Word for Wednesday: Utopia and Dystopia

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This week we’ll be investigating a pair of antonyms that you may or may not have come across: utopia and dystopia.

The word utopia comes from the Greek ‘ou’, which means ‘not’ or ‘no’ and ‘topos’, meaning ‘place’. This evolved into the modern Latin ‘utopia’, which translates as ‘nowhere’.

In 1516, the Englishman Thomas More published a book entitled ‘Utopia’. In the story, he explored the politics of a fictional society that was perfect in every way. Although Thomas More coined the name, the idea of a utopia had long been in existence – the biblical Garden of Eden for example.

By the 17th century, the word utopia had come to refer to any perfect place – a fictional idyll. It wasn’t until 1868 that utopia’s antonym broke into circulation. A dystopia is an ‘imagined place or state in which everything is bad’. Dystopia combines the Greek ‘dys’ (bad) with ‘topos’ (place).

The concept of utopia and dystopia has always been popular stimulus for exploration and consequently, many great literary and theatrical works have been based upon these ideas. A couple of famous examples are George Orwell’s ‘Nineteen Eighty-Four’ in which he creates a terrifying dystopia and Plato’s hugely influential ‘The Republic’, which is a philosophical dialogue exploring the idea of a utopian state.

There does exist a third ‘topia’. Only this one is a little harder to grasp. A ‘heterotopia’ is a place in which rather than being good or bad, things are… different and as such this idea of ‘otherness’ has been hugely influential in the speculative genres of science fiction and fantasy. Perhaps ‘heterotopia’ is a word to look at another time…

Hugh MacDermott

18 Feb 2015
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