Sciency Words: (proper noun) a special series here on Planet Pailly focusing on the definitions and etymologies of science or science-related terms. Today on Sciency Words, we’re talking about:
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.
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.