Wednesday, May 7, 2008

Egghead Expressions

Being the extraordinary geek that I am (or, to put it more nicely, being the avid and thorough intellectual), I decided to look up and watch the first few episodes of the original Doctor Who series (1963), with William Hartnell as The Doctor.

Aside from the obvious differences in cinematic freedom and convention, there were some linguistic issues that caught my attention. Watching a science-fiction show half a century afterwards is revealing in the way that science has actually progressed, as well as the vocabulary that it's developed. Things that the scriptwriters hoped would sound "scientific" may end up sounding tautological or empty.

The first of the two lines which caught my attention was the Darlek's use of the verb "explode":
"We will have to explode another neutron bomb"
Very odd phrasing. Why might that sound odd to us today? The verb "explode", which in contemporary experience is used commonly in the passive, is also almost exclusively used in the intransitive. But is there even a historical basis for a transitive "explode"?

According to the OED, there is! But the most recent cited examples extend from the early 1800s, which seems reasonable to then assume it hasn't been in common usage since. Therefore, a sesquicentury later, it would still seem odd to use "explode" in such a way, and of course, two centuries later, it would definitely sound unnatural. In any case, wouldn't "detonate" or "ignite" have sounded more scientific anyway to the scientists of the 'sixties?

The second, which perhaps accesses a more common experience, was (again) the Darlek line:
"Displaying [surveillance video] now on frequency six"
Most people nowadays might have said, "now showing [blah] on screen", or "on channel six". But to say "frequency six" sounds odd, especially when the units of frequency isn't offered.

Sorta makes one wonder how hollow Startrek expressions will sound to our science-minded grandchildren. Or, will they perhaps set the standard for such new technologies in the future?

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