The Poetry of the 'Verse

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The Language of Time Travel

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First aired: The Signal: Season 7, Episode 4
Written by Helen Eaton
Read by Helen Eaton
Edited by Helen Eaton

I love language. I’ve been analysing languages my whole working life and my enthusiasm is yet to wane. I love reading and writing, word puzzles and puns, cryptic crosswords and poems. And I love – just, love – the language of Firefly and Serenity. I love the care and attention that went into creating a natural and believable way of speaking, which at the same time is incredibly distinctive.

So what is it that makes the language of the ‘verse so special? What are the ingredients that come together to create the way the characters speak? In this article, I’m going to tackle just one of those ingredients: the combination of the old and the new. Joss Whedon described Firefly as a whole as “a show that took the past and the future and put them together by making them feel like the present”. This could also apply very aptly to the language specifically.

One way in which the past is brought into the language of Firefly is through the revival of words which have fallen out of use on Earth-that-still-is today:

You sanguine about the kinda reception we're apt to receive on an Alliance ship, Captain?
Absolutely. What's sanguine mean?
Sanguine, hopeful. Plus, point of interest, it also means bloody.
Well, that pretty much covers the options, don't it?

I could spend a long time simply listing the weird and wonderful words that we hear in Firefly, but here are just a few of my favourites: frippery, birddogging, foofaraw, brainpan, palaver, passel, sistren, blubberous, shindig, tweaked, sasquatch, addlepated, Grizwald. All words that add richness to the language of the ‘verse.

There are some words and phrases that set us very much in the past: “bound by law”, “spoiled dandy”, “whole mess a’ pistols”, “pretty fits” and Kaylee’s memorable “twixt my nethers”, for example. Taken together with the new words used in Firefly, and the old words used with new meanings, these phrasings form a temporal melting pot out of which the language of the ‘verse emerges.

Some of the words in this melting pot are common today, but have undergone a semantic shift by the time they reach the ‘verse. Chief amongst these is, of course, “shiny”:

Shiny. Let's be bad guys.

I find it very believable that in five hundred years from now, no one is saying “cool” and another adjective has taken its place. In current usage, “shine” can mean to excel at something. Someone can “shine at maths” for example, or be a “shining example of politeness”. It isn’t much of a leap to take the adjective derived from the verb and have it mean excellent.

Another example of semantic shift can be seen in the word “sly” to mean gay:

You're not sly, are you? ‘Cause I got my boys...
Sly? No. I lean toward womenfolk. Just, one thing at a time.

The change in meaning here is less easily reconstructed in comparison to that of “shiny”. Today, “sly” tends to have negative connotations, meaning crafty, covertly (in the sense of “on the sly”) or even illicit, but I don’t think this necessarily means that homosexuality is viewed negatively in the ‘verse. The way Mal reacts when Nandi uses the word does not suggest that, at least. Words change in meaning all the time. Bad can become good.

Bad can also stay bad, as in the case of “reaver”. This word may sound newly created for the ‘verse, but it is derived from the current (though archaic) English word “reave”, meaning to raid, plunder or take by force, which is wholly appropriate for the reavers of the ‘verse.

And then we have “gorramn”, a word which has not changed in meaning, but in pronunciation.

The gorramn Reavers followed us! / Gorramn it, let’s get us moving. / Gorramn freak’s completely off her axel!

When I first heard this word used in Firefly, the linguist in me rejoiced. The sound change from “d” to “r”, creating “gorramn” from “goddamn” is a very natural one in languages all round the world and so common that it even gets its own name – rhotacisation. The word “gorramn” is following a well-worn path of sound change, in the footsteps of words such as “begorra”, which came from “by God”. Even the presumably unintentional variation in spelling in the shooting scripts between a final “m” and “n” in “gorramn” fits nicely with the idea of a word in flux.

Many existing English words are used without alteration to describe the ‘verse and life in it.

Wheel never stops turning, Badger.
That only matters to the people on the rim.

The words “core”, “border” and “rim”, for example, not only describe the geography of the ‘verse, but also tell us something of what to expect of life in the different areas. “Core” suggests importance and attention, “border” tension and conflicts, and “rim” isolated and ignored. And then there is “the black”, which is also an evocative term for me, suggesting the grandeur but also the loneliness of space. Similarly, “blackrock”, stressed carefully to show that it is not a “black rock”, is the perfect term for a failed attempt at terraforming. And as befits people who live in a system with dozens of planets and hundreds of moons, we hear the expressions “moon-brained”, “sure as a hundred moons”, “turn of the worlds” and “every world spinning”.

Mal, this isn't the ancient sea. You don't have to go down with your ship.

The language of space travel in Firefly takes much of its vocabulary from seafaring. Words like “cruiser”, “scow”, “lifeboat”, “aft”, “helm” and “sail” and phrases such “dead in the water”, “on the drift” and “haul anchor” are used in relation to space ships. There are also some more technical terms, such as “pulse beacon”, “primary buffer panel”, “nav sat trajectory”, “compression coil” and many others. When I started looking for these terms, I was surprised how many there were, because they are not intrusive or distracting. This is partly because, like the words for the geography of the ‘verse, they are recognisably real words, just sometimes used in unexpected combinations, or abbreviated, as in the case of “atmo” and “grav”, or “’verse” itself.

The same is true of words for new communication technology:

Did you get my wave?
I got it. Your text shorted. I got the whole thing during a board meeting. Thank you.
If I had a dedicated source box, it wouldn’t short out. I lost half my essay.
Yes, and you’d have access to any <God knows what> that filtered in from the cortex. I absolutely forbid it.

My favourite of these words is “wave”, as it suggests both the technical sense of “sound wave” and the communicative aspect involved in the gesture of waving a hand.

It is not just new technology which has resulted in the need for new vocabulary in the ‘verse. There is new currency, so the talk is of “credits” and “platinum”. The way money is referred to in Firefly captures the mix of old and new in minature as we also hear characters talk of “coin”, “a bag of silver” and, of course, “cashy money”. There is also rich vocabulary for weapons, such as “rollers”, “seekers” and “full-yield mag drops”, medicine, as in “dilaftin” and “delcium”, and diseases, such as “damplung” and “Bowden’s Malady”. Just what causes the damplung, I wonder? And who was Bowden?

There are also new terms for professions, in “companion” and “shepherd”. The latter of these harks back to the original meaning of “pastor”, which comes from the Latin for “shepherd”, so it is both new and old. The war has also left its mark on the language of the ‘verse, in the expressions “browncoat” and “purple belly”. Instead of the blue and the gray of the American civil war, the conflict is between the earthy brown and the imperial purple.

The more I look at, and listen to, the language of the ‘verse, the more I see how rich and evocative it is, and the more I fall in love with it.

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