Sciency Words: Dreadnought

Sciency Words: (proper noun) a special series here on Planet Pailly focusing on the definitions and etymologies of science or science-related terms.  Today’s Sciency Word is:


Okay, this isn’t really a scientific term.  It’s more of a science fiction thing.  This week, I ended up watching a video on YouTube about how science fiction borrows and sometimes misuses terminology from the navy.  If you’re a Sci-Fi fan, and especially if you’re a Sci-Fi creator, I think this video is worth your time.

For me, the most interesting of these terms was dreadnought, a word that literally means “I fear nothing.”  In Sci-Fi, dreadnoughts tend to be the biggest, scariest, most overpowered spaceships out there.  If you’re going into battle against a dreadnought, well… I guess it was nice knowing you.

In real life, the term dreadnought comes from the H.M.S. Dreadnought, a massively oversized, massively over-armed battleship that first went out to sea in 1906.  The idea for this ship was championed by Admiral Sir John Fisher, later known as Baron Fisher.

I couldn’t resist showing you Baron Fisher’s coat of arms. Note the family motto on the bottom. Image courtesy of Burke’s Peerage.

Admiral Fisher wanted an all-big-guns ship. No small guns.  No middling-sized guns.  Only the largest guns available at the time would be large enough for the H.M.S. Dreadnaught.  According to this article, the Dreadnought triggered something of an arms race between Britain and Germany, with each country trying to out-dreadnought the Dreadnought, so to speak.

Thus we have a case of what linguists call semantic generalization.  The specific name of one vessel became a generalized term for all the ships that followed a similar design philosophy.  And now the term has been adopted by the Star Trek and Star Wars universes, and many other Sci-Fi universes besides.

Personally, I think dreadnoughts in science fiction have become a bit cliché.  They’re the biggest, baddest ships in the galaxy, and yet somehow the good guys always find a way to blow them up.  But now that I know the history of the term, I kind of want to fit some dreadnoughts into my own Sci-Fi universe—probably in some clever, punny way that honors Admiral Fisher and the original H.M.S. Dreadnought.

10 thoughts on “Sciency Words: Dreadnought

  1. I think the broader issue is how relevant naval concept are to space. Sci-fi seems preoccupied with fitting space warfare into 18th-21st century naval warfare paradigms. My suspicion is that it will be its own thing with its own concepts. Admittedly, that puts a much heavier burden on world building.

    Liked by 2 people

    1. I do think it makes sense to look to modern navies as an example of how a space military might operate. But it would be good to pull inspiration from other sources as well, like the Air Force or NASA, and then there are older historical sources as well. The ancient Greeks and Romans had very different kinds of navies than we do today, and there’s a lesson to be learned from them about how the technology you have shapes the way you fight wars.

      Liked by 1 person

  2. The Royal Navy is currently building the latest Dreadnought, planned to enter service in 2028. Unlike the original battleship, the new Dreadnought-class will be ballistic missile nuclear submarines.

    Liked by 2 people

  3. Ah yes the Dreadnought… I kind of wonder why they adopt them becasue it seems five minutes after one show’s up it’s destroyed.
    As a point the Dreadnaught class ship was banned in the treaty of Versailles which prompted the germans to create what we called ‘pocket battle ships’

    Liked by 1 person

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