Like spice, the words of Dune must flow.
The secret to the enduring appeal of Frank Herbert’s seminal science-fiction novel most certainly lies with its memorable characters. Fans connect with Paul Atreides. They love to hate the Baron. Chani’s struggles and triumphs are captivating.
That said, it’s arguable Herbert’s intricate and detailed construction of the larger Dune universe is the real spice of the story. Perhaps the reason why the novel has remained a science-fiction classic for so long isn’t just the people, but the world around them — in all its dazzling complexities.
If you’re new to the Dune universe, and you’re looking forward to the movie, many of its sci-fi words will prove baffling. Here’s a guide to the most important terminology in the world of Dune, explained by an expert on this universe: the narrator of countless Dune audiobooks, Scott Brick. Very mild spoilers ahead for the Dune novels.
Perhaps no living person knows the words of Dune like Brick. For decades, he’s worked as an actor and voiceover artist, performing the narration for massively popular books from The Bourne Identity to the audiobook version of Blade Runner (Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep?). But, Brick is also the de facto voice of Dune on audio, and has been working on a wide variety of different Dune audiobooks — including the sequels and prequels — for over 20 years.
Inverse interviewed Brick to ask which words in the world of Dune were most essential to understand going in. Whether you’re an old-school spicehead or new to Dune, these are the 14 words you absolutely must know, as defined by Scott Brick.
Comments have been edited and condensed.
Arrakis (uh RAK is):
The name of the planet on which the book/movie’s story unfolds. Founded ten thousand years previously by slaves fleeing captivity on a distant planet, who journeyed to the absolute last place in the galaxy anyone would look for them. It’s a desert world where bodies of water are nonexistent, but it’s also the only place in the galaxy where sandworms (and the spice melange) can be found.
Fremen (FREM un):
My favorite word in the Dune universe, because it shows how much has changed over millennia (including language and pronunciation!). The slaves who founded the planet called themselves “the free men of Arrakis,” but over time, the phrase was shortened to “the Fremen,” the tribal name by which they are now known. Even the empire’s noblemen, trusted with the task of mining the planet’s richest resource, know not to mess with the Fremen: when they end the lives of outsiders, they drain their bodies for water. You’ve heard of the threat, “I will drink your blood?” Well, “I will drink your water” takes it to a whole other level.
Spice Melange (may LAHNZH):
You think your coffee addiction is serious? An entire galaxy is addicted to this spice, which is used in everything from coffee to wine to medication to desserts. But this spice is rarer than gold, causes the whites of the eyes to turn a deep blue in addicts. It’s been known to enhance mental abilities,and is in many ways a fountain of youth.
'Thopter (THOP ter):
A shortening of the word ornithopter, which is essentially a helicopter with flapping wings. They are everywhere on Arrakis, used by safety crews to spot the mammoth sandworms that disrupt the harvesting of melange. Sandworms can eat spice harvesters whole, which is to be avoided at all costs, hence the ‘thopters.
Bene Gesserit (BEH nee JEZ uh rit):
The most dangerous and intelligent women alive, this group of trained fighters can literally change their body chemistry so as to survive poisoning. The most powerful of them can also tap into the memories of previous members of the sisterhood and learn from their successes and mistakes, going back thousands of years. These women are definitely playing the long con! Frank Herbert based them on his own personal feelings toward the Jesuit priesthood, which is why the sisterhood’s name rhymes with it.
Shai-Hulud (shie hoo-LOOD):
The Fremen name for the sandworms of Arrakis, the term comes from two Arabic words, one meaning “thing” and the other “eternal.” It can refer to one individual worm but is also used interchangeably when referring to the Fremen belief that the sandworms are a physical embodiment of God.
Kwisatz Haderach (KWEE sahtz HOD er ahk):
In layperson’s terms, it’s the messiah the Bene Gesserit have been breeding, part of an elaborate bloodline scheme they’ve been cultivating for thousands of years. The term comes from Chakobsa, the language of the Fremen of Arrakis, which means “the shortening of the way.” Paul Atreides has been rumored for years to be one of the strongest candidates to become the Kwisatz Haderach, but only time will tell!
Holtzman shield (HOLTZ mun):
This personal shield was designed by Tio Holtzman (who actually stole the technology from one of his assistants, but that’s another story) to make energy and projectile weapons ineffective. It has become standard among all noblemen and soldiers in the Empire. Frank Herbert used the shield in Dune as a way to keep the fighting style in the book more visually interesting: because knives can slip past a Holtzman shield, it makes this scientifically advanced culture still appear more feudal in nature.
Muad'dib (mwah DEEB):
The name refers to an adapted kangaroo mouse found on the planet Arrakis, much revered by the Fremen for its ability to survive in the harsh wilderness. When the Fremen accept Paul Atreides, he adopts the name of the creature for his own name among his new people, and the Fremen praise this cultural symbolism. A very good omen indeed.
This massive mercantile corporation essentially controls both the cargo and the finances of the entire Empire. Frank Herbert saw this shadowy entity as an echo of OPEC: corporations that control all the resources (and money) in the known universe and use it to enrich the nobles. Oh, and in a cool aside, Forbes Magazine once designated C.H.O.A.M. as the largest fictional corporation in history! True story.
Harkonnen (HAHR ken en):
The name is the bane of my existence! I love David Lynch, but the man did me no favors when he ignored Frank Herbert’s instruction on how to pronounce the name of Dune’s hideous Baron Harkonnen, the Atreides’ greatest enemy, in the first Dune film adaptation. Lynch also singlehandedly inspired a million hours of pointless speculation and argument among Dune’s fans who still debate how you pronounce the name to this day. As for me, Frank’s way of saying it supersedes all debate: say the word “hearken,” then add an “en.” But to this day, even after narrating over twenty Dune books, Lynch’s pronunciation is so engraved in my brain that I still screw up sometimes when I read it aloud. Sigh. Thanks, Dave.
Atreides (uh TRAY ih deez):
Paul Atreides is the son of Duke Leto, who is himself the son of Old Duke Paulus, after whom Paul is named. The family is descended from King Agamemnon, who was a son of Atreus in Greek mythology, making them perhaps the longest-lived dynastic family in history. There’s a whole lot of nobility in that bloodline!
Butlerian Jihad (but LAYR ee un jee HAHD):
As its Arabic meaning suggests, this jihad was a blood conflict fought against the Thinking Machines; it was named after Serena Butler, whose child was one of its first victims. All of humanity rose up to defeat the evil Omnius, a near-sentient Artificial Intelligence that saw no purpose in serving humanity, but rather turned the tables and enslaved them for their own purposes. (Every time I speak to Brian Herbert, I tease him by reminding him how much both he and his father avoided thinking machines—or computers as we know them today—preferring to type up their Dune manuscripts either on carbon paper or on a word processor in the early days. It fits, thematically, I think.)
Ghola (GO luh):
Rather than go into the technology of what makes gholas different than clones (hint: a ghola retains most of the memories of its source material), I’ll merely share the story of what happened when Dune fans started complaining about one of their favorite characters getting offed in the first volume—Frank quickly solved the problem by inventing gholas. SPOILER ALERT: the character came back in the next book!
Dune hits HBO Max and theaters in the US on October 22, 2021.