In search of “dystopia”

Last weekend, as the Nor’easter pelted the area, we curled up in front of a fire and watched Blade Runner — Director’s Cut. Hadn’t seen this classic dystopic movie since its original release in 1982.

I’m not going to review the film here (see it for yourself). “Blade Runner” did start a discussion about when the word “dystopia” was first used, and when did it became a common term. As a dame d’un certain age, I asserted that it didn’t come into common usage until 30 or more years ago.

Dystopia doesn’t appear in my older edition of the Oxford English Dictionary, nor in my Webster’s Unabridged — so a hard-copy search didn’t get results. Online, a Google search produced over 2 million references, including lots of vague references to John Stuart Mill as the person credited with coining the word in a speech in1868. A bit more research and I found the quote from Mill in the Hansard Commons Debates:

It is perhaps too complimentary to call them Utopians, they ought rather to be called dys-topians or caco-topians. What is commonly called Utopian is something too good to be practicable, but what they appear to favour is too bad to be practicable.

What is interesting is that it doesn’t seem to have been used much or at all until 1952, when Glen Negley and J. Max Patrick claimed in their book, “The Quest for Utopia,” to have invented the word.

Here’s a good definition of dystopia from a monograph by Chris Darke on J-L Godard’s “Alphaville” (excerpts appear in Vertigo Magazine).

Dystopias extrapolate from the present those signs of modernity whose promise is at best ambiguous and at worse downright frightening and, in so doing, they hold the idea of ‘progress’ at an ironic, allegorical distance the better to question it.

And, of course, utopias came much earlier — most notably, Sir Thomas More’s book in 1516 was titled “Utopia.”