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Beam me up, Scotty!

Star Trek has been a global phenomenon for many years. Its first series back in the sixties may have been judged a failure by the network bosses, its low budgets, poor production values and bad acting may make it risible now, but its accumulated linguistic influence has been substantial. So has its sequel The Next Generation, which greatly enlarged and extended the concept. The more recent extensions, Deep Space Nine and Voyager, have not had the same impact on the language.

Its invented terminology — dilithium crystals, transporters, cloaking devices, replicators, warp drives, mind meld — has become familiar (even if the physics is more than a little wonky). The catchphrases from the original series — “It’s life, Jim, but not as we know it”, “I’m a doctor, not a ...”, and “Beam me up, Scotty” — are familiar to many unborn when it was first transmitted (even if, in the case of the last of these, it was never actually said: compare Humphrey Bogart’s “Play it again, Sam” in Casablanca). Even the split infinitive in the title sequence that offended many purists — “to boldly go where no man has gone before” — has had its sharp edges of offence rubbed off by long familiarity; perhaps even by the growing consciousness that there’s really no such thing as a split infinitive in English and that altering the word order would destroy the emphasis. The producers changed it for The Next Generation and I was fascinated and delighted to discover that they’d gone PC but hadn’t altered the grammar, making it “to boldly go where no one has gone before”.

So when a Californian inventor recently patented a device that uses a laser beam to ionise the air so an electric current can be carried along it to stun or kill someone, journalists had no need to flounder for a suitable name. Just call it a phaser and everybody will know exactly what you mean. Actually, the similarities are so great as to be almost uncanny and the inventor will have a hard job making any other name for his device stick. A major difference at this prototype stage is that the fictional device is hand-held, whilst the real one takes up a space “the size of a kitchen table” according to reports (it seems that “kitchen table” has now become a standard unit of measurement). I presume that the real device doesn’t cause its victims to vanish most elegantly in a cloud of violet smoke. The term phaser was created as a blend of phase and laser. The late Gene Roddenberry, the series’ originator and executive producer, said in 1968: “we realized that lasers might very well become commonplace by the time the show got on the air. We decided to say phaser instead. The reason we picked phaser is the phasing principle in physics in which power can be increased. It was logical, and it sounded good, so we used it”.

Another military application under development seeks to make warships invisible to radar and, you’re right, it’s been dubbed a cloaking device. And when some recent scientific speculation suggested it might be possible to travel faster than light, the term warp drive was ready to hand for the headlines. (Actually, warp in this sense is older than Star Trek; it and the fuller term space warp had been in use since the 1930s as convenient hand-waving terms, supposedly based on some distortion of the shape of space, for ways of defeating the light-speed barrier. But so far as I can make out, warp drive was invented for the programme.)

Other terms have come out of the huge fan base which the series has inspired, in which individual fans are called Trekkers or Trekkies (a pejorative term that some even apply to themselves, in the rueful way of oppressed minorities). A sub-set of these fans, mostly female I gather, write a kind of romantic pornography called K/S (short for Kirk and Spock), on the assumption that they must have a homosexual relationship going. More generally in SF fandom such stories of male-male pairings among the characters of serials (less commonly female-female) are known as slash fiction, and now refer not only to characters in the original Star Trek series but also to its later incarnations as well as other series like Babylon Five and The X-Files.

And, in a linguistic development which could not have been imagined when the series started, the Klingon language has been invented (there are even Klingon fonts available online to write it in). The authoritative source is Marc Okrand’s Klingon Dictionary, which includes not only invaluable warriorlike words such as “jegh” (surrender), but also phrases such as “tachDaq maghom” (we will meet in the cocktail lounge) and “Du’IHchoHmoH mIvvam” (this helmet suits you). The possibility of Klingon slash fiction fills me with mild apprehension.

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Copyright © Michael Quinion, 1996–. All rights reserved.
Page created 6 Aug. 1996
Last updated: 5 Nov. 2003

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The English language is forever changing. New words appear; old ones fall out of use or alter their meanings. World Wide Words tries to record at least a part of this shifting wordscape by featuring new words, word histories, words in the news, and the curiosities of native English speech.

World Wide Words is copyright © Michael Quinion, 1996–. All rights reserved.
This page URL: http://www.worldwidewords.org/articles/startrek.htm
Last modified: 5 November 2003.