Famous Fictitious Words: an article by: GF Willmetts.

What’s In A Name?

an analysis by: GF Willmetts


TARDIS. Many none Science Fiction fans have heard of the word, actually an acronym, even if they don’t know what it means other than it’s the name of a police box that a time traveller called Doctor Who uses. Show them a picture of the original 60s police callbox and they’ll still call it a TARDIS and that’s on public record.

Of course, we all know what it means. Time And Relative Dimensions In Space. Although what that means in Gallefreyian is anyone’s guess. It’s more a description of a nexus than a machine that moves through space/time. The Doctor’s grand-daughter, Susan, first described their time capsule as such to Ian Chesterton and Barbara Wright as if she only thought of it. However, by the time of ‘The War Games’, even the Time Lords called their machines a TARDIS. Must be a group conscious kind of thing or Susan wasn’t being totally honest about the name’s source or gotten home some way.

Mind you, TARDIS only describes the function than the specific vehicle. But does it? After all, only one small aspect of these time machines penetrates normal space. The rest is elsewhere as it can only be bigger on the inside if most of the TARDIS isn’t in normal space. For all we know, the main part of the TARDIS is stationary and only the appearance, in this case, the police box aspect pokes into different time zones.

Last season it was also noted that if the TARDIS existed in its entirety in our plane then it would be larger that our planet. An odd contradiction, considering the living space inside doesn’t represent that size. I mean, even with all the known rooms, you would get seriously lost if you strayed too far although I suspect the TARDIS’ own sentience would ensure all routes would eventually return you back to the control room. Whatever kind of dimension most of the TARDIS exists in, must be a mixture of energy and matter.

It does produce an interesting quandary as to where this other dimension is, let alone how close other time capsules or TARDISes are next to them. After all, the Doctor’s TARDIS can shed space or energy, twice so far as we know. Quite where it goes or can it be collected again has never been shown. Indeed, even its own energy source is questionable. It draws energy from the time vortex but does the TARDIS move or does reality move around it? The bulk of the TARDIS could remain stationary and we know time moves slowly inside it and only pokes into our reality when needed. All relative if you think about it.

Anyway, I’m musing aloud, let’s get back to what you’re really here to have a ponder on, the name. No one has ever come up with where the word ‘TARDIS’ actually came from. I doubt if ‘Time And Relative Dimensions In Space’ came first even as dialogue. Looking at other fictitious acronym names, the words were found to match after a suitable name was found that looked good. You only have to look at the likes acronyms of ‘SHIELD’ or ‘SHADO’ where the opening letters became ‘Supreme Headquarters’, it’s obvious they were groping to find appropriate words to match. As someone who comes up with alienique words for my own stories, a lot of the time, I literally just pluck them out of the air and if they feel right, use them. A lot of the time, they are just literally gobbledygook and have no real meaning until I give them that purpose. It’s like looking at abstract painting, as it is up to the individual as to what they make of it and the acceptance of anything purely because it’s there is often taken as a given. This is a practically a magician’s trick in how our minds work that writers can exploit.

With the TARDIS, a name was needed for the time machine that sounded other-worldly and suddenly it was there. However, this was after all 1963 and even in Science Fiction from that period, outside of planet names and the odd alien species, creative acronyms were hardly the norm. In fact, the only one I can think of was AE Van Vogt’s ‘Slan’ (1946) and his sub-species of Man was named after the first, Samuel Lann, although which came first would be open to debate. I suspect Van Vogt had the word first and gave meaning to it second.

I can see ‘An Unearthly Child’ scriptwriter Anthony Coburn thinking we need to call this Doctor’s time machine something better than a time machine and making it instantly identifiable to the mysterious traveller. Apart from that, HG Wells in his book and George Pal’s (1953) film, it was only ever ‘The Time Machine’. Even in the opening season of ‘Doctor Who’, the characters mostly described the TARDIS as a ‘ship’. The time travellers were rarely on-board for long and I doubt if the name sank in to the other scriptwriters, mostly because they would have written theirs without seeing it.

Still, that doesn’t explain how Coburn got the name. If I ever played a logic game, I would have looked at words related to time and amongst that list would be ‘tardy’ meaning late and used that as a starting point. Even without deliberation I can make connections there. However, calling a time machine ‘Tardy’ because it was late wouldn’t make much sense but it would be a starting point. It might even have been part of a sentence and inspiration dawned from that. The fact that the first four letters also matched the description of the time machine being bigger on the inside than out and you were on the way to creating an acronym. From there it’s all the magic of creating words and it was there. It might even have been considered a throwaway word. Susan coins the choice but rarely is its full name used, it simply became the TARDIS and it stuck. Probably better than calling it a time machine. He might have seen the first few words, dismissed the ‘Y’ and when added ‘In Space’, TARDIS evolved.

I suspect that Coburn came up with the word ‘TARDIS’ as a throwaway word and not expected to be used very often. After all, ‘Doctor Who’ was hardly expected to last a season let alone still going some fifty years later. He just lucked out with a name that was better than calling it a time machine and that captured the public imagination. I wish we were all that lucky.

There are similar parallels to how Terry Nation came up with the name ‘Dalek’, although I doubt if his original explanation that he got it from the spines of a couple encyclopaedias holds up as no one has been able to find them since.

(c) GF Willmetts 2015


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