Qapla’! How the successful adaption of lexicon from fictional media genres has led to a Eucatastrophe of linguistic evolution in world languages.
This is the second installment of a series focusing on language we use that has etymological origins from fictional cultures and genres
Only about 1% of the world’s languages are true isolates. Almost every major language spoken today has been influenced by other languages to some extent. And while some have only introduced a few words into their vocabularies to help them adapt to the increase in globalization the planet is currently experiencing, others have been radically transformed to the point where they are almost completely different from their original base language.
English itself began as a Germanic language. It was then heavily influenced by Latin, French, and several other languages spoken around the world as the British Empire expanded its influence and culture around the globe. Authors like Chaucer and Shakespeare also contributed to the evolution of the English language in the British Isles.
But within the past century, the explosion of the Information Age has created terminology and lingo originating not only from literature, but movies, comic books, radio, television, video games, the Internet, and recent social media platforms. While real world languages that are spoken today like German and historical languages like Latin have helped shape the English language, how much have fictional languages like Klingon, Newspeak, Quenya, etc. or terms heavily associated with genres like Doctor Who, Star Wars, or Superman actually have become real words we use in the English language? Has our lexicon also been influenced by mainstream artificial languages, such as Esperanto, Lojban, or Interlingua? In addition, have foreign languages been impacted by their own native forms of media in a similar manner, respectively?
Yet, how much have fictional languages influenced our lives directly? We actually do use real words in everyday life that originate not from languages that evolved from human civilization, but the collective cultural imaginations of many different cultures. The following examples are some of the more prominent terms that is used colloquially from media around the world.
Probably the most successful example of this linguistic anomaly comes from the classic 20th-century novel 1984 by George Orwell and the movie version that helped popularize its lingo even more widely. While several neologisms have been attributed to this work, three of the most popular terms that have arisen from the artificial language of Newspeak are “Big Brother”, “doublethink”, and “unperson”. The first two terms have become actual terms used in politics, as well as general speech, while the latter term “unperson” refers to stripping a human being of their humanity in multiple ways. The term unperson has gained even more meaning in the 21st-century as it is also an allusion to the deletion of friends and subscribers from social media accounts. A second definition for the word “unperson” might develop from new technological use in the coming years.
While words originating from 1984 with the language of Newspeak is one of the most successful examples of linguistic adaptation of a fictional language from a fictional world and general genre, several other examples of genres and cultures from fictional worlds have influenced our colloquial speech to an even greater extent.
LORD OF THE RINGS
Some of the best classic examples of this are words that come from the Tolkien worlds and languages. The Lord of the Rings has been a classic part of the world’s culture in the past century, and many terms are so commonplace that we don’t even recognize it offhand. In addition to the term “hobbit”, which derived from a note J.R.R. Tolkien wrote in 1937 to refer to a humanoid of short stature, some of well-known terms from Tolkien literature are “tween”, “orc”, “middle-earth”. The word tween is another name for the age range demographic that is also commonly referred to as “pre-teen”, somewhere between the ages of 10–12 years old. And while the term “orc” has its roots in the Old English word for “demon” (with the same spelling), the Lord of the Rings genre has popularized the significance of this word. Today it refers more to a humanoid possessing clumsy, grotesque and ogre-like traits than a “demon”. Even though the term “middle-earth” isn’t generally used in colloquial language, its association with Tolkien literature is a fairly well known neologism that is widely recognized by many people.
Several of the lesser known words which derive from Tolkien’s stories include “warg”, “mathom”, and “eucatastrophe”, the last term being used as part of the title of this article! The word eucatastrophe was invented in 1944 by Tolkien and is used to describe a “sudden and favorable resolution of events in a story; a happy ending.” And like the word orc, the terms mathom and warg originate from the Old English, but was popularized through Tolkien’s works. Mathom derives from the word ‘maðm’, an Old English term meaning “treasure” and typically refers to random items in a collection that generally are useless but have value by just being possessed. A warg is used to describe people with psychic abilities in Westeros within the Game of Thrones genre. It’s fascinating to think about how the final term has poetically connected the fantasy worlds of Lord of the Rings and Game of Thrones together!
