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Little green men to the men in black: alien words in the OED

When responding to the argument that extraterrestrial life cannot exist because humans have not found it yet, Neil deGrasse Tyson—the well-known American astrophysicist—retorted:

“That’s like going to the ocean, taking a cup of water, scooping it up, and saying, ‘There are no whales in the ocean.’”

It is clear we earthlings have a complicated relationship with the idea that aliens exist, and draw complex and varied conclusions. For many, the idea that humans are not alone in the universe provokes a deep curiosity—as evidenced by the fact that stargazers have been speculating for centuries about this very possibility—and, indeed, the rover Curiosity is currently exploring a portion of Mars, seeking evidence of conditions favorable to microbial life as I write.

The Oxford English Dictionary, too, is marked with evidence of this human curiosity: it records the history and use of dozens of words relating to extraterrestrial life, created or re-appropriated over time to help explain the inexplicable. The fact that today, the 2 July, is World UFO Day, seems as good an opportunity as any to explore some of them.

Alien acronyms…

It’s hard to pinpoint what exactly makes acronyms seem so space-agey or so apt when describing alien life. My best guess would be NASA and ESA—themselves acronyms, for National Aeronautics and Space Administration and European Space Agency, respectively—whose undertakings in space exploration are widely viewed as integral to the discovery of alien life. Indeed, these undertakings are also often acronymic. SETI, for instance, refers to any of a number of NASA projects involving the Search for Extraterrestrial Intelligence—usually based on attempts to detect artificial radio transmissions from outer space. Speaking of radio transmissions, radar is actually an acronym as well, though less obvious; it stands for radio detection and ranging.

For some believers in extraterrestrial life, one use of radar is clear: the detection of (another very famous acronym) UFOs. Otherwise known as unidentified flying objects, UFOs are used to describe any object in the sky that is not explicable or identifiable—though more commonly the word is used to refer to alien-toting space vehicles. And apropos alien acronyms: who can forget E.T.? Standing for extraterrestrial (being), use of this word was first documented  in 1957, though E.T. was, of course, popularized by Steven Spielberg’s 1982 film about the adventures of a kind, Reese’s-Pieces-loving alien. Another relevant film of note is Men in Black; in the film, the ‘Men in Black’ (or M.I.B. for short) comprise a secret agency whose purpose involves erasing the memories of witnesses to alien sightings. However, the term men in black – referring to anonymous dark-clothed men who supposedly visit people who have reported an encounter with a UFO or an alien in order to prevent them publicizing it—was first documented in 1956.

…abduction (of meaning?)…

Words such as abduction and alien have historically not been confined to the realm of extra-terrestrial beings or space exploration. However, in the year 2013, it is impossible to examine these fully without making reference to the latter, as many have been reappropriated to serve a new, additional meaning in this area: a reappropriation that is, perhaps in and of itself, an abduction of sorts (if we follow the word’s classical Latin roots).

Indeed, abduction comes ultimately from the classical Latin abduct-, the past participle stem of abducere, meaning to lead away, carry off, or appropriate. First documented in 1623, abduction’s first meaning is now obsolete: the action of leading or drawing something away (or an instance of this). The word still holds its second meaning, also acquired in the 17th century—the action of forcibly taking someone away against their will—but in 1965 (as we know, a time when space-exploration was all the rage) the word was documented in a new way: it came to mean a reported paranormal experience in which a person, or abductee, claims to have been surreptitiously abducted by extraterrestrial beings.

Alien is another word that takes on a completely different meaning when framed by the context of space exploration and extraterrestrial life. This word also has Latin roots, coming ultimately from alius meaning other or another (from which the word alias also stems, as well as else). Though also an adjective and a verb, the first use of alien as a noun dates to the 14th century—and remarkably, this meaning is retained today, in addition to the others which have also entered the language: “a person who does not belong to a particular family, community, country, etc.; a foreigner, a stranger, an outsider”. In the early 15th century, it came to refer more specifically to a non-naturalized citizen of a country in which he or she is living—another meaning the word still carries today—and then, in 1931, the word alien was first documented as referring to an intelligent being from another planet. (For any interested parties or science fiction aficionados, the OED traces this sense to the August 1931 issue of the American science fiction magazine Wonder Stories.)

…and aliases

Alien is, of course, not the only word in the English language for one of these fascinating, perhaps-imagined perhaps-real extraterrestrial beings. We can’t forget about:

Little Green Man

Contrary to early depictions in science fiction novels and films, probably very few modern scientists believe that extraterrestrial life necessarily takes the form of little green men.


Martian comes from the classical Latin Martius, meaning of or belonging to Mars; for this reason, the word is also related to the word March (the month; the OED notes that in ancient Rome several festivals of Mars took place in the month of March, presumably in preparation for the campaigning season, since Mars was a god of war). Indeed, Martian was actually first used as an adjective, meaning of or relating to the influence of the planet Mars, later of or relating to war, and later still of or relating to the month of March. The noun’s first sense is the one we mean here: an (imagined) inhabitant of Mars, first attested in 1883—about half a century earlier than alien.

Bodysnatcher and Pod Person

Bodysnatcher is not solely a synonym for alien; it often refers historically to a person who illicitly disinterred corpses for dissection. However, it can also mean a person who or thing which abducts, captures, or takes control of someone, and now frequently alludes to Jack Finney’s 1955 science fiction novel The Body Snatchers, in which alien seed pods replicate and replace the population of a town.

The term pod people began to be used in allusion to this novel (and subsequent adaptations) as well; the term refers to the aliens, born in the alien seed pods, who are perfect duplicates of human beings. However, interestingly, the word pod person is defined by the OED without reference to aliens, but instead as “a person who is considered to be conformist, unoriginal, or emotionless, or one who lacks personality or individuality.”

Foo Fighter

Foo Fighters are one of the biggest-selling rock bands—but who knew the origins of their name? The term foo fighter in fact dates to 1945, and refers to any of various unidentified lights encountered by airborne forces during World War II; these lights were interpreted as enemy weapons, natural phenomena, and also alien spacecraft. (So not actually an alien itself, but close enough!) Foo fighter comes from the nonsense catchphrase ‘Where there’s foo there’s fire’ from the American comic strip Smoky Stover.

Alien- and space-related words in the OED by no means form an unchanging set. As Curiosity continues to roam across Mars, science fiction novels , comics, and films show no signs of abating, and—to borrow from Dr. Tyson—if we still have some “whales” to discover in the far reaches of space, we can probably expect a close encounter (speaking of Steven Spielberg movies) with many more new words, and reappropriations of old words, in the realm of space exploration and extraterrestrial life.

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