Sciency Words: Flying Saucer

Hello, friends!  Welcome back to Sciency Words, a special series here on Planet Pailly where we talk about science or science-related terms.  Today’s Sciency Word is:


Okay, first question: does this really count as a scientific term?  Probably not, but the origin of the term “flying saucer” is pretty interesting nonetheless.  I’m going to go ahead and say this one’s sciency enough for Sciency Words!

So, on June 25, 1947, an article appeared in The East Oregonian reporting on the sighting of “nine saucer-like aircraft flying in formation.”  American businessman and aviator Kenneth Arnold had been flying his airplane near Mount Rainier, in Washington State, when he saw something he could not explain: nine flashes of light, like sunlight glinting off metal.

By all accounts, Arnold was legitimately confused by these strange lights.  But he did not jump to any conclusions.  He did not immediately assume he was looking at a squadron of extraterrestrial spaceships.  In other words, Kenneth Arnold was not this guy:

Instead, Arnold tried to observe and record as much information as he could, in an objective and unbiased manner, paying attention to any details that might help solve the mystery.  Based on what it says in this article (an interview with the newspaper reporter who initially interviewed Arnold), it sounds like Arnold went to the press in the hope that someone out there might read the story and come forward with a plausible explanation for what those weird light really were.

But some details of Arnold’s story were not reported accurately.  Most notably, Arnold never said the flying objects he saw looked saucer-like.  In this article from The Atlantic, Arnold is quoted trying to clear up the confusion:

These objects more or less fluttered like they were, oh, I’d say, boats on very rough water or very rough air of some type, and when I described how they flew, I said that they flew like they take a saucer and throw it across the water.  Most of the newspapers misunderstood and misquoted that too.  They said that I said that they were saucer-like; I said that they flew in a saucer-like fashion.

According to that same article from The Atlantic, this may have been “one of the most significant reporter misquotes in history.”

It’s not entirely clear when “saucer-like aircraft” got simplified into “flying saucer,” but it seems to have happened in a matter of weeks, if not days.  The original news article was published on June 25, 1947; according to the Oxford English Dictionary, the earliest known usage of “flying saucer” is from July 8th of the same year, and the quotation cited by the O.E.D. makes it sound like this “nickname” was already in widespread usage.

And thus, flying saucers became part of the popular lexicon, not because Kenneth Arnold said that’s what he saw but because Arnold was misquoted by a newspaper reporter.

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