probably been discussed as long as there have been rabbits, but the term has been found in print since the 1600s. In the twentieth century, we begin seeing the term as a metaphor, inspired by 1865’s Alice in Wonderland by Lewis Carroll. A 1938 use from the Yale Law Journal is the oldest known such example, describing an adventure that sounds a little less exciting than Alice’s: ‘It is the Rabbit-Hole down which we fell into the Law, and to him who has gone down it, no queer performance is strange.’ A Newsweek example from 1975 may involve a few wise guys: ‘We slid down a rabbit hole into a Boston underworld where small-time hoods were already hard at work.’ And a 1988 article from Toronto’s Globe & Mail asks a timeless question: ‘Did I just fall down a rabbit hole, is the irrational in the ascendancy?’
Cryptocrap aside, the wormhole is one of our most potent words, naming a hole in an apple as easily as a zoomway through the cosmos, promising the kind of quick escape we could all use in these dystopian days. Wormhole simultaneously names our highest aspirations and our lowest reality: we want to hop from star to star, but we can’t stop burrowing through the dirt.