Which is real – handwavium, unobtainium, dysprosium?


Today I have three words for you inspired by a recent Writing Excuses podcast which discussed when and how to use handwavium in sci-fi and fantasy writing.

But what is handwavium? Well, if you’ve ever watched Alec Guinness wave his hand and say “These are not the droids you’re looking for” you’re on the right track. It’s the idea of a writer, or jedi, telling their audience that “this detail is not important” or simply not explaining how something works in their imagined world. This is actually OK at times. The details might be mundane, or to be revealed later in the plot, or simply be unimportant. But don’t over-use handwavium. Yoda would remind us that it’s unlikely to work on those strong in mind.

Unobtainium in engineering, fiction, and thought experiments is a fictional or theorised material which is rare, costly or impossible. It is often used in jest. It was probably coined in aerospace engineering c. 1950 and has been likened to titanium (which is real, in case you’re wondering). The term went mainstream in 2010 when it was used to describe ores which we’d love to have for industry but which are so rare and hence so costly as to become unaffordium. It was also name-checked in the sci-fi movie “Avatar”. The second meaning of handwavium is the same as unobtainium.

Dysprosium is the name of the rare earth magnetic compound Element 66 on the periodic table. The name comes from the Greek for “hard to get”. “Playing dyprosium” isn’t as catchy a term as “playing hard to get” though. The name Dyprosium dates from 1886 and you’ll find a pronunciation here.

Only dysprosium features in Webster’s dictionary so it can be argued that only it is real. Personally I like all three words and that’s real enough for me.

Until next time, happy reading, writing, and wordfooling,


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2 thoughts on “Which is real – handwavium, unobtainium, dysprosium?

  1. wordfoolery Post author

    “The writer performed some amazing handwavium when classifying dysprosium as unobtainium which simply isn’t true.”

    [Grace takes a bow and walks away with three Jedi points until Yoda hits her with his stick and tells her to “humble be and fool with words not”].


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