Sciency Words: Colony

Hello, friends!  Welcome to another episode of Sciency Words.  Normally on Sciency Words, we talk about those strange words scientists use, but today we’re going to talk about a word scientists—or at least some scientists—would prefer to stop using.  And that word is:


Mars is so eager for humans to come visit and maybe even stay permanently.  And plenty of humans are eager to do just that!  We’ll bring life to Mars.  Not only that, we’ll bring civilization and culture.  One might say it is humanity’s destiny to colonize Mars.

But is this language of “colonization” and “destiny” too evocative of European imperialism?  Some think so, and they would ask that we stop using such colonialist language when we talk about space exploration.

Now I want to be clear about where I’m coming from on this: I try my best to call people by the names and terms they prefer to be called, and if I find out that the language I use offends somebody, I’ll do may best to change.  Some would accuse me of being too P.C., but I think it’s just good manners.

And I have found that if you make an effort to be respectful and accommodating to others, others will make an effort to be respectful and accommodating to you, and in general they’ll be more willing to forgive you if/when you do slip up and say something unintentionally hurtful.

So a few years back, when I came across this article from National Geographic, I started reading it with an open mind and a willingness to change.  But by the end of the article, even I felt like this was an example of political correctness run amok.  The word “colony” is offensive.  So are the words “settlement” and “frontier.”  Okay.  What words should I use instead?  Even that National Geographic article seems to concede at one point that we don’t have many workable alternatives to these terms.

But this concern does seem to be coming up more and more.  Plenty of people in the scientific community are shying away from words like colony and colonization.  Bill Nye (the Science Guy) says he avoids the word colony, and this official glossary of SETI terminology warns that “settle” and “colonize” may have certain negative connotations for some people.

So at this point, I’m not sure what to think.  What about you?  Do you think this is much ado about nothing, or should we really start looking for alternatives to words like “colony” or “settlement” in our space exploration vocabularies?

Next time on Planet Pailly… I actually don’t have anything planned yet for my next blog post.  We’ll probably just talk about more space stuff.

11 thoughts on “Sciency Words: Colony

  1. I can’t say that this has ever crossed my mind before, but now you raise it, I see that “colony” implies a settlement under the control of a foreign power. However, until the future colonists of Mars claim their right to political independence, that seems like a very accurate and precise use of the word.

    Of course, if Mars were already occupied by native species, then I could see that this would be problematic, but the real problem in that case would surely be the act, not the word.

    “Settlement” seems to be free of any such associations, since it means “a place, typically one which has previously been uninhabited, where people establish a community.” But wait, settlement is also one of the words that people apparently object to.

    “Community” is a nice friendly word. Martians could live in peace-loving communities in their barren wasteland, and no one would be offended. At least, not until they tried to claim their right to self-determination, which would unleash the first interplanetary war… but wait, I’m getting ahead of myself. The only problem with this word is that humans would be communising Mars, which would surely be opposed by all right-thinking people.

    But there’s no hurry. It will take a while for us to get round to occupying/invading/oppressing/hanging out on Mars, and there are a number of technical hurdles to overcome, so I think we have plenty of time to work out what to call it. Perhaps by then, people on Earth will have figured out how not to be constantly offended every time someone opens their mouth.

    Or perhaps not. Some people will probably still be moaning even when we dismantle Saturn to build a Dyson sphere.

    Liked by 2 people

    1. Well, Mars is already the Red Planet, so “communising” it seems redundant. But I’d be okay with calling it a Mars community rather than a Mars colony. And maybe we could say “communalizing” rather than “communizing.”

      Liked by 1 person

  2. I, too, prefer to be polite, but this does seem to be a conundrum. Of course, in scifi, we want new terms that evoke the future and not the past! I write about colonies on Mars and Titan, so this is importat to me. Hmm. When science needs a new word, it goes to a dead language. Ancient Latin or Greek.

    How about Sanskrit (is that “dead?” I’ve got so much to learn!)

    I called my Mars habitat a nederzetting, which is Dutch, a perfectly fine living language and a bit of a pleasant (I hope) surprise in my American English Mars stories. Google translate says it means “settlement” but any word like that you translate into English is likely to pick up one of those colonial era terms.

    Liked by 3 people

    1. Nederzetting is a fun word. Nice choice there!

      I’m under the impression Sanskrit is a lot like Latin in that people still read it and speak it for religious purposes, but it’s no longer used in everyday life, and therefore it’s no longer evolving and changing the way a “living” language is supposed to. I could be wrong about that. That’s just my impression.

      Liked by 1 person

  3. I’m with Steve. The problem with the historical terms is that they were euphemisms for conquest. But there are no native Martians to be conquered, so the terms seem more literally correct.

    That said, I’m skeptical there will be colonies anytime soon. But there may be research stations and bases. Hopefully no one is offended by those terms.

    Liked by 3 people

      1. “Base” does sound kind of militaristic to me. Though now that I’m thinking about it, “research base” seems like a plausible enough name for our first… umm, whatever it is on Mars.


  4. I think that political correctness is going too far when we start considering “colony” a bad word. In my mind, we should stop using words that target a group of people negatively. For example, I completely agree that we should not call indigenous people in North America “Indians” or “Eskimos” or whatever else. These were terms assigned by one group of people to name another group of people, and those names are deemed offensive by the later. However, “colony” refers to the people who moved, not the people who were already there. Do we have to stop calling groups of ants “colonies” now?

    Liked by 2 people

    1. That’s a good point about ant colonies. Also, there are artist colonies and writer colonies. And nudist colonies. Perhaps one could argue that the word colony already means a lot of things that have nothing to do with European colonialism.

      Liked by 2 people

  5. I think you may have hit the nail on the head (if that’s not too aggressive a metaphor) with your use of the word “colonialism.” A colony should be an entirely neutral word, meaning simply to settle in a new land. “Colonialism”, on the other hand, is the practice of settling in other people’s lands with a view to exploitation and conquest. A case of confusion over two similar words, perhaps?

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Yeah, that makes sense to me. The word colonialism sure does carry a lot of baggage. Does the word colony also carry that baggage? I guess it could in some people’s minds.


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