- April 1, 2015
- Posted by: Madrigal Admin
- Category: Word of the Week Blog
What is Unobtainium?
In December 2014 the editors of the Oxford English Dictionary gave their imprimatur to 500 new words by including them in their dictionary. Among these words was unobtainium.
For those of us who know our Periodic Table it is quite clear that unobtainium is not an element listed in it. Unobtainium is a humorous word coined in the 1950s to describe a wonder metal that would meet all the needs of a difficult application. Unobtainium according to a magazine article of the times (cited by the OED):
would have a high boiling point, be very strong but malleable, and would have a very low density.
Such a metal of course does not exist, as the magazine pointed out. Unobtainium is any fictional, extremely rare, costly, or impossible material. It is particularly useful in engineering and science fiction to provide a solution to an impossible problem.
What is Unobtainium used for?
Forms of unobtainium have been used in science fiction from the beginning of the genre. HG Wells used the fictional Cavorite to overcome the power of gravity and get his heroes to the moon in The First Men in the Moon. Star Trek uses dilithium crystals to power the warp drive.
Other fictional elements
Unobtainium has many fictional “isotopes” or what we perhaps should call isotropes, words with a similar theme:
impossibrium—an element with properties that make its existence completely unfeasible
unaffordium/cantafordium—elements that may actually exist but are hard to obtain because of their high price
hardtofindium—is not quite as rare as unobtainium but more common than unafffordium
buzzwordium—is an element that sounds good but is without real substance
flangium—element that is stronger than similar elements (ie a flange is the strong part of a pipe join)
eludium—an element that has eluded attempts to develop it
handwavium—is an element used in science fiction stories that is explained using a wave of the hand
phlebotinum—is a substance that may be rubbed on almost anything to cause an effect needed by a plot
indestructium—an element usually required by the super-villain to take over the world which is, at first, impossible to destroy
wishalloy—a substance that would solve all the problems in the development of a project
The real hard to get element
The real element, Dysprosium, chemical symbol Dy, element 66 from the Periodic Table, which is a rare earth element, gets its name from dysprositos, a Greek word meaning hard to get.
So it is pleasing that unobtainium has made it into the Oxford English Dictionary. Lets hope that a few of its isotropes make it in next time.
For more science fiction words read My my, hey hey is grok here to stay?