Phaser vs. Fazer

Here’s my entry on “faze” vs. “phase”:

“Faze” means to embarrass or disturb, but is almost always used in the negative sense, as in “the fact that the overhead projector bulb was burned out didn’t faze her.” “Phase” is a noun or verb having to do with an aspect of something. “He’s just going through a temperamental phase.” “They’re going to phase in the new accounting procedures gradually.“ Unfortunately, Star Trek has confused matters by calling its ray pistols phasers. Too bad they aren’t fazers instead.

Every once in a while I get e-mail from a Star Trek fan challenging my statement by arguing that there are sound reasons in physics for referring to the pistols as “phasers.”

This doesn’t turn up often enough to qualify as one of my “Commonly Made Suggestions,” but I’ve decided to deal with it here. Most casual viewers of the TV shows and films have probably never seen the word in print and don’t care one way or the other; but for the real fans who do care, here’s my explanation.

I understand what the Star Trek creators had in mind when they used the spelling “phaser,” probably to refer to the phase of the waves emitted; but I still feel it was an unfortunate choice because it has greatly reinforced the widespread confusion between “phase” and “faze.”

Most of the associations people have with the word “phase” are subtle, gradual. This spelling is not automatically associated with something violently sudden, like the burst of energy from what used to be called a “ray gun.” Dropping a nuclear bomb on people may change their phase from solid to gas, but “phase” is not the term that naturally comes to mind in such a context.

As noted in my entry, “faze” is almost always used negatively, so if the expression is something like “didn’t faze,” the “phase” spelling is nonstandard.

All that said, the confusion is so pervasive that most people are unaware of the distinction. And for that, I feel Star Trek is partly to blame.


thenakedlistener said...

The production notes used in the Star Trek original series used 'phaser' for 'PHoton mASER.' In the 1960s when the TV series were written, the laser was relatively unknown and powers weren't expected to be great. But masers were already very powerful machines that produce destructive radiation pulses. Since then, some people (usually the physicists and Star Trek fans) have redefined 'phaser' as 'PHASed Energy Rectification': the reason being Lasing and Masing emissions are rectified, or synchronous. I grant you 'fazer' might have been a better choice IN HINDSIGHT since the job is chiefly to faze the target, but 'phaser' it was given to us and should be the word to use after 30-40 years of usage.

Paul Brians said...

Thanks for the extra details.

As I explained, I'm not saying the spelling should be changed or is "wrong," only that the ST spelling perpetuated linguistic confusion, unintentionally.

Gene said...

I highly doubt anyone thought the Phaser name meant "embarrasser/disturber" or even made a similar subconscious connection.

Anonymous said...

I did

Ross said...

I think Star Trek would have only further reinforced this error amongst people who wouldn't understand even if you explained in great detail what phase means in scientific terms.
I also think that if your opinion is that a manipulated electromagnetic wave has more to do with embarrassing someone than it does with wave or particle shift then the English language probably isn't your bag, and writing a blog about it shouldn't be high on your agenda.