My my, hey hey is grok here to stay?

The origin of grok

Most words in English come from Latin, French, Greek or Old Germanic with a collection of words from every other populated place on the planet. However, grok is a word that comes from much further afield. It comes from the interplanetary language of the Martians according to Robert A Heinlein’s 1961 book Stranger in a Strange Land.

I have many Heinleins amongst all those yellowed Silverbergs, Asimovs, Dicks, and Aldisses. These were the books I devoured in my young teenage years and still read in my later years. They were full of imaginative ideas but few were considered anything but genre fiction and they were certainly not mainstream.

Martian is quite a guttural language (Heinlein describes it as sounding like a bullfrog fighting a cat) so words like grok would certainly predominate. Even though it is an unpleasant sounding word it describes the very desirable concept of understanding something profoundly and empathically. As Heinlein writes:

Thou art God, and I am God and all that groks is God.

In the 1960s the word was picked up by the counterculture and particularly by science fiction writers. There is a famous cross-fertilisation with Star Trek in the slogan I Grok Spock. It was used on promotional buttons and T-shirts in 1968 (a bit incorrect as Spock was not a Martian) and is still used as a Trekkie saying.

Is grok still a word?

The Online Etymology Dictionary suggests that the word is “perhaps obsolete now except in internet technology circles”. This means, really, that it is a nerdword. Wikipedia, the Internet-technology’s encyclopedia, in a wonderful piece of unintential irony, listed (in 2010) one example of the mainstream usage of grok as follows:

In the straight-to-DVD Futurama outing Into the Wild Green Yonder, Number 9 of the Legion of Madfellows says their group has “been grokking some super weird junk” from the life force Ch’i. The Legion of Madfellows are a group of (crazy, homeless) mindreaders that defend the universe.

It might be a real stretch of the imagination to suggest that our only Martian word is yet part of mainstream English. However, grok has survived in the outer limits of the language for more than 60 years. It was born 1961 in a science fiction novel; then accompanied Spock boldly exploring the universe in 1968; all the way to the Legion of Madfellows defending the universe in 2009. Perhaps it is here to stay.

For more science fiction words see Isotropes of Unobtainium.