Downwell is used as a term for being on-planet, down a gravity well. I first heard it recently reading the Imperial Radch trilogy, and just saw the term used in promo for another story, and was wondering when it was first used—if there was some older common point of origin.

(Unfortunately there’s a game of the same name which makes it nearly impossible to search for myself.)

1 Answer 1


The term downwell appears to have first appeared in references to things going on inside actual underground wells. This Google N-grams search shows the term coming into use in the late 1950s, and if you follow up the early Google Books links, most of the uses involve "downwell" conditions in oil wells. Similarly, the Oxford English Dictionary defines the adjective thus: "Located, used, or occurring within the underground shaft of an oil well"; the earliest citation it has is from 1946.

However, the Google Books corpus turns up a clear science fiction usage in the 1987 novel Enigma by Michael P. Kube-McDowell:

"If you clear, I'll okay a pass downwell and a five-day leave so mat you can get your affairs straightened out. Report back on the eighth for orientation. If Tamm can get his people settled, we'll be outbound within sixty days. That's all. You can go.... (p. 39)

This certainly seems to be the same usage seen in other science fiction works (which the OED has not yet documented). Whether this is the earliest appearance of the term is unclear, since the Google Books corpus is by no means complete. It may also have been coined several times independently, by different authors.

  • 1
    " Ding Dong Dell "
    – Danny Mc G
    Commented Dec 3, 2019 at 13:59
  • In the Enigma quotation, is it referring to an oil well or something similarly like the real-world usage, or a gravity well like the examples in the question? (From the synopsis of the book, “gravity well” seems more likely, but it would be nice to have that confirmed by someone with access to the context of the quote, which I can’t currently get.)
    – PLL
    Commented Dec 3, 2019 at 23:55

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