How a Hollywood Movie Changed the Evolution of a Word

Wednesday, August 92 min read

Among films that have contributed catchphrases, new vocabulary, alternate usages, and imagery to the pop culture lexicon, The Terminator has to rank in the 20th century’s top tier. The 1984 Arnold Schwarzenegger film (and subsequent franchise) — about a killer cyborg sent from a robot-controlled future to commit an assassination — skyrocketed the word “terminator” into popularity. According to Google Ngram data, the word had fairly sparse usage until it saw increased growth in the mid-1900s, and then exponential usage at the end of the 20th century, no doubt thanks to The Terminator.

The most common definition of “terminator” is “a person or thing that terminates (ends) something,” but the word also has definitions rooted in astronomy and molecular biology. The former’s meaning is fairly straightforward: “The dividing line between the light and dark part of a planetary body.” The band Pink Floyd referenced this liminal space in the 1973 album The Dark Side of the Moon. As far as molecular biology, the definition is a bit wordy for anyone outside of the laboratory: “A sequence of polynucleotides that causes transcription to end and the newly synthesized nucleic acid to be released from the template molecule.” While complicated, the scientific usage is probably what contributed to increased interest in the word “terminator” in the 1900s. Let’s take a look at how we made it to the 1984 movie.

What Came First?

Lexicographers are a bit conflicted on the timing of the origins of this word. According to Etymonline, the astronomic usage of “terminator” began in 1770, when the word was taken from the Latin terminare, “to mark the end or boundary,” from terminus, “end, limit.” It places the more popular usage, “one who terminates,” as originating in 1846.

However, the Oxford English Dictionary (OED) places the “person who ends something” usage as early as the mid-17th century, pointing to a 1652 appearance in J. Lane’s Persecution Detected, “Christ…the beginner or terminator of time.” The OED notes an astronomic usage in 1661, when T. Salisbury wrote, “The boundary that distinguished the illuminated part from the dark being a grand circle, we will call that circle the terminator of light.”

20th-Century Terminator

The usage in molecular biology of “terminator” is a product of the 20th century, appearing first in 1965 in a publication from the National Academy of Science of the U.S.A.: “On the basis of genetic evidence…UpApA and UpApG have been suggested as possible terminator codons.”

Around 1998, “terminator” began to be used in agricultural sciences as well, meaning “relating to or involving the genetic modification of plants resulting in a cultivated plant variety which produces sterile seeds.”

It’s possible that the 1984 Schwarzenegger film had an impact on usage of the word, even in the sciences, because it began to be used as a proper noun with a capital “T.” One example is seen in a 1998 report on emerging environmental technologies: “If commercially viable, the Terminator technology will have profound implications for agriculture.” The technology, called “Genetic Use Restriction Technology,” or GURT, was coined “Terminator” by opponents criticizing the seeds.

In the OED, the definition of “a person who or thing which terminates or ends something” has an addendum. It includes, “(in later use) an exterminator; a professional assassin.” Given the film’s stranglehold on the public imagination — with six films and a television series, as well as countless spoofs in other media including The Simpsons and Wayne’s World — it wouldn’t surprise us if this addition was thanks to James Cameron’s presentation of The Terminator.

Feature image credit: Pictorial Press Ltd/ Alamy Stock Photo

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