James Nicoll

James Nicoll
James Nicoll
Born James Davis Nicoll
March 18, 1961 (1961-03-18) (age 50)
Residence Kitchener, Ontario
Nationality Canada

James Davis Nicoll (born March 18, 1961[1]) of Kitchener, Ontario, is a former role-playing game store owner, a freelance game and speculative fiction reviewer and also works as a first reader for the Science Fiction Book Club.[2] As a Usenet personality, Nicoll is known for writing a widely quoted epigram on the English language, as well as for his accounts of suffering a high number of accidents, which he has narrated over the years in Usenet groups like rec.arts.sf.written and rec.arts.sf.fandom.


Influence on SF genre

In addition to his influence as a first reader for the Science Fiction Book Club, Nicoll often offers ideas and concepts to other writers, primarily through the medium of Usenet. After winning the 2006 Locus Award for his novella Missile Gap, Charles Stross thanked him, writing that Nicoll "came up with the original insane setting[3] — then kindly gave me permission to take his idea and run with it."[4]

"The Purity of the English Language"

In 1990, in the Usenet group rec.arts.sf-lovers, Nicoll wrote the following epigram on the English language:

The problem with defending the purity of the English language is that English is about as pure as a cribhouse whore. We don't just borrow words; on occasion, English has pursued other languages down alleyways to beat them unconscious and rifle their pockets for new vocabulary.[5]

(The original post had "riffle" for "rifle"; however, a followup acknowledged that this had been a spelling error.[6])

Over the years it has spread over the internet, often misattributed to other individuals including Booker T. Washington and a nineteenth-century painter also named James Nicoll. In recent years however the epigram has also been quoted, with proper attribution, in books by professor of rhetoric and communication design Randy Harris.[7] Amateur linguists Jeremy Smith,[8] Richard Lederer,[9] and Anu Garg[10] have also referenced Nicoll's quote.

Professional linguists who have referenced the quote online include Professor of Linguistics Mark Liberman of the University of Pennsylvania and Language Log;[11] Associate Professor of Linguistics Suzanne Kemmer of Rice University,[12] who also posted her research into the quote at the LINGUIST mailing list;[13] and Second Language Acquisition Ph.D. student Rong Liu.[14] There are also amateur philologists who have used the quote, including Garg of the English language site Wordsmith.org,[15] journalist Suw Charman,[16] and journalist Vale White.[17]

'Nicoll Events'

Nicoll relates a number of life-and-or-limb-threatening accidents that have happened to him, which he has told and retold on various science fiction fandom related newsgroups. Over the years these stories have also been collected into Cally Soukup's List of Nicoll events.

Inspired by Nicoll's collection of accidents, as well as his tendency to take in any stray cat that comes knocking, fantasy author Jo Walton wrote him a poem in 2002, available at her Livejournal.

"Brain eater"

A post on soc.history.what-if credits Nicoll with coining the phrase "brain eater"[18] which is supposed to "get" certain writers such as Poul Anderson[19] and James P. Hogan.[20] Nicoll claims the 'brain eater' affected Hogan, because of Hogan's expressions of belief in Immanuel Velikovsky's version of catastrophism,[21] and his advocacy of the hypothesis that AIDS is caused by pharmaceutical use rather than HIV (see AIDS denialism).[22] The term has been adopted by other Usenet posters,[23] [24][25] as well as elsewhere on the Internet[26][27][28] and use of the term within Usenet has been criticised.[29][30]

Nicoll-Dyson Laser

Nicoll proposed the Nicoll-Dyson Laser concept where the satellites of a Dyson Swarm act as a phased array laser emitter capable of delivering their energy to a planet-sized target at a range of millions of light years.[31]

E. E. Smith first used the general idea of concentrating the sun's energy in a weapon in the Lensman series when the Galactic Patrol developed the sunbeam (in Second Stage Lensmen); however, his concept did not extend to the details of the Nicoll-Dyson Laser.


Nicoll was one of five nominees for the 2010 and 2011 Hugo Awards for Best Fan Writer.[32]


