Friday, May 10, 2013


I recently adopted the word Interwebs, after puzzling over it and then gleaning online that the term began its life as one of George W. Bush’s malapropisms. I like the way it takes the slapstick to the word Internet, makes the medium seem, correctly, as stupid or smart as the people involved.
Participants in an early Go tournament in Pittsburgh, 1934.
            With his slip of the tongue, W. joined the longstanding project of science fiction writers to conjure up future slang. In the early 1930s, science fiction editor Ray Palmer ran a competition for new slang in his column “Spilling the Atoms” in the fanzine Time Traveller. The offerings weren’t great, for example, “Go Oil a Robot,” and “That’s gravitude for you.” Yet SF writers forged on, coining names for  technologies and practices alien to the present. Much of it was obsolete on delivery if you can "grok" what I'm saying.
             It took a mainstream novelist, Anthony Burgess, to invent a virtuosic slang that borrowed from Russian to animate his droogs' patter--for example, the joy Alex and pals feel after they "tolchock some old veck in an alley and viddy him swim in his blood."  
             Philip K. Dick, who projected a future where all was not gleaming, shimmering majesty, realized the true potential of such slang – offering up not linguistic bravado based on false utopian promise but instead words with a stale wholesale quality. Like his heroes, his slang was schlubby, schleppy, borderline mensch. When I first began reading his books, I found his invented names off-putting, irritating; the words looked dead, dispirited. Slowly I realized that they helped define a future that was slightly anemic, mildly dystopic, and at times downright psychotic.
            Dick’s characters read self-editing “homeopapes,” they lived in “conapts” (a term that still bothers me, but bothers me more when not a feature of his future worlds); they used “skins” (of alien fungi) or “crumbles” to buy products created in “autofacs.” If they are lucky they fly in their own “flapple” or “squib”—all this far from the heroic gadgets imagined in the 1930s by Hugo Gernsback and his fellow enthusiasts for space opera. When depressed, Dick heroes enter “Padre booths” for guidance. If marooned on a dystopic Mars, they take the drug Can-D with friends and set up a “Perky Pat” layout so all can become characters in the imaginary landscape of this Barbie-like figure.
           Dick’s slang created an architecture for perishable futures. If Dick was a pre-cog he saw that the future was never futuristic and in fact slipslided, usually in undesirable directions.

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