October 27, 2004

Why do dictionaries hate geeks?

My officemates and I just discovered that Merriam-Webster and Random House disagree with us (and everyone who has ever read or watched any science fiction) about the meaning of "teleport". Here's the definition of "teleportation" from MW's 11th Collegiate: "The act or process of moving an object or person by psychokinesis". Psychokinesis is defined as "movement of physical objects by the mind without use of physical means". Which is, basically, telekinesis. But as every geek knows, teleportation is when you're transported from one place to another instantaneously, without physically passing through the intervening space. So...what up, my lexicographer homies? Why are you not down with what I'm pretty sure is currently the most common usage of the word "teleport"?

Mysterious. And the Random House Second Unabridged has the same problem. Does anyone have a dictionary that does include the sci-fi definition?

Posted by Francis at 07:19 PM | TrackBack

Sure: the OED defines "teleportation" as "The conveyance of persons (esp. of oneself) or things by psychic power; also in futuristic description, apparently instantaneous transportation of persons, etc., across space by advanced technological means" and has "teleport" as a back-formed verb. (The usage is "Psychics and Science Fiction".)

The word, if the OED citations are to be believed, referred to movement by mental power well before movement by technological power. I'm not perfectly clear as to what sort of movement it is, and it may be in the case that, in the field of "Psychics", the word really is synonymous with "telekinesis".

Even so, psychokinesis does leave open the possibility that the transfer is instantaneous; the only requirement is that it be done by mental power. And in the twin Geek fields of fantasy and science fiction, "transport[ation] from one place to another instantaneously" by mental power does exist. (Q on "Star Trek: the Next Generation", for example, and blink dogs in D&D, move from one place to another mentally. Michelle says the same is essentially true of the aliens in Xenocide, which I haven't read. In D&D, the "teleport" spell is movement by mental power; Steven Brust uses the word "teleport" to refer to Dragaerans' instantaneous movement from Point A to Point B by magic.)

Remember that the OED only recently undertook to add science fiction terms. (The OED, for instance, has the science fiction definition of "phaser"; MW does not.) Which does sort of bring one back to the question, why does MW happily include musical and scientific terms impenetrable to the layman, but not science fiction ones?

Posted by: Lance at October 27, 2004 08:32 PM

According to dictionary.com, Webster's New Millenniumâ„¢ Dictionary of English has the correct definition, to wit: to transfer or transmit instantaneously without physically traversing the space in between but rather by psychic or advanced technological means. I have heard it used for teleporting someone/thing psychically, but I assumed it was just a simile for the device we all know and love (and wish we had) (and still call TransMat sometimes).

WordNet 2.0 evidently has a briefer definition closer to the one I would have come up with: transport by dematerializing at one point and assembling at another.


Posted by: Vardibidian at October 27, 2004 08:34 PM

Saying that "Even so, psychokinesis does leave open the possibility that the transfer is instantaneous; the only requirement is that it be done by mental power" is giving the dictionary way too much credit. It's true that some sci-fi/fantasy teleportation happens via mental power -- but not all of it. I mean, MW's definition of "transport" is "to transfer or convey from one place to another", and they don't say that it doesn't mean "instantaneously, without traversing the intermediary space" (and certainly one could say "Zorgnax transported the fuel pods to the ship using the teleporter"), but that doesn't mean that "transport" means "teleport".

Posted by: Francis at October 28, 2004 12:32 PM

Update: The American Heritage dictionary offers only the sci-fi definition of teleportation -- "A hypothetical method of transportation in which matter or information is dematerialized, usually instantaneously, at one point and recreated at another" -- but does not include the word "teleport", oddly.

Posted by: Francis at October 28, 2004 02:33 PM

The New Oxford Dictionary of English (my fave, and not just because I was served as a "typical American" for consultation purposes) nails "teleport":

"verb (especially in science fiction) transport or be transported across space and distance instantly"

Wait, space AND distance? Cool.

There's also a noun form having to do with satellite uplinks. Never heard that before.

Possible explanation for why AH does not have 'teleport': NODE calls it a backformation from teleportation.

No mention of psychokinesis, fortunately. That's a crock.

Posted by: radosh at October 29, 2004 05:40 PM