Three female forms in the Historical Dictionary of Science Fiction
There are many terms in classic and modern SF that remain unexplored, and the historical dictionary of science fiction will be continuously updated, especially as additional resources come online. Boing Boing regularly syndicates new HDSF entries. (Read the series introduction.)
After our recent Super Villains essay, we got a few questions about terms for women with superpowers.
In fact, we’ve had a superhero entry in the pipeline for a while, and it’s definitely time to release it. As with superheroes, the broader meaning of “extremely heroic woman” is found much earlier, from 1909, and this meaning is common until the middle of the 20th century. It wasn’t until 1960 before we had clear evidence of the comic book meaning of “a woman with superpowers; a female superheroine.
While the comic book world has no shortage of female villains, the word supervillain itself has taken even longer to appear. Its generic equivalent “an extremely wicked woman” appears in the 1910s and has also remained in use (Joan Collins’ character, Alexis Colby, on Dynasty often has this descriptor), but the earliest comic book example is only from 1970. It remains relatively rare; we expect the feminine -ess the ending makes the term inappropriately threatening for what it describes.
Finally, while we’re at it, we’re also posting the word Martianess for a Martian woman. This one is much older; Martian is found from the 1860s (the much less common term Marsian dates from the 1850s), and the feminine form appeared in the 1890s. This is quite rare, possibly because there is no not much need to describe the women of Mars.