The English words and names that come from fictional technologies and characters are so extensive you could write an entire dictionary of just those terms, the linguistic terminology that has the most impact on culture are the catch phrases and words that adapt to our everyday reality.
One of the most surprising examples of this comes from the famous sitcom Seinfeld. Aired in 1995, the episode “The Soup Nazi” introduces a disgruntled restaurant owner with a foreign accent that serves his customers in a very stringent fashion. If he disagrees with any of their behavior, they are cast away by the famous phrase “No soup for you!” This tongue-and-cheek scene became one of the most iconic scenes from the Seinfeld series. And as it caught on, the term “Soup Nazi” started to reference any person who strictly implements mundane everyday tasks, especially when they are trivial. Replace any term for soup, and the general meaning still fits. One can even say “No soup for you!” as a comical gesture for taking something away from someone else.
Another example of the impact that Seinfeld had on mainstream culture was the creation and popularization of the holiday of “Festivus” which was aired in the 1997 episode titled “The Strike”. This amusing variation of religious holidays is celebrated on December 23rd, by some people, especially those who are more secular and non-religious in their beliefs. The aluminum pole shown on the episode became so heavily associated with the holiday that a former governor of Wisconsin Jim Doyle displayed a Festivus Pole during the 2005 holiday season, which was later entered into the collection of the Wisconsin Historical Museum.
But it isn’t only neologisms that have entered the English lexicon from fictional realities in recent years, but idioms as well. The best example of this is from the 2007 video game Portal in which the player is promised a cake as a reward after doing several tasks in the game, but instead finds a wall with the message “The cake is a lie” written on it instead. The idiom has become used in the English language to describe a situation where the purported end of something being pursued is unobtainable or misguided, or a person being motivated by the promise of a gift in order complete something but not actually having the promised reward delivered. Within the past decade, this idiom has become a very commonplace reference in the English language and can only be understood if one references the video game as its base context.
LEXICON AND CULTURAL RELATIVITY
By far, the most prolific source for lexicon are the fictional TV, book, and movie genres that have heavy distinctions from our reality that have often turned into metaphorical cornerstones of modern culture. Our world would really be a different place if we did not have the socio-cultural impact from genres such as Star Trek, Star Wars, Game of Thrones, Harry Potter, and others. While the previous examples have either been relatively older examples of influential dramas or limited to one or two words, the more modern genres have had a much more profound and immediate impact.
And even more interestingly, some of the specific cultures portrayed within these genres have influenced our language beyond just a few catch phrases that have similarities to English words. Just as foreign languages like Finnish or Arabic have influenced our speech, so has speech portrayed by fictional, non-English speaking cultures such as the Klingons of Star Trek, the Na’vi of Avatar, the Dothraki of Game of Thrones, and the Hutts of Star Wars. Of all of these examples, Star Trek has had the most influence, at least in a linguistic sense.
Ask anybody who Captain Kirk or Mr. Spock are, or what a “warp drive” or a “transporter beam” is, and most people would have a general idea of what you are talking about, whether they are interested in the Star Trek genre or not. But beyond many of the aspects Star Trek has had on the real world are how the languages of alien cultures have been integrated into our everyday speech, whether we realize it or not.
Beyond the example mentioned in Part I of this series of a celestial object being called “mob nagh” in an astronomy paper, the Klingon language has proven to be the second or third most successful artificial language in history itself! Klingon music, Shakespearean translations, and even an entire organization dedicated to the language called the Klingon Language Institute have evolved from a conlang created by Marc Okrand in the early 1980s. But what are some other words that have entered English from one of the (if not the most) richest fictional cultures ever created?
One of the most recognizable Klingon words is “qapla’ ” which means “success” or “victory”, and is sometimes said by Klingon characters in Star Trek to wish themselves or others success in battle. When used in an English context, albeit mockingly, it can have the connotation of wishing yourself or someone “Good luck! Be successful or victorious in your endeavor!” Though it’s used in jest, its short and simplistic message is still often a legitimate source of motivation for the handful of Anglophones that use the phrase. With the expansion of the new TV series of Star Trek: Discovery that is out right now, as well as with plans for the Star Trek genre being expanded even more in the near future, it wouldn’t surprise me if this the use of this phrase also increases.