  1. ^ Silver, Steven. "SF Birthday Calendar: March". http://www.sfsite.com/~silverag/mar.html. Retrieved 2007-05-15. 
  2. ^ Wheeler, Andrew (2006-11-20). "SFBC's Top 50 Books List Goes Walkabout". Science Fiction Book Club. Archived from the original on 2007-09-28. http://web.archive.org/web/20070928185954/http://thebookblogger.com/sfbc/2006/11/sfbcs_top_50_books_list_goes_w.html. Retrieved 2007-05-20. 
  3. ^ soc.history.what-if December 2000, Life on the Disc
  4. ^ Stross, Charles (2007-06-17). "Brief Announcement". http://www.antipope.org/charlie/blog-static/2007/06/brief_announcement.html. 
  5. ^ Nicoll, James (1990-05-15). "The King's English". rec.arts.sf-lovers. (Web link). 
  6. ^ Nicoll, James (1990-05-20). "The King's English". rec.arts.sf-lovers. (Web link). 
  7. ^ Harris, Randy (2004). Voice Interaction Design: Crafting the New Conversational Speech Systems. San Francisco: Morgan Kaufmann. p. 55. ISBN 1558607684. 
  8. ^ Smith, Jeremy (2005). Bum Bags and Fanny Packs: A British-American, American-British Dictionary. New York: Carrol & Graf. p. 164. ISBN 0786717025. http://books.google.com/books?id=qQONKyKvY1gC&pg=PA164&ots=BeFbqtG1YX&dq=James-d-Nicoll+date:1970-2009&num=100&sig=FmuEb_WgOfBWT7OpMQ5mgDUt-CY. 
  9. ^ Lederer, Richard (2003). A Man of My Words: Reflections on the English Language. New York: St. Martin's Press. p. 266. ISBN 0312317859. 
  10. ^ Garg, Anu (2005). Another Word A Day: An All-New Romp through Some of the Most Unusual and Intriguing Words in English. New York: Wiley. p. 111. ISBN 0471718459. 
  11. ^ Liberman, Mark (2005-10-24). "The wordiness of English". Language Log. http://itre.cis.upenn.edu/~myl/languagelog/archives/002579.html. ; "88 English words from snow". Language Log. 2003-12-07. http://itre.cis.upenn.edu/~myl/languagelog/archives/000200.html. Retrieved 2007-05-17. 
  12. ^ Kemmer, Suzanne (2001-10-23). "The English Language: Past and Present". Rice University. http://www.ruf.rice.edu/~kemmer/Words/infocont.html.  "Words in English: Structure, History, Use (course Web site for Linguistics/English 215)". Rice University. 2006-02-28. Archived from the original on 2007-05-12. http://web.archive.org/web/20070512201131/http://www.ruf.rice.edu/~kemmer/Words/info05.html. Retrieved 2007-05-17. 
  13. ^ Kemmer, Suzanne (2002-02-20). "James D. Nicoll quote - mystery solved". LINGUIST List. http://linguistlist.org/issues/13/13-499.html. Retrieved 2007-05-17. 
  14. ^ Liu, Mike (2005-10-03). "Presentation on Morphology, for the course INDV 101-Language" (Microsoft PowerPoint). University of Arizona. http://www.u.arizona.edu/~mikeliu/Morphology%20for%20section%207%20new.ppt. Retrieved 2007-05-17. [dead link]
  15. ^ Garg, Anu (1999-12-06). "A.Word.A.Day archives, see Tabula Rasa". A.Word.A.Day. Wordsmith.org. http://wordsmith.org/awad/archives/1299. ; "A.Word.A.Day archives, see Cumshaw". 2002-11-04. http://wordsmith.org/awad/archives/1102. Retrieved 2007-05-17. 
  16. ^ Charman, Suw (2005-01-03). "Re: The purity of the English language". Chocolate and Vodka. http://chocnvodka.blogware.com/blog/_archives/2005/1/3/222493.html. Retrieved 2007-05-17. 
  17. ^ White, Vale (2004-10-13). "Words, words, words depurify". Southern Utah University Journal. http://media.www.suujournal.com/media/storage/paper951/news/2004/10/13/OpinionopenAccessColumns/Words.Words.Words.Depurify-2024007.shtml. Retrieved 2007-05-17. 
  18. ^ Wilson, Gareth (2002-08-14). "Quick thought on the collapse of the Roman Empire". soc.history.what-if. (Web link). 
  19. ^ Nicoll, James (1997-09-12). "Fire Upon the Deep and Way Station". rec.arts.sf.written. (Web link). 
  20. ^ Nicoll, James (1999-09-02). "Genetic Engineering?". rec.arts.sf.written. (Web link). 
  21. ^ Hogan, James P.. "The Case for Taking Velikovsky Seriously". http://www.jamesphogan.com/books/info.php?titleID=37&cmd=sample&sample=79. Retrieved 2006-06-18. 
  22. ^ Hogan, James P.. "Bulletin Board: AIDS Skepticism". http://jamesphogan.com/bb/bulletin.php?id=78. Retrieved 2007-02-01. 
  23. ^ McCutchen, Pete (1999-12-10). "Re: A Great New Sci-Fi Novel! (CRIT)". rec.arts.sf.composition. (Web link). 
  24. ^ Palmer, David M. (2006-01-21). "Orson Scott Card: The brain eater takes another bite--Intelligent Design". rec.arts.sf.written. (Web link). 
  25. ^ Bradshaw, Simon (1999-11-14). "NASA and SF". rec.arts.sf.written. (Web link). 
  26. ^ http://james-nicoll.livejournal.com/1054939.html?thread=15530459#t15530459
  27. ^ http://forum.rpg.net/showpost.php?p=6631168&postcount=21
  28. ^ http://sadlyno.com/archives/4424.html#comment-100440
  29. ^ M., Omega (2007-06-05). ""Brain eater": A phrase I hate". Hatrack River Forum. http://www.hatrack.com/ubb/main/ultimatebb.php?ubb=get_topic;f=2;t=048816;p=1#000000. Retrieved 2007-10-30. 
  30. ^ http://www.heinleinsociety.org/readersgroup/AIM_01-22-2004.html
  31. ^ Nicoll, James (2005-03-20). "Re: A Moon base is too far; an asteroid ship better alternative:)". sci.space.tech. (Web link). 
  32. ^ "2010 Hugo Award Nominees – Details". 2010-04-04. http://www.thehugoawards.org/2010/04/2010-hugo-award-nominees-details/. Retrieved 2010-04-04. 

External links

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