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Hold on to your tin foil hat: the origin of the UFO

2 July is World UFO Day, a chance for us all to think about UFO sightings, and, for this blog, to take a journey from clay pigeons to the mysterious habits of abbreviations.

Is this a saucer I see before me?

On 24 June 1947 Kenneth Arnold, an American businessman, was flying towards Mount Rainier when he saw nine objects in the sky. He said they were ‘flat like a pie-pan’, and so shiny that they reflected the sun like a mirror. He also likened them to saucers. On 26 June a headline writer at The Oakland Tribune came up with ‘Experts scoff at airman’s tale of “flying saucers”’. Flying saucer was added to Oxford English Dictionary in 1972, its earliest quotation currently coming from the Times a few days after the publication of the Tribune article. (The Oakland Tribune’s quotation will antedate this when the entry is revised.)

Flying saucer had previously been used to mean a clay pigeon, a disk thrown into the air by a trap as a target for shooting. Whilst research thing article, I discovered an example from 1889, and it was used in the years immediately before 1947 in American newspaper stories about anti-aircraft sharpshooters, so this may have been in the headline writer’s mind.

Soon many other people were seeing what Kenneth Arnold had seen. They called them flying saucers for a while, but whereas that’s a fine name for a disc of clay that you’re going to blast to smithereens it felt a bit too jokey for an emissary from another planet. Furthermore, although all the objects flew, not all of them were shaped like saucers: there were triangles, cigars, crescents, spheres.

The land of make-believe?

The word Spaceship had been around since at least 1880, and spacecraft since 1929. Although Spacecraft was later to be used in the space race, in 1947 these words were still confined to science fiction and the people who reported the sightings didn’t want to use the language of make-believe. A new word was needed and was found in a place which has often been lexically productive, the world of military reports.

Soldiers (and sailors and airmen) writing reports do not favour flowery language and their words sometimes become, for this reason, poetic. Thus the huge field of corn emerging at the end of the hawthorn path which Proust spends many pages (and nearly as many sentences) describing became Hill 307 in bulletins from the Battle of Méséglise.. The real-life counterparts of Hill 307 in WWI, lifted from military bulletins straight into the newspapers, came to evoke horrors.

Repetition is a feature of military life and so of military reports: as patrols see the same things every day they describe them in the same ways, evolving phrases which they then abbreviate; thus we have IED, RPG, MRE, medevac, and MIA. Journalists, and then the rest of us, like to pick these things up as if we had a clue what war is really like.

Pilots wrote unidentified object, unknown flying object, unidentified aerial object, and, because of the natural tendency of the language-using person to home in on a cliché, they started to write unidentified flying object, more than they wrote anything else. The earliest use of UFO that OED records is 1953, although if we had access to classified military reports we might well find something a bit earlier.

From UFO has grown, by the ordinary process of adding endings to words, ufology, ufological, and ufologist.

The galaxy defenders

Close behind the UFOs came the men in black. They, turn up, sometimes in a black helicopter, at the homes of people who’ve seen a UFO and warn them to keep quiet. Men in black were first so named in 1956 in a book by Grey Barker, They knew too much about Flying Saucers and had their fame pushed skywards by the 1997 film. They don’t know how to drink a cup of coffee and are baffled by jello.

As if that isn’t strange enough, when the men in black became an intitialism, they started to behave even more strangely.

Although MIB is pronounced by spelling out the letters, em-eye-bee, (rather than mib, to rhyme with fib) it ‘forgets’ its origins as an abbreviation when it forms the plural, MIBs (pronounced em-eye-beez). So you get things like ‘After Jed saw an extraterrestrial three MIBs came calling’.

Logic might tell you that MIBs ought to mean ‘men in blacks’, or, at a pinch, ‘man in blacks’, but logic has very little to do with the way words behave. This mystery will be the first thing I’ll ask to have explained, should I ever become an abductee myself and encounter an alien super-brain.

On World UFO Day I’ll certainly be staring up at the sky but, for myself, will expect stranger marvels in the words I hear around me.