I love Star Trek. Original Series with its camp, The Next Generation, Deep Space Nine, and even Voyager and Enterprise had their high spots. Love them. I’m very much looking forward to the new movie. I’ve even heard there are rumors of a new series (though I desperately hope it will be live action and not an animated as rumor suggests).
One of the main features of Star Trek is the technobabble. Anyone who has seen even one episode knows what I’m talking about: “Realigning the lateral sensors to detect phase variance.” We understand each word by itself, but put them together and it really doesn’t mean anything. They are words strung together with no real-world meaning. They really don’t need to.
They’re a form of verbal McGuffin to move the plot forward. The audience doesn’t need to know exactly what it means when the anti-matter injectors have frozen and magnetic containment is at 28%. We can tell by the reactions on the TV that this is something bad, and the problem will need to be solved, usually by some other means of technobabble, such as flooding the injector assembly with Cryomecium in order to render the contaminant inert.
Unfortunately, this past semester taught me that many of my students treat everyday words like specialized jargon or technobabble. They don’t recognize words such as frontier, wean, or peeks. When they encounter them, they gloss by them. In the fictional world of Star Trek, the nonsense technobabble words can be glossed over. The essence of the story doesn’t revolve around them. But everyday words that appear in stories, newspapers, or in news broadcasts are essential. Sentences hinge on the meaning of just a few words. An entire sentence turns on one word, altering the entire meaning.
This is a problem that has been very hard to diagnose, and even harder to fix, especially at the level I teach at. I’m trying some ideas, but I have no idea if they’re going to work. It would be nice if this could end like an episode of Star Trek. I could use a bit of technobabble to save the day.