A very successful representation of Klingon culture and language into mainstream society are the Klingon hand weapons called a “Bat’leth” and “Mek’leth”, akin to a sword and knife. These are often must-have collector items for many Trekkies and are used primarily as wall displays as a deep representation of fandom, rather than being integrated into martial arts. The best example of this cultural crossover can be seen in the apartment of the character Sheldon Cooper in the hit sitcom The Big Bang Theory. Though they are generally used only as symbolic displays, the invented words of bat’leth and mek’leth would be completely unknown beyond what is seen onscreen in TV shows and movies.
Other words that originate from Klingon that are also sometimes used in everyday speech include “gagh” and “p’tak”. The former refers to a fictional Klingon dish of live worms and can be used in English as a metaphor for a pile of garbage. The latter is a pejorative term that roughly translates as “stupid human” (I think you can figure out how that can be transcribed into English speech occasionally).
No list of Star Trek neologisms can be stated without also mentioning the influence of the fictional culture of the Vulcans. The most famous Vulcan character is Mr. Spock from Star Trek: The Original Series. His use of the term “logic” reinvigorated the meaning in the English language. Interestingly, the two most prominent aspects of Vulcan culture that have become widely known in mainstream culture are not words, but rather gestures. Holding up the hand with the palm out and splitting the fingers in the middle is a Vulcan greeting on the show that means “Live long and prosper”. This gesture now has the same meaning in our body language. The Vulcan nerve pinch, a tight gripping of a vein on the neck to incapacitate someone, is also closely associated with the fictional culture.
Within the Vulcan language, the most well-known phrase is “pon farr”, the yearly mating ritual of the Vulcan people in the genre. This has become a humorous slang term in English that can refer to the sudden and unexpected sexual arousal in people. Other Vulcan terms include “kroykah” and “katra”. The term “kroykah” means something in between “stop” and “damn it” depending on the context of the situation it is used in. The term “katra” is something akin to a soul or one’s individual consciousness, but is still used as English slang term to humorously compare a person’s spiritual state of being in the context of the fictional Vulcan culture. This metaphor to something that is obviously not real often create amusing statements to compare with real world spirituality.
In addition to the major cultures mentioned in the genre, there are also many other important cultural phrases beyond character names and titles of technology have been integrated into mainstream culture as well.
One of the most famous imagined animal species shown in the Star Trek Universe is a “tribble”. Tribbles look like small balls of fur, but are famous for their reproduction habits as they are born pregnant and die after they give birth. Their population thus increases very quickly and they create swarms wherever they end up. The phrase that has developed from this iconic creature is thus “they breed like tribbles”, which has the same connotation as “breeding like rabbits” but with exponentially greater tone.
In quasi-similar manner, the term “redshirt” in the context of Star Trek denotes the concept that characters wearing red colored uniforms are the first to die in rough situations as many of the characters who have been the first people killed on away missions wore red colored uniforms.
Other prominent Trek terminology that has entered into our casual language include “You will be assimilated. Resistance is futile.” and the word “tranya”. The former is the chilling warning given by Borg cubes to ships they encounter before they are aggressively attacked and integrated into a collective of robotic zombies. One can imagine how this phrase has been used metaphorically for forceful integration of people into a societal situation against their will, as well as being used to denote the strength of an aggressor about to attack their opponent. The latter is the name of an alcoholic beverage featured in the episode original series of Star Trek “The Corbomite Maneuver” and has become a term used in jest to refer to fancy and exotic alcoholic beverages, as well as a code name used in the jargon of drug users to conceal the actual names of drugs they possess.
Like Star Trek, Star Wars has given us numerous character names and technological titles. However, terms and like “Jedi” and “the Force”, or phrases such as “May the force be with you” and “the Dark Side” are so ingrained in our culture that we often say them naturally and overlook their etymological origins in the mythology of Star Wars. Even the name Star Wars itself has been used in geopolitics, as the name was applied to President Reagan’s space technological development program in the 1980s!
