Is “Dystopic” a Word?
When in a recent post I referred to “Orwell’s dystopic novel Nineteen Eighty-Four,” a reader from the Czech Republic asked when the adjective dystopic should be used instead of dystopian.
After referring to my usual authorities and giving the matter some thought, my answer is: “never.”
That’s not to say that the form dystopic isn’t to be heard and seen. I think my use of it in the article may stem from frequent reading of film criticism. For example:
The L.A. of Ridley Scott’s film was a dreary, dark, dystopic nightmare set in 2019.—Laist, Los Angeles website.
Best dystopic/post-apocalyptic films ever made—IMDb (InternetMovieDataBase) headline.
The movie [Wall-E] represents a dystopic world view.—Global Cinema.
Insurgent review—well-oiled dystopic action—headline over review of Divergent in The Guardian (UK).
The OED does not have an entry for dystopic, although it does have one for utopic.
Merriam-Webster Unabridged does not have an entry for either dystopic or utopic, although the entry for dystopia (“malposition of an anatomical part”) in the M-W medical dictionary gives dystopic as the adjective form.
The first appearance of dystopic on the Ngram Viewer is in 1903. Dystopic shows a steady rise from 1988 to 1999, before leveling off, still way below dystopian in frequency.
Some sites use dystopic consistently; others switch between dystopic and dystopian in the same article. Still others, like PopMatters, have some articles that use dystopic throughout and others that stick to dystopian as the only adjective form.
Bottom line: Dystopic is a word in the sense that people do use it, but the preferred adjective form for dystopia in the sense of a really bad place is dystopian.
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6 Responses to “Is “Dystopic” a Word?”
If you use it and others understand your meaning, then it’s a word. People dictate how they communicate without regard to the OED, which just tries to keep up.
Words are just a way to articulate thoughts and ideas. That’s it. New words are constantly being created and falling out of use. Historically many of the words we use today would, at one time, been considered improper. The Romantic languages are based on Sermo Vulgaris, so referring to some authority (id est – the word police) to validate whether a word with an apparent meaning is being used correctly is absurd.
The answer to the question, “is it a real English word?” is (almost) NEVER no. dystopian/dystopic, who cares? Silly pedants, and no one else.
I’d always been under the impression that “dystopian” referred to anything actually dystopian, such as a society, while “dystopic” [with either an “ah” or “oh” sound (the “oh” variation sounds a bit dopey, but that’s likely just me)] referred to anything about something dystopian. For instance, you could have a dream about a dystopian society, but the dream itself isn’t dystopian; you would have had a dystopic dream about a dystopian society. Similarly, one could write a dystopic story, which would be a story about a dystopian future, since the story itself is not a dystopia and thus not dystopian.
“Dystopian” is the correct adjective form for “Dystopia”
Here’s the OED entry for Dys’topian:
dysˈtopian adj. of or pertaining to a dystopia.
1962 C. Walsh From Utopia to Nightmare 12 Stories..that seemed in their dystopian way to be saying something important.
1968 New Scientist 11 July 96/3 It is a pleasant change to read some hope for our future… I fear that our real future is more likely to be dystopian.
Glad you cleared that up. We’re going to Canada on vacation and I was concerned our hosts might not like being Canadics.
Good to know. I’m all for holding off letting non-words become words for as long as possible. In this case, let’s wait until the world’s actually coming to an end.