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In a book called “My Best Science Fiction Story”, published in 1949, the author John Taine, referring to his story “The Ultimate Catalyst”, writes that the story is “my favorite s-f story”. The story was first published in 1939. I’ve always thought “sf” was a later usage.

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    I believe Isaac Asimov wrote an essay disparaging the use of sci-fi (and other derivatives) and encouraging sf. May have been in the left hand of the electron I can't look it up since I sold all my Asimov books. – Peter Turner Oct 6 '19 at 3:23
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    Are you asking about the history of "SF" or "S-F" as an abbreviation for science fiction? – V2Blast Oct 6 '19 at 6:42
  • As an abbreviation. – Ben Kurtzer Oct 6 '19 at 12:15
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It's complicated because using "SF" as short for "Science Fiction" is just one of several closely-related initialisms used. These included "S. F.", "S-F" (and "s-f"), "Stf", and finally "SF". (Most of the information following comes from Jeff Prucher's Brave New Words (2008).)

  • The earliest use of anything in the family seems to date from 1929 in a letter to the editor of Science Wonder Stories, though it was still considered as an abbreviation and written "S. F." (It's not clear whether the letter writer or the editor did the abbreviating.)

  • The first use of "s-f" was in 1939 in a letter in Thrilling Wonder Stories.

  • The first use Brave New Words cites for "SF" was 1965 in a book review in Analog, but I'm pretty sure this is not the first.

  • "stf" is an early use first seen in 1931 in a letter to Wonder Stories. (FYI, "stf" is an abbreviation for "scientifiction" which was an early alternative to "science fiction" favored by Hugo Gernsback as a name for the genre.)

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    I upvoted before I noticed that you didn't bother to locate the first cite among the 1929 issues of Science Wonder Stories. Jeff Prucher pinpoints it to the June issue, p. 92, column 3. It can be viewed in context at the Internet Archive. – user14111 Oct 5 '19 at 23:28
  • I believe that punctuation and capitalization are not considered significant in Prucher's Brave New Words. The forms SF, S. F., S-F, sf, s. f., s-f (but not stf) are under a single heading. We can conclude that the 1029 citation is (or was when the book went to press) the earliest known instance of that abbreviation in any form; but Prucher would probably not have been interested in finding the earliest use of the exact form s-f, and I'll bet that 1939 example is not it. – user14111 Oct 5 '19 at 23:34
  • E.g. see the "s-f" on p. 119 (left column, bottom line) in the August 1938 issue of Thrilling Wonder Stories: archive.org/stream/Thrilling_Wonder_Stories_v12n01_1938-08#page/… – user14111 Oct 5 '19 at 23:45
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    One limitation of Brave New Words (I contributed to it and am intimately familiar with the problem) is that at the time it was being created, very little of the literature was searchable other than by reading it, so we doubtless failed to find the very earliest usages in many cases. It would be great if someone kept it going as an online project. – Mark Olson Oct 6 '19 at 0:32
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According to the German Wikipedia entry on Science-Fiction

Der Begriff wurde erstmals 1851 von dem britischen Dichter und Essayisten William Wilson (ca. 1826–1886) in der Überschrift von Kapitel 10 seines Buches A little earnest book upon a great old subject als „Science-Fiction“ eingeführt und, so der Schriftsteller Felix J. Palma in seinem Buch Die Landkarte der Zeit, von dem luxemburgisch-amerikanischen Erfinder, Schriftsteller und Verleger Hugo Gernsback im April 1926 in seiner Zeitschrift Amazing Stories als „scientifiction“ verwendet sowie ab 1929 in der endgültigen Form „science fiction“ als Genrebezeichnung etabliert.[2] Bereits im August 1923 hatte er eine Sondernummer seines Magazins „Science and Invention“ als Scientific Fiction Number herausgegeben. 1929 ist das Lehnwort Science-Fiction in Werbungen für das Magazin Air Wonder Stories belegt. Die Abkürzung sci-fi ist von 1955.

the expression Science-Fiction was invented by William Wilson in 1851, the final form science fiction was established in 1929. The abbrevation sci-fi is from 1955.
Or did you just want to know since when "sf" was used to abbrevate science fiction? This could be almost untraceable because it is very likely that several authors did use it inside texts after they wrote the complete term once, but not as an official label.

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    I'm pretty sure the OP is interested in the abbreviation. If he were asking about the origin of the term "science fiction" it would have been enough to cite te title of that anthology.h – user14111 Oct 5 '19 at 22:29

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