A lesser-known term from Star Wars that has gradually gained wider usage is the derogatory term “nerfherder” used to refer to someone being a zoophile, or a person with sexual attraction to animals. This is often a common insult fans of Star Wars use to jokingly mock each other in everyday life.
In a more positive manner, Jediism is an actual recognized religion in Canada, originating from the religious beliefs prevalent in the Star Wars genre. Another example of Star Wars being publicly represented in Canadian culture is by the April 2018 discovery of the world’s largest striped karst cave, accidentally discovered in British Colombia during aerial observations of caribou herds. While the Canadian government consults local First Nations peoples about any potential cultural significance it may have for them before an official name is given, the generally accepted nickname for this location is “Sarlacc’s Pit”, which references the lair of the sarlacc creature on Tatooine in the sci-fi canon. And in turn, the nickname “Tatooine-planets” is sometimes used by astronomers to describe earth-like exoplanets that orbit double star systems beyond the Solar System. In the Star Wars movies, Tatooine was the name of the home world of Luke Skywalker, and was located in binary star system.
While genres like these often have had multiple examples of linguistic influence, other genres have had either some influence or some specific isolated cases. The term “kryptonite” from Superman has come to represent something that is a person’s ultimate weakness that they will automatically succumb to and be defeated by, despite possessing other strengths at the same moment conjointly. And just as the “man of steel” has become a modern mythological hero, so has the character Tarzan, who has the most distinctive and recognizable forms of yelling that people recognize. In addition to the “Tarzan yodel”, the Tarzan genre also gave us the word “tantor”, an alternative term for the word “elephant”. This name has also been adopted by an actual book publishing company.
Another term that has come from fiction that has been officially copyrighted is “TARDIS” from the BBC’s Doctor Who franchise that refers to the iconic British time traveling phone booth whose recognition is comparable to that of the USS Enterprise from Star Trek or the Millennium Falcon from Star Wars in the United States.
If you are safely trying to cross a street with heavy traffic that is widely spread out, then you are said “to be playing Frogger”, a reference to Frogger, a 1981 arcade game developed by Konami, in which the player directs frogs across a busy road and other hazards.
If you call someone a “tert”, then you might be referring to them using a racial slur for the human species in general used by alien immigrants to Earth in the science fiction Alien Nation series. (Likewise, humans used the racial slur “slag” to refer to the alien Tenctonese immigrants in the series. In addition to the name Tenctonese, another politically correct term for these beings in this series is “newcomer”).
And if you identify as a “Browncoat”, then you are a fan of the short lived space opera Firefly, as the characters in the western style sci-fi show are noted for wearing large, brown coats. Fans of Babylon 5 often joke about “spoo”, a dish of meal worms from the alien culture of the Narn’s from the show (which has similarities with the Klingon “gagh” from Star Trek). And fans of the Stargate franchise will immediately pay attention if they hear the word “kree”, as that is the call for “listen up” said by the Jaffa warriors from the Goa’uld language, which in itself was created with influence from Ancient Egyptian.
One of the most fascinating cases of a single phrase entering into mainstream lexicon comes from the comedy cartoon South Park in the 1998 episode “Chef Aid” where the phrase “Chewbacca Defense” is introduced. This term (also sometimes called “Chewbacca Law”), is an actual legal term that is sometimes used in courts to describe a situation where a lawyer deliberately creates a confusing statement to confuse the case of a prosecutor as a way to distract the opponent instead of refuting them. What makes this example so fascinating is that it comes from double sources of fictional genres, as it is a reference to the Star Wars character “Chewbacca” that speaks in only grunts and growls. This name was then used in a new phrase originating in an episode in South Park, and then eventually was adapted as actual term.
As you can see, there are many examples of fictional cultures and genres from the media that have influenced the development of the English language within the past century and helped define our sense of modernity. But what about non-English media in other languages and in different countries? Have they developed new lexicons in a similar manner as English has done? Also, what are popular genres of the 21st-century that are influencing the current development of the English language?
Let’s explore some foreign language examples of media-based linguistic development, as well as more recent genres and fictional cultures that are helping to shape the culture of the 21st-century! Stay posted for the next installment of this series.