Have You Ever Kippled?

As I mused as recently as SFX 154 (March), it's interesting to track how science-fiction words pass into the English language. One that's been missed by the Oxford English Dictionary SF project – and its spinoff book Brave New Words: The Oxford Dictionary of Science Fiction – is "kipple", a term universally credited to Philip K Dick.

According to Dick, kipple is a kind of low-key, domestic version of entropy: household disorder, kitchen-sink chaos, the dust-bunnies of doom. The classic definition appears in his 1968 novel Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep?, famously filmed as Blade Runner:

"Kipple is useless objects, like junk mail or match folders after you use the last match or gum wrappers or yesterday's homeopape. When nobody's around, kipple reproduces itself ... the entire universe is moving towards a final state of total, absolute kippleization." ("Homeopape" is Dickian futurespeak for newspaper.)

Dick slipped the word into another novel, A Maze of Death (1970), and this time didn't define it. You're simply expected to understand when one character grumbles about another's kipple. So this is Dick's very own invention ... except that it isn't. According to certain elders of SF fandom, "kipple" was in common use in Dick's local fan scene (Berkeley, California) for years before he took it to a wider audience in 1968.

Knowing this, I decided it would be fun to write a KIPPLE entry for my current SF encyclopedia project, and did some more research. It seems the term was actually introduced into fan circles by one Ted Pauls, who in May 1960 started publishing the fanzine Kipple. (Those, remember, were the days when "fanzine" meant "SF fanzine" and nothing else.) In his final issue of Kipple, dated 1984, Pauls remarked that the name hadn't originally meant anything – he'd borrowed it from the old joke that goes: "Do you like Kipling?" "I don't know, I've never kippled." Which incidentally makes it an even more science-fictional word, because Rudyard Kipling wrote some notable SF stories.

According to Pauls, a Kipple reader had mockingly redefined his title as "worthless junk that seems to multiply, as for example coat hangers, paper clips, etc." The way Pauls remembered it, the culprit was another SF author who later became a respected editor: "Terry Carr, during a time when he and I were feuding over something utterly trivial." After which: "Phil Dick (then a Kipple reader and correspondent of mine) picked it up and used it in that definition in a couple of his books."

Completing the circle that started with that ancient Kipling-kippled joke, Dick quoted the joke itself in his 1969 novel Galactic Pot-Healer.

As for multiplying coat hangers and paper clips, another SF author had planted the seed of that devilishly plausible idea in 1958: Avram Davidson, whose Hugo-winning story "Or All the Seas with Oysters" imagined safety pins as the larval stage of creatures which secretly metamorphose into coat hangers and eventually reach maturity as bicycles. Terry Pratchett offers homage to this classic in his Discworld novel Reaper Man, where the parasitic kipple-beings begin life as snowstorm ornaments and insidiously develop into supermarket trolleys ...

One loose end remains on the "kipple" front. The current (July 2007) Wikipedia entry for "kipple" contains the usual received wisdom, that the word was coined by Dick in Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? (This may well change if one of their editors ever reads this column.) But there's also a contradictory suggestion that it appears in Dick's Now Wait For Last Year, published two years earlier. Because I am a superhumanly dedicated researcher, or maybe just a sucker for punishment, I reread this book with all my kipple sensors on the alert, but couldn't find the damned word anywhere. Plenty of weird Dickian time-warping alternate-universal drugginess, but no kipple. Did I blink and miss it? Or could Wikipedia be ... in error?

Well, of course it could, but I'm not complaining. My own Wikipedia entry is pretty accurate, and – rather to my amazement – there are separate articles on four of my solo books. That's a considerable improvement on the miserable old Encyclopedia Britannica. All this egotistic wallowing reminds me that, being a co-editor of the next edition of the SF Encyclopedia, I have the power to fiddle with my own entry there until it's improved beyond all recognition. As Spider-Man secretly knows, with great power comes great irresponsibility.

David Langford defines kipple as "that stuff my desk is hiding under."

Later note: The Wikipedia entry has since been updated to credit Ted Pauls and Terry Carr, but as I write (19 November 2007) it still contains the contradictory suggestions that Dick first used the word in Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? (1968) and – pausing only to leap into his time machine – also slipped it into Now Wait For Last Year (1966). I'd change the entry myself if I were 100% sure that "kipple" doesn't appear in the latter novel. "Remember, Langford, thou art fallible."