I recently finished Ken Liu's phenomenal English translation of Liu Cixin's The Three-Body Problem, and the term "sophon" to describe an AI constructed out of a sub-atomic particle reminded me of the term "sophont" from the Game Designer's Workshop's (GDW) space-operatic sci-fi game Traveller. In the GDW-published campaign material "sophont" was used, as far as I could tell, to describe any species with language-level intelligence, regardless of technology level, physical traits, artificial or evolutionary design, etc.

I recently noticed someone in a fantasy RPG discussion forum using the term "sophont" to generally refer to all the intelligent races/beings (i.e. humans, elves, dwarves, demons, lizard-folk, etc.).

"Sophont" does not appear in the Oxford English Dictionary (2nd edition), nor in any editions of the Webster's English dictionaries I have seen. However, the first Google Books mention in the English language is from 1972 in The Magazine of Fantasy and Science Fiction.

Did the term "sophont" originate in the science fiction or fantasy literature genres? What was its first appearance? (Assume that I include games, comic books, comic strips, etc. in the category "literature" along with novels, short stories, etc.)


According to Brave New Words by Jeff Prucher, the earliest citation is Poul Anderson in The Trouble Twisters in 1966. Anderson certainly used the term frequently to refer to an intelligent creature. I don't recall anyone using it previously. The word is derived from σοφός (sophós, “wise”) (Ancient Greek).

From The Trouble Twisters:

Likewise with the psychology of intelligent species. Most sophonts indeed possess basic instincts which diverge more or less from man's. With those of radically alien motivations we have little contact.

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    People who don't have a copy of Brave New Words can see the entry for "sophont" at the Science Fiction Citations web site, which also says: "We found an article by Poul Anderson in which he credited Karen Anderson with coining the word: we also received email from Karen confirming this, so the first use in print of this word will be found somewhere amongst the works of Poul Anderson." Karen Anderson is Poul Anderson's widow. – user14111 Feb 19 '18 at 21:13
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    To be more precise, it seems likely that sophont is borrowed from σοφόντ-, which is the inflectional stem of σοφῶν, the present participle of the (rare) contract verb σοφόω ‘to bring to know, become clever at, know about’; thus a σοφῶν would be someone who is ‘knowing’ or, more broadly put, ‘intelligent’. – Janus Bahs Jacquet Mar 11 '18 at 20:27
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    @JanusBahsJacquet That's a sophisticated etymology! ;) – Lexible Mar 24 '18 at 5:37

In the footnotes for "The Three-Body Problem":

Translator's Note: There is a pun in Chinese between the word for a proton, zhizi (质子), and the word for a sophon, zhizi (質子)

This is regarding the word "sophon" and not "sophont". My interpretation of this is that "sophon" is simply a play on words and not related to "sophont".

Disclaimer: Chinese characters are copied from Google Translate

  • Thank you for this note! :) I disagree with you about no relationship between sophon and sophont, but could happily be persuaded otherwise (e.g., word from Cixin Liu, Ken Liu, etc.). – Lexible Oct 16 '20 at 1:55

The word is similar to the Greek word Σώφρον (Sofron = Provident Prudential ) and the word Σοφός (Sofos = Wise). Seems like this is the origin.

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    While "sophont" is likely derived from these words, I think the OP is asking for the first appearance of "sophont" itself. – Null Nov 20 '19 at 13:14

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