UFO: A Military Term Abducted by Fans of Aliens

From a Wall Street Journal story by Ben Zimmer headlined “‘UFO’: A Military Term Abducted by Fans of Aliens”:

The U.S. military recently dispatched fighter jets over North American airspace to shoot down three…well, what exactly?

The Pentagon has called them “high-altitude airborne objects.” At a press briefing on Monday, National Security Council spokesman John Kirby classified them as “unidentified aerial phenomena.” But as Rep. Jim Himes, ranking member of the House Intelligence Committee, acknowledged on NBC’s “Meet the Press,” most people just call them “UFOs,” regardless of the official terminology.

“UFO” as an abbreviated form of “unidentified flying object” may be the most common label, but it is one that government and military agencies have long sought to avoid for obvious reasons. The term unhelpfully evokes little green men in flying saucers, a popular perception going back to the 1950s.

As the website for the Air Force Declassification Office explains, “UFO” is “popularly taken as a synonym for alien spacecraft and generally most discussions of UFOs revolve around this presumption.” For this reason, “investigators now prefer to use the broader term ‘unidentified aerial phenomenon’ (or ‘UAP’), to avoid the confusion and speculative associations that have become attached to ‘UFO.’”

But the term “UFO” itself began as military-speak. In 1947, there was a flurry of sightings of what the press dubbed “flying saucers,” starting that June when a pilot named Kenneth Arnold said he saw nine mysterious disc-shaped aircraft flying near Washington’s Mount Rainier. The next month, the Twin Falls Times-News, an Idaho newspaper, reported that “unidentified flying objects” were spotted by local picnickers.

Early on, the full phrase was used by official investigators, as in a technical report from the U.S. Air Force in February 1949 that promised to help “assess the possibility of a threat to national security presented by the sighting of such large numbers of unidentified flying objects.” The snappier designation of “UFO” would take a few years to emerge. Word researcher Bill Mullins located an Air Force memorandum from Nov. 3, 1952 by Captain Edward J. Ruppelt, detailing a trip to New Mexico’s Los Alamos National Laboratory where he and a colleague “met with seven people from the lab who were interested in the subject of UFOs.”

Interestingly enough, Ruppelt’s memo also referred to “the sighting of an