James Nicoll

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James Nicoll
James Davis Nicoll

(1961-03-18) March 18, 1961 (age 58)
ResidenceKitchener, Ontario
External image
James Nicoll, 2001 photo

James Davis Nicoll (born March 18, 1961[1]) of Kitchener, Ontario, is a freelance game and speculative fiction reviewer, former role-playing game store owner, 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. He is now a blogger on Dreamwidth and Facebook, and an occasional columnist on Tor.com. In 2014, he started his website, jamesdavisnicoll.com, dedicated to his book reviews of works old and new; and later added Young People Read Old SFF, where his panel of younger readers read pre-1980 science fiction and fantasy, and Nicoll and his collaborators report on the younger readers' reactions.

Influence on SF genre[edit]

In addition to his influence as a first reader for the Science Fiction Book Club, a book reviewer for Bookspan, Publishers Weekly and Romantic Times, and a juror for the James Tiptree, Jr. Award,[3] 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[4]—then kindly gave me permission to take his idea and run with it."[5]

"The Purity of the English Language"[edit]

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 riffle their pockets for new vocabulary.[6]

(A followup to the original post acknowledged that the spelling of "riffle" was a misspelling of "rifle".[7])

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.[8] Amateur linguists Jeremy Smith,[9] Richard Lederer,[10] and Anu Garg[11] have also referenced Nicoll's quote.

Professional linguists who have referenced the quotation online include Professor of Linguistics Mark Liberman of the University of Pennsylvania and Language Log;[12] Associate Professor of Linguistics Suzanne Kemmer[13] of Rice University,[14] who also posted her research into the quote at the LINGUIST mailing list;[15] and Second Language Acquisition Ph.D. student Rong Liu.[16][17] There are also amateur philologists who have used the quote, including journalist Suw Charman[18] and journalist Vale White.[19]

"Nicoll events"[edit]

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.[20]

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.[21]

"Brain eater"[edit]

A post on soc.history.what-if credits Nicoll with coining the phrase "brain eater"[22] which is supposed to "get" certain writers such as Poul Anderson[23] and James P. Hogan.[24] Nicoll claims the 'brain eater' affected Hogan, because of Hogan's expressions of belief in Immanuel Velikovsky's version of catastrophism,[25] and his advocacy of the hypothesis that AIDS is caused by pharmaceutical use rather than HIV (see AIDS denialism).[26] The term has been adopted by other Usenet posters,[27] [28] [29] as well as elsewhere on the Internet[30][31][32] and use of the term within Usenet has been criticised.[33][34]

Nicoll-Dyson Laser[edit]

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.[35]

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. The 2012 novel The Rapture of the Nerds by Cory Doctorow and Charles Stross uses the Nicoll-Dyson Laser concept by name as the means by which the Galactic Federation threatens to destroy the Earth.

Science-fictional Lysenkoism[edit]

In a discussion on rec.arts.sf.written about why Golden Age science fiction so often uses aliens said to derive from short-lived but well-known stars such as Rigel whose lifespan is probably too brief to ever allow the rise of life due to the long-established mass-luminosity relationship for main-sequence stars, Nicoll identified what he termed the "SFnal Lysenkoist Tendency when actual, tested science contradicts some detail in an SF story, attack the science."


Nicoll was one of the finalists for the 2010, 2011, and 2019 Hugo Awards for Best Fan Writer.[36] He has also been Fan Guest of Honor (GoH) at SF conventions including 2013's ConFusion in Detroit[37] and 2014's Arisia in Boston.[38]


