Lightsaber lexicon: The monumental impact Star Wars has had on language
From ‘bae’ to ‘selfie’, and even ‘google’, there’s no shortage of words that have transcended their specific origin stories to achieve widespread use in the English language. And one of the most pervasive sources has been the Star Wars universe, even though these words hail from “a long time ago in a galaxy far, far away.”
For the first time, a Chemnitz University of Technology researcher (and, yes, a Star Wars fan) has been able to comprehensively quantify just how popular words and phrases belonging to this sci-fi universe are.
Looking specifically at the use of “Jedi”, “Padawan”, “Yoda”, “lightsaber” (and its variations, such as light-saber and lightsabre) and “to the dark side”, Christina Sanchez-Stockhammer looked at their frequency among four comprehensive corpora of present-day English.
She found that 34% – more than a third – of references were not at all related to the George Lucas sci-fi empire, indicating how firmly entrenched they are in contemporary English language.
"I wanted to find out whether words from the Star Wars universe have already become part of our own universe," said Sanchez-Stockhammer, Chair of English and Digital Linguistics.
“Star Wars has become such an important part of popular culture,” said Sanchez-Stockjammer. “Yoda's role as a mentor or the appearance of lightsabers can be assumed to be familiar to large sections of the population and thus form the basis for innovative language uses.”
Many dictionaries already list Star Wars vocabulary, and the Oxford English Dictionary contains every Star Wars-ism analyzed in this study.
"The example of ‘lightsaber’ shows that Star Wars is now even somehow part of our physical reality," said Sanchez-Stockhammer. "Most uses of the word refer to tangible toy lightsabers, for example in ‘I have my lightsaber and my sci-fi toys.’”
The study also showed that “Jedi” appears more than four times per million words in the Corpus of Contemporary American English (COHA), which features around a billion words. As such, it’s as common as “jewel” and “dizzy”. Some of its innovative uses include being used as a specialist in a certain field, for example, “Clancy, 50, is more than a finance Jedi.”
While overall there was more than a third “innovative” uses of the words examined
While overall more than a third of the words examined were "innovative" uses, “to the dark side” was used with no Star Wars inference in 50% of instances. The expression was found to describe diverse contexts such as children’s behavior, hockey playing, politics and advertising (“Cross over to the dark side when it comes to nibbling on chocolate”).
And these innovative uses of “to the dark side” were not prevalent prior to the rise of the Star Wars empire, which began in 1977 with the first feature film. The researcher found no evidence of its existence prior to this time in the Corpus of Historical American English (COHA), which contains 385 million words taken from 115,000 texts produced between 1920 and 2019.
“While light and darkness were already used as metaphors for good and evil before the Star Wars films, none of the earlier sources in the historical COHA corpus employs the construction ‘to the dark side’ in the Star Wars sense – ie, to express a change to a state evaluated as more immoral by the speakers,” said Sanchez-Stockhammer.
Innovative uses, such as, "A developer crosses over to the dark side and learns marketing," point directly to the Star Wars influence on contemporary English language.
"The items in these contexts of use have arguably reached the highest level of integration into the English language through their relative independence from the Star Wars universe (which is taken for granted as a shared cultural background)," wrote Sanchez-Stockhammer in the study.
The study was published in the journal Linguistics Vanguard.