'Hitchhiker' Quotations in the Oxford English Dictionary Content from the guide to life, the universe and everything

'Hitchhiker' Quotations in the Oxford English Dictionary

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The OED has quotations from the Hitchhiker's Guide

When Douglas Adams wrote The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy he may not have imagined what impact it would have. Many of its characters, quotations and themes have subsequently woven their way into popular culture. Many of us will readily recognise references originating within it: the officious Vogons subjecting their enemies to poetic torture, the robots programmed with people personalities, and the reduction of the meaning of life to the number forty-two are all examples.

Furthermore, in writing the works, Adams has added to the rich tapestry of the English language. Several of the sentences he used are cited by the highest of authorities to illustrate the meanings of the words they contain. This isn't to say that the new words coined in these works and his two Meaning of Liff books have received official endorsement – it's just that the Oxford English Dictionary (OED) has chosen to use Hitchhiker's quotations in a number of its existing entries.

We'll go on to describe these, but, before we start, a few words about the dictionary. The unrivalled reference to the meaning, history and pronunciation of the English language, the OED defines over half a million words, and lists 2.5 million quotations to illustrate their meanings. Starting in 1879, Oxford University Press took just under 50 years to compile its ten weighty tomes. Fortunately for us in this digital age, we can subscribe to the online edition, or even access a free version, although this will not contain all the detail.

The Galaxy

Looking through the OED's Hitchhiker's quotations, some are more obvious than others. Perhaps the best known of them is the Guide's entry on Space:

'Space', it says, 'is big. Really big. You just won't believe how vastly, hugely, mind-bogglingly big it is.'

This appears as one of a handful of quotations illustrating the OED's entry on the word space, specifically the ninth sense of the noun: The expanse in which celestial objects are situated. As well as Douglas Adams, writers illustrating this sense include HG Wells, Shelley and Milton, who appears to have coined this particular meaning in the sentence 'Space may produce new Worlds', from Paradise Lost.

There are two other Adams OED quotations on a galactic theme. Spacesuit is illustrated with a quotation taken from the guide's entry on the towel (describing a non-hitchhiker's reaction to seeing a towel-carrying traveller):

He will automatically assume he is also in possession of a toothbrush,..space suit etc., etc.

Perhaps more surprisingly is a quotation in the OED's entry on Barnard's Star. One of a number of actual locations used in the Hitchhiker's series, Barnard's Star is depicted as a spaceport to which the Vogon destructor fleet is headed, having destroyed the Earth. The Vogon captain makes the following Tannoy announcement soon after Ford Prefect and Arthur Dent have hitched a ride aboard his vessel:

We are about to jump into hyperspace for the journey to Barnard's Star.

Taken from the same announcement, the following sentence illustrates the OED's entry for the word freeloader:

I didn't become captain of a Vogon constructor ship simply so I could turn it into a taxi service for a load of degenerate freeloaders.

Prior to the arrival of the Vogons, Ford and Arthur are drinking beer in a pub. The following quotation on the events that follow illustrates the OED's entry on the word ionosphere, 'a region of the outer atmosphere of the earth':

Something was moving quietly through the ionosphere many miles above the planet.


We're all familiar today with e-books and the natty new technology with which we can read them, however this central theme to the Hitchhiker novels was in the 1970s a thing of the future. The OED recognises Adams' foresight with a quotation in its entry for electronic book, which it defines as 'a hand-held electronic device on which the text of a book can be read'. In it, Ford describes the device to Arthur:

The Hitch-Hiker's Guide to the Galaxy. It's a sort of electronic book.

Cyberspace is another concept which Douglas Adams helped to shape. The OED's cyber- prefix has a number of futuristic meanings, and one Hitchhiker quotation is used to illustrate the sense of it 'forming esp. temporary and nonce-words:'

Zaphod had spent most of his early history lessons plotting how he was going to have sex with the girl in the cybercubicle next to him.

Two other 'cyberwords' appear in their own OED entries. Cybernaut uses a quotation from Mostly Harmless in which Ford breaks into the Guide Editor's office, having caught and reprogrammed Colin the security robot:

Ford...yanked the flying robot in with him. He squatted down and peered at the burbling cybernaut.

More recognisable, though, will be the quotation illustrating the word cybernetics:

The marketing division of the Sirius Cybernetics Corporation defines a robot as ‘Your Plastic Pal Who's Fun to Be With’.


Concepts from the physical sciences were well-used by Adams to explain some of the futuristic themes within Hitchhiker's, and these too have added to the dictionary's descriptions of those terms.

Inter-galactic communication is described as taking place within the sub-ether, a hypothetical medium described elsewhere by scientists such as Arthur Eddington. The OED's entry includes this Adams quote, from the moment just before the characters realise that the spaceship they have stolen is programmed to crash into a nearby sun:

Zaphod leaped across the cabin and switched frequencies on the sub-ether receiver before the next mind-pulverizing noise hit them.

As the plot develops throughout the Hitchhiker series, more use is made of the device to allow things to happen in hyperspace. The OED's description of the word multidimensional, in the sense of 'relating to a space of more than three dimensions', uses the following quotation. It's one of the thoughts of Ford Prefect as he precariously clings to an outside ledge of the Guide offices, having just lost a shoe:

A major pair of shoes wasn't something you could just replace by mucking about in multidimensional space-time.


The remaining Hitchhiker quotations in the OED are much more diverse in terms of the words they illustrate. We won't list them all here, but some of the more notable ones include murine (mouse-like), navel, and negotiable:

'Since when', continued his murine colleague, 'we have had an offer of a quite enormously fat contract.'
According to Old Thrashbarg, the planet had been found fully formed in the navel of a giant earwig at four-thirty one Vroonday afternoon.
Ningis are not negotiable currency, because the Galactibanks refuse to deal in fiddling small change.

There are 32 Hitchhiker quotations in total, but it would somehow seem more appropriate for there to be ten more. The OED may add further ones, for example where the meaning of a word changes and it's discovered that a Hitchhiker reference illustrates it best. Alternatively, maybe fans would lobby the OED? There are as yet no quotations illustrating words such as 'paranoid', 'improbability' or 'forty-two'. Similarly there are no entries whatsoever for 'hoopy', 'Babel Fish' or even 'Pan Galactic Gargle Blaster'.


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