The Lingo of Battlestar Galactica The Lingo of Battlestar Galactica

The Lingo of Battlestar Galactica

by Mark Peters

January 17, 2009

An appreciation of the returning sci-fi hit's most distinctive language

Battlestar Galactica returns tonight, and I for one am giddy as a schoolgirl on crack.As the second half of the fourth and final season begins, there are many questions to be answered. How will the colonists and Cylons deal with the long-searched-for earth turning out to be a desolate, Planet-of-the-Apes-type hellscape? What is the deal with Starbuck/Baltar/various prophesies/the Cylon plan/etc.? And for the love of pancakes, who is the final Cylon?Since this is a language column and not a sci-fi geekfest, I'd better take off my Cylon Halloween helmet and put on my word-nerd beret. For just a moment, let's forget the show's many virtues, including the uber-grit of Edward James Olmos, the mind-blowing special effects, the gams of Number Six, and the overall intensity of the drama. For old fans or new, here's an appreciation/introduction to some of the show's most distinctive language, especially two terms that are sure to outlast BSG by a stretch: Cylon and frak.Some BSG words are technical, like dradis, a space radar system, usually used to detect Cylon basestars and raiders, as opposed to the battlestars, vipers, and raptors of the (mostly) good guys in the colonial fleet. Sitrep-a word often barked by Admiral Adama-is real world military jargon for "situation report." Expressions like "Oh my gods" and "Godsdamn it" are a nod toward the polytheistic religion of the colonists (only the Cylons and squirrely Gaius Baltar worship one deity).Speaking of those wascally wobots, Cylon is the first of two terms that has a life outside the show, unlike fans such as myself. If you haven't been watching, Cylons are (mostly) evil robots who wiped out 99% of the human race, setting the original and re-imagined series in motion, in 1978 and 2003 respectively. I looked at Cylon closely for the Oxford University Press blog, and based on all the uses and variations I found, it's safe to say the Cylons have taken their place at the table of well-known fictional races, along with hobbits, Wookies, orcs, Klingons, Vulcans, and undecideds.Since (some of) the Cylons in the new BSG are covert, human-looking folks, a lot of the BSG drama has revolved around who-the-blazes-is-a-Cylon tension. Such convos are continued and amplified by fans, and it's likely that humorous variations of the "You're a Cylon!" accusation will live on in slang, much like people wonder if a corporate drone is a member of the Borg or a beautiful-yet-scary woman is a fembot.If you do run into a gaggle of Cylons and feel like insulting them, you could call the human-looking ones skinjobs (a term used on the show and borrowed from Blade Runner) or humlons (as coined by fans). Or you could call any Cylon a toaster, a nod to the original series' chromy Cylons, who were mega-toaster-like in appearance.By far, frak is the most-used word on the show, and it's spread well beyond the world of toasters, joining the club of successful euphemisms that includes f-bomb, freak, frig, frick, and  fug. Coined on the original BSG-where it was spelled frack-the word has blossomed with the show's reinvention. On-show variations have included motherfraker, frak-all, guaran-frakkin'-tee, and frak you, while fans have come up with clusterfrak, metric frakload, absofrakinglutely, fan-fraking-tastic, raza-frakkin, and mind-forever-frakked-upedness, among others. It's also turned up on episodes of Scrubs, 30 Rock, and Veronica Mars.Jesse Sheidlower-North American Editor-at-Large of the Oxford English Dictionary-is well-versed in such matters as editor of The F-word: the ultimate collection of meanings, uses, and variations of the most multi-dimensional word in the language.On the success of frak-which will be included in the forthcoming third edition of The F-word-Sheidlower says the word just "sounds right. It has the /f/, it has the vowel, it has the /k/; the/r/ isn't too intrusive, and frak happens not to be an existing word." This gives "the right feel to it, without reminding us of anything different. So it's not some obvious fake euphemism." The same can't be said for the original BSG's felgercarb, an unwieldy euphemism for shit or bullshit that remains stranded in the 1970s.It's been weeks since I downloaded to my resurrection ship-to use two other Cylontific terms-so I'm sure there's plenty of BSG words I've neglected. Since we have to do something while waiting for tonight's ep, let me know what I've omitted or fraked up in comments.
Recently on GOOD
Sign up to receive the best of GOOD delivered to your inbox each and every weekday
The Lingo of Battlestar Galactica