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Organlegging: Hold Onto Your Heart


Jeff Prucher, editor of Brave New Words: The Oxford Dictionary of Science Fiction, has kindly guest blogged for us this week. Below, learn how science fiction has conceived of a crime, which has never been committed.

There have been a number of news reports in recent months that reveal a dark underside to the word of organ transplants. In one case, corpses were illegally purchased from funeral directors, and usable tissues were resold to be used in transplants. In another, poor people were paid or coerced into having one of their kidneys removed; the kidneys were then used as transplants. These stories are disturbingly reminiscent of events in a series of stories by science fiction writer Larry Niven that began in the late 1960s. In the universe in which these stories are set, organ transplantation is an effective method of prolonging life. The unfortunate side-effect of this is that fewer people die, which in turn means that there are fewer organs available for transplant. Extreme measures are taken to deal with this issue, both by the government (which harvests organs from criminals who have been executed for committing one of an increasingly absurd array of capital offenses, including excessive traffic violations) and by organized gangs who traffic in illegal organs – usually either taken from unwilling (living) donors or from people in cryogenic sleep. Unlike the real-world kidney donors, the victims of the illegal organ harvesting in Niven’s stories don’t tend to survive. In his story “The Jigsaw Man” (1967), Niven describes the fate of a man who was executed for the crime of stealing people’s organs

The doctor took him apart with exquisite care, like disassembling a flexible, fragile, tremendously complex jigsaw puzzle. The brain was flashburned and the ashes saved for urn burial; but all the rest of the body, in slabs and small blobs and parchment-thin layers and lengths of tubing, went into storage in the hospital’s organ banks…. If the odds broke right, if the right people came down with the right diseases at the right time, the organlegger might save more lives than he had taken.

There’s an unusual word in the last sentence, and it’s why I’ve brought up all these gory details. Organlegger is a word that Niven coined to describe the criminals who traffic in human organs; he called their crime organlegging. These are portmanteau words, which take the “-leg” from bootlegger – a trafficker in illegal liquor – and its derivatives, and combine it with organ. (Bootleggers were originally so called because they carried their liquor in the legs of their boots, a practice which, we can presume, has not been perpetuated by organleggers.)

These words have been familiar to readers of science fiction for over forty years now, and have been moderately successful, as far as neologisms go, in that some other science fiction writers have started using the terms in their own writing. Its first appearance outside of Niven’s work may well have been as the title of a science fiction fanzine that began publication in 1973. The first non-Niven use in fiction that I’ve been able to find is from Rudy Rucker‘s 1987 novel Wetware:

The organleggers took some of their organs right out of newly murdered people; others they purchased from the Moon.

After that, things started to pick up a bit. And the meaning of the terms started to shift, as well – it started to be used in ways that weren’t limited to human organs. The role-playing game Shadowrun, first released in 1989, is set in a world where both magic and high technology co-exist, and in which cybernetic implants or wholesale limb replacements are common. Its organleggers traffic not only in organs, but in cybernetics as well. The titular creatures in F. Paul Wilson’s 2003 novel Sims are chimpanzees that have been genetically modified with human DNA. At one point, organleggers are suspected of harvesting sim organs to be used for transplants into humans.

This borrowing of neologisms is a comparatively rare occurrence in the world of science fiction, if you pause to consider brave-new-words.jpgthat there is a good chance that any given science fiction story will contain either a neologism or a novel use of an existing word. And while few of these are ever used by another author, fewer still slip out into broader usage. But what’s interesting to me, as a lexicographer of science fiction, is that some people have indeed started using the words organlegger and organlegging to describe these current events. (Naturally, at least some of them are science fiction readers.) Time will tell whether these words ever truly become ensconced in the language, or whether other terms will be invented instead. But if they do, Niven will have pulled off a rare feat – conceiving of a crime before committing it is remotely possible, and giving it a name that sticks.

Ben Zimmer is taking a much needed vacation. In the meantime check out his “words of the week” on our main page (center column) or by clicking here.

2 Responses to “Organlegging: Hold Onto Your Heart”
  1. [...] I have a guest-blog at OUPblog today (I’m pinch-blogging for Ben Zimmer), about organleggers and organlegging. Pop on over and take a look! [...]

  2. [...] Niven predicted that organleggers would kill people and harvest their parts to sell to rich patients needing transplants. But he [...]

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