  1. ^ Silver, Steven. "SF Birthday Calendar: March". 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. Retrieved 2007-05-20.
  3. ^ "2011 James Tiptree, Jr. Award". Retrieved 2016-01-26.
  4. ^ James Nicoll (11 Dec 2000). "Life on the Disk". Newsgroupsoc.history.what-if. Usenet: 9136ta$414$1@watserv3.uwaterloo.ca.
  5. ^ Stross, Charles (2007-06-17). "Brief Announcement".
  6. ^ Nicoll, James (1990-05-15). "The King's English". Newsgrouprec.arts.sf-lovers.
  7. ^ Nicoll, James (1990-05-20). "The King's English". Newsgrouprec.arts.sf-lovers. Usenet: 1990May20.184335.4443@watdragon.waterloo.edu.
  8. ^ Harris, Randy (2004). Voice Interaction Design: Crafting the New Conversational Speech Systems. San Francisco: Morgan Kaufmann. p. 55. ISBN 1-55860-768-4.
  9. ^ Smith, Jeremy (2005). Bum Bags and Fanny Packs: A British-American, American-British Dictionary. New York: Carrol & Graf. p. 164. ISBN 0-7867-1702-5.
  10. ^ Lederer, Richard (2003). A Man of My Words: Reflections on the English Language. New York: St. Martin's Press. p. 266. ISBN 0-312-31785-9.
  11. ^ 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 0-471-71845-9.
  12. ^ Liberman, Mark (2005-10-24). "The wordiness of English". Language Log.; "88 English words from snow". Language Log. 2003-12-07. Retrieved 2007-05-17.
  13. ^ "Suzanne Kemmer: Associate Professor of Linguistics, Rice University". Retrieved 30 January 2019.
  14. ^ Kemmer, Suzanne (2001-10-23). "The English Language: Past and Present". Rice University. Archived from the original on 2005-11-01. "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. Retrieved 2007-05-17.
  15. ^ Kemmer, Suzanne (2002-02-20). "James D. Nicoll quote - mystery solved". LINGUIST List. Retrieved 2007-05-17.
  16. ^ "Welcome to Rong's site-vitae". 10 September 2006. Archived from the original on 2006-09-10.
  17. ^ Liu, Mike (2005-10-03). "Presentation on Morphology, for the course INDV 101-Language". University of Arizona. Archived from the original (Microsoft PowerPoint) on September 12, 2006. Retrieved 2007-05-17.
  18. ^ Charman, Suw (2005-01-03). "Re: The purity of the English language". Chocolate and Vodka. Archived from the original on 2005-03-14. Retrieved 2007-05-17.
  19. ^ White, Vale (2004-10-13). "Words, words, words depurify". Southern Utah University Journal. Archived from the original on 2007-05-21. Retrieved 2007-05-17.
  20. ^ "Cally Soukup's List of Nicoll Events". dd-b.net.
  21. ^ "papersky: James Nicoll Poem". archive.is. 30 November 2012. Archived from the original on 30 November 2012.
  22. ^ Wilson, Gareth (2002-08-14). "Quick thought on the collapse of the Roman Empire". Newsgroupsoc.history.what-if. Usenet: 3D5A21D6.DDC8D0E2@ext.canterbury.ac.nz.
  23. ^ Nicoll, James (1997-09-12). "Fire Upon the Deep and Way Station". Newsgrouprec.arts.sf.written. Usenet: EGEGux.EK3@novice.uwaterloo.ca.
  24. ^ Nicoll, James (1999-09-02). "Genetic Engineering?". Newsgrouprec.arts.sf.written. Usenet: 7qkttc$1fq$1@watserv3.uwaterloo.ca.
  25. ^ Hogan, James P. "The Case for Taking Velikovsky Seriously". Archived from the original on 2007-09-28. Retrieved 2006-06-18.
  26. ^ Hogan, James P. "Bulletin Board: AIDS Skepticism". Archived from the original on 2007-09-28. Retrieved 2007-02-01.
  27. ^ McCutchen, Pete (1999-12-10). "Re: A Great New Sci-Fi Novel! (CRIT)". Newsgrouprec.arts.sf.composition. Usenet: 2me25scohl2fsvso1p3fppejt7vvvdskaf@4ax.com.
  28. ^ Palmer, David M. (2006-01-21). "Orson Scott Card: The brain eater takes another bite--Intelligent Design". Newsgrouprec.arts.sf.written. Usenet: 210120061300053447%dmpalmer@email.com.
  29. ^ Bradshaw, Simon (1999-11-14). "NASA and SF". Newsgrouprec.arts.sf.written. Usenet: memo.19991114183450.61989A@sjbradshaw.compulink.co.uk.
  30. ^ "Archived copy". Archived from the original on 2011-07-21. Retrieved 2007-11-21.CS1 maint: Archived copy as title (link)
  31. ^ "[Orson Scott Card] Empire - Page 3".
  32. ^ http://sadlyno.com/archives/4424.html#comment-100440 Archived 2007-11-09 at the Wayback Machine
  33. ^ M., Omega (2007-06-05). ""Brain eater": A phrase I hate". Hatrack River Forum. Retrieved 2007-10-30.
  34. ^ Wright, David. "For Us, The Living". www.heinleinsociety.org.
  35. ^ Nicoll, James (2005-03-20). "Re: A Moon base is too far; an asteroid ship better alternative:)". Newsgroupsci.space.tech. Usenet: d1kl0p$c9q$1@reader1.panix.com.
  36. ^ "2010 Hugo Award Nominees – Details". 2010-04-04. Retrieved 2010-04-04.
  37. ^ "Fan GoH: James Davis Nicoll Immortal ConFusion". 2014-01-21. Retrieved 2014-01-21.
  38. ^ "Welcome Arisia 2014". 2014-01-21. Retrieved 2014-01-21.

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