The Word

Set phasers to slang

dan schlitzkus for the boston globe

‘Star Trek” has had a profound influence on language. Little wonder, “Trek” has been around in film and on television since 1966, spawning a slew of sequels, including this month’s “Star Trek Beyond” film and a yet-to-be-named TV show coming in early 2017.

The years have produced a “Trek” lexicon that is rich and inescapable. Even if you’d never write a poem in Klingon, you’ve probably discussed a “mind-meld,” compared a corporation to the “Borg,” or jokingly said, “Beam me up, Scotty!” The multigenerational impact of the language of “Star Trek” has boldly transformed English.

The most obvious Trekisms are terms coined by the show, such as “cloaking device,” a gizmo that hides spaceships from detection. “Cloaking device” often turns up in discussions of real-life science with covert potential, such as a recent Ames Tribune article headlined, “ISU researchers create ‘meta-skin’ cloaking device.” Another versatile Trekism is “mind meld,” the Vulcan technique used by Spock when he needed to telepathically poke around in someone’s brain. The term first appeared in a 1968 script and is widely used. Consider a recent Associated Press article that said Donald Trump’s instincts “allowed a fabulously wealthy businessman to pull off a mind meld with the economic anxieties of ordinary Americans.” Terms such as “warp speed” and the “prime directive” were coined before “Trek” but are almost entirely associated with the show.


“Trek” has produced many alien races, and three of them have been lexically successful. Joining the Borg is an apt term for drinking the Kool-Aid or any other perceived loss of individuality, since the show’s Borg is an alien hive mind that ravenously absorbs individuals, for whom “Resistance is futile.” If you’re compared to a Klingon, you’re warlike and belligerent; if you’re compared to a Vulcan, you’re logical and emotionless. Spock, the most famous Vulcan, has become an even more specific reference point. For instance, Jeffrey Goldberg, in The Atlantic, said President Obama “is, by nature, Spockian.” “Spockian” (or synonyms such as “Spock-ish” or “Spock-y”) conveys a logical demeanor, which Spock gained from the Vulcan half of his heritage. Another popular use of “Spockian” is more physical, like when someone is described as raising a Spockian eyebrow.

Get Today in Opinion in your inbox:
Globe Opinion's must-reads, delivered to you every Sunday-Friday.
Thank you for signing up! Sign up for more newsletters here

Individual words aside, “You can’t beat ‘Star Trek’ for catchphrases,” as Michael Adams, Indiana University professor and author of “Slang: The People’s Poetry” and “Slayer Slang: A Buffy the Vampire Slayer Lexicon,” said in an e-mail. Adams said that phrases such as “Live long and prosper” are “part of our common speech now and demonstrate just how effective television can be at insinuating words and phrases into popular culture.”

Jeff Prucher, author of “Brave New Words: The Oxford Dictionary of Science Fiction,” notes that the staying power of such terms has been aided by multiple TV shows and movies across generations. Prucher said, “Other slang from the ’60s is very dated,” mentioning that today’s young’uns would likely be baffled by “Sock it to me,” a favorite from a contemporary of the original “Trek” series, “Laugh-In.”

Some “Trek” catchphrases have become snowclones: adaptable clichés that people repeat and use like Mad Libs, such as “X is the new Y.” Ever-gruff Dr. McCoy often said lines like “I’m a doctor, not a bricklayer” (or a mechanic, engineer, or escalator). Today, the expression has solidified into the form, “Damn it, Jim, I’m an X, not a Y,” as seen in the Twitter bio of Laura Stiers: “Damn it, Jim, I’m a copy editor, not a magician!” “Set phasers to stun” is often turned into the groan-worthy “Set phasers to fun” or “Set phasers to stunning” but can be modified with words as varied as awesome, blind panic, yabba dabba doo, and ignore.

The largest impact of “Trek” might not be on English at all but in the creation of an entirely new language: Klingon. Klingon has flourished like no other artificial language since it was developed by linguist Marc Orkrand for 1984’s “Star Trek III: The Search for Spock.” As Arika Okrent, author of “In the Land of Invented Languages,” said in an e-mail, “Words may have caught on here and there from ‘Clockwork Orange,’ or other fictional vocabularies, but Klingon offered not just a list of phrases, but a set of rules that you could use to make your own phrases.” So if you want to compose wedding vows or translate Shakespeare into Klingon you can. And many people do.


None of these terms, names, phrases, or languages would have succeeded without the rabid “Star Trek” fan base, whose members are famously called Trekkies by outsiders and Trekkers by fellow fans. In addition to spreading “Trek” terms, fans have enriched and to some extent invented the language of fandom. Adams said that “Trek” fans are “The source of slash fiction — fanfiction in which gay relationships between characters are proposed — and slashing: S/K for Spock and Kirk.” This led to the relationshipping (or “shipping”) that continues to this day in many fandoms, including Marvel fans who support Stucky, a romantic union between Steve Rogers (Captain America) and Bucky Barnes (the Winter Soldier). The fan term “Mary Sue” also started in “Trek” fan fiction. These days, a Mary Sue is any female character who seems a little too perfect — and often a little too much like the author. When a male character is written like a similarly self-flattering mirror, he’s a “Gary Stu.”

But even if you don’t know Gary Stu from Hikaru Sulu, there’s something about “Star Trek” that’s difficult to pooh-pooh. The optimism of Gene Roddenberry’s creation is embodied by the Vulcan saying “Live long and prosper,” and the whole “Trek”-verse feels like a similar wish on behalf of our species. When thinking about our ugly, earthly problems, it’s hard not to split your fingers in the Vulcan salute at the thought of a united, peaceful planet — even if it means we have to deal with the damned Borg.

Mark Peters is the author of the “Bull[expletive]: A Lexicon” from Three Rivers Press. Follow him on Twitter @wordlust.