Uchronie – great word

As often happens, I was chatting with my French friend Cerise when she tossed in a French word that she assumed we also use in English, but in fact do not. And as is often the case, the French have a fantastic and specific word where we have but a clunky phrase. The word in this case is “uchronie”, which in English means roughly “the setting of an alternate history story.” The word is based on the Greek roots “u” and “chronos”, as in “utopia” (or un-place) and time, and therefore means “a non-time”. The concept is of course familiar to any reader of speculative fiction (generally thought of as a classier term for science fiction, but really a broader term that includes science fiction as well as things like alternate history, that never fit comfortably in the SF category) but our language lacks such an elegant word for it.

Note that the English form of this word would be uchronia, as utopia is utopie in French.

19 thoughts on “Uchronie – great word”

  1. This reminds me of a fictional device named “Subjunc-TV” in Richard Hofstadter’s Goedel Escher Bach. It’s a device that lets one watch how a scene WOULD HAVE played out differently, if a condition were altered.

    In the book, the characters are watching a football game. After each play, they use the device to look at what the result would have been if, say, the pass were intercepted, or a proper tackle had been made. The punchline: The characters claim that they won this Subjunc-TV in a lottery, but then they confess that the number was slightly off. As it turns out, we are watching on a Subjunc-TV what the characters would have been doing if they had won the device.

  2. Reminds me of when Japanese speaking English people use katakana words that they assume must be from English when in fact they are from a different western language – e.g. I’ve heard “look at that pierrot(ピエロ)”!

  3. You can, although in English it specifically denotes a character from French pantomime. That, and people may just mishear it as “Poirot” and think you’re comparing someone to David Suchet.

    Japanese use the word any clown or clownish action, and so the usage would probably be different.

  4. Hey, come on now. We have “alternate universe/timeline”, which while admittedly several orders of magnitude less cool than “uchronia” is at least less clunky than “setting of an alternate history story.”

  5. Thanks for the mime tip Peter.

    We also have the rather cool “What If?” (if you are an oldschool Marvel Comics nerd, it is rather cool). DC coined “Elseworld”.

    Japanese has a few nice ones like 空想戦記 and 架空史.

  6. I think that the terms “alternate universe/timeline” implies that the fictional setting actually has some degree of realness. It exists, but separate from our own universe/timeline, and sounds like something that can be crossed over to with some sort of time machine or dimensional portal. A uchronia is a “non-time”, a purely fictional thought experiment of a world, and not a branch of a multidimensional multiverse.

    The two Sino-Japanese terms (used in Chinese and Korean, and perhaps Vietnamese as well, I assume) do work rather well thought. I like “Elseworld” quite a bit more than “What If?” partly because it sounds better and sounds like it refers to what it refers to, but largely because the Elseworld stories are generally far more clever and creative than Marvel’s rather pedestrian “What If?” stories.

  7. 架空史 existed before the 20th century and is used all over the Sinosphere. 空想戦記 is a Japanese pop culture thing from the 80s as far as I can gather (but it should be easily understood by all kanji readers).

    “What If?” is not just Marvel, it actually gets used a lot by historians who are doing just the thing that “uchronia” implies.

    BTW, I’m not sure that uchronia gets used any more in French than, say, panopticon gets used in English….

  8. I’ve not idea how much “uchronie” gets tossed around in French, but it is the word she used when asking me in English if I was interested in writing such a fictional piece for the website erenlai.com, which she edits as part of her job. The point is, she expected me to understand the word. Of course, she knows fully well how much of a geek I am, and I’m sure she’s likewise well versed in the panopticon.

  9. I’d blame Bentham myself. Anyway, it’s a cool word. One of the world’s first zoos, in the gardens of Schonbrunn, was designed like a panopticon so that the Hapbsurgs could sit in a pavilion in the middle and admire either the animals or the people.

    Uchronia sounds like a nasty infection….

  10. I was certainly taught that Jeremy Bentham created the term panopticon.

    If you have an infection in your uchron you definitely want to get it checked out. You never know when it might affect you.

  11. Bentham created the term panopticon but you hear it 3 times a week in grad school because of Foucault.

  12. Uchronie comes from “The Uchronic”, a great rappe album by Dr. Drez. It was recorded in an alternate universe.

  13. “Uchronie” is not such a common word, I agree, but we do use it when we need it, as well as “panopticon” that we frenchicized into “Panoptique”…

    It is also true that it sounds like a bad STD or like a good chlamydia.

    je veux, mon neveu!

  14. “Bentham created the term panopticon but you hear it 3 times a week in grad school because of Foucault.”

    Yeah, but it’s not fair to blame the French for Foucault. I agree someone has to take the blame, mind you….

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