Sciency Words: Alien

Welcome to another episode of Sciency Words, a special series here on Planet Pailly where we take a closer look at the defintions and etymologies of science or science-related terms so we can expand our scientific vocabularies together.  Today’s term is:


I recently added a new book to my personal reference library. It’s called Brave New Words: The Oxford Dictionary of Science Fiction.  Flipping through this book has been an absolute joy, and I’ve learned that many of the words we commonly see in both science and science fiction have far more complicated origins than you might expect.

The First Planet Had the First Aliens

The notion that life might exist on other worlds has been around for a surprisingly long time.  The ancient Greek philosophers were philosophizing about it as far back as the 7th Century B.C.E.  The idea really came to the forefront, though, thanks to Galileo.

Once Galileo looked through his telescope and found that the Moon was covered in mountains and “seas,” and once he turned his attention to the planets and realized they too were worlds in their own right, it wasn’t such a huge leap of logic to supposed that people might be living on those other worlds.  But if we’re going to talk about these hypothetical people, what should we call them?

According to Brave New Words, the planet Mercury was the first to have its possible inhabitants named.  Dutch astronomer Christiaan Huygens was writing about the Mercurians as early as 1698.  The term Lunarians, referring to the inhabitants of the Moon, is first noted in 1708.  Other terms like this kept cropping up throughout the 18th and 19th Centuries: Saturnians in 1738, Neptunians in 1870, Martians in 1874….  But what about a generic term for any life-form that’s not from Earth?

An Alien by Any Other Name

The word alien is almost as old as the concept of extraterrestrial life, but that’s not what the word originally meant at all. “Alien” traces back to an ancient Latin word that meant something like “belonging to someone else,” according to

The word came to English by way of French, with its meaning changing and expanding quite a bit along the way.  Alien can mean strange or exotic.  It can mean new and unexpected.  It can mean “from a foreign land.”  It can also mean out of place or unwelcome, and it can have other pejorative connotations as well.

But for our purposes, we’re primarily interested in the “creature from another planet” definition.  The oldest citation given in Brave New Words comes from British essayist Thomas Carlyle, who wrote in 1820: “I am like a being from another planet on this terrestrial ball, an alien, a pilgrim among its possessors.”

But this quotation is marked as being of historical interest, not as a proper example of the word’s sciency/science fictiony usage.  Mr. Carlyle is sort of fumbling for words here, I think, and the word alien still seems to have more to do with being foreign in general rather than extraterrestrial in particular.

Attack of the Bug-Eyed Monsters

So it’s not until the 1930’s, thanks in large part to the pulp Sci-Fi magazines of that era, that the word alien truly comes to mean a creature from some other world.  As Brave New Words shows us, it’s in the 30’s that we start reading about “intelligent aliens” who perform experiments using “many forms of apparatus,” or we hear about how “disgusting” it would be to “traffic with an alien form of life,” or how infuriating it is to think that a human being has become “a captive of the aliens.”

I don’t know about you, but to me that seems like a surprisingly recent development in the language.

17 thoughts on “Sciency Words: Alien

  1. Coincidentally I’ve been filling in a US tax form today and the US government is firmly of the opinion that I am an alien. After being called an alien 10 times, it stops being funny and becomes tiresome. Makes me want to abduct someone from the IRS and carry out experiments on them with my disgusting alien apparatus.

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  2. Edmond Hamilton’s “Crashing Suns” stories helped to define the space genre in the late 1920s. Interestingly, the word “alien” appears sporadically in them, but always as an adjective: “alien and unhuman forms”, “alien ships”, “alien in appearance”. (These very pulp stories are remarkable for how much they defined common space opera tropes.) “Alien” doesn’t appear at all in E.E. Doc Smith’s “Skylark of Space” novel, another genre defining pioneer of the same period. Hamilton’s use seems like an intermediate step toward the current use of the word.

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    1. E.E. Smith did give us the “trafficking with alien forms of life” bit. I guess that’s still an adjective form, though. Going through this Brave New Words book, it definitely seems like there was a transition period in the 1920’s where people were using the word in science fiction, but not quite the way we use it now. It looks like it starts appearing as a noun in the mid-1930’s.

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  3. As a partial side note, big dark eyes for aliens were imagined pre-20th century, but sensationalized in the early part of the century via emerging mass media (magazines as you say, and then radio).

    From “The War of the Worlds”:

    “They were, I now saw, the most unearthly creatures it is possible to conceive. They were huge round bodies—or, rather, heads—about four feet in diameter, each body having in front of it a face. This face had no nostrils—indeed, the Martians do not seem to have had any sense of smell, but it had a pair of very large dark-coloured eyes, and just beneath this a kind of fleshy beak. In the back of this head or body—I scarcely know how to speak of it—was the single tight tympanic surface, since known to be anatomically an ear, though it must have been almost useless in our dense air. In a group round the mouth were sixteen slender, almost whiplike tentacles, arranged in two bunches of eight each. These bunches have since been named rather aptly, by that distinguished anatomist, Professor Howes, the hands”

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      1. The simplest (and likely) explanation is that H.G. Wells, as a biologist, was imagining how evolution would work on an alien world, for what was known about Mars in that day, for an intelligent race much older than humans. When one starts to imagine what that description actually looks like, it is a bit frightening. Orson Welles then put the story to radio narrative and the rest is history.

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  4. Pingback: An interesting Blog | Episyllogism
    1. Yeah, I remember reading about hypothetical “alien” microorganisms that might exist deep underground. They’d be alien in the sense that their genetic code would be totally different from ours, but they still evolved here. It’s an interesting concept, but I really didn’t agree with the usage of alien in that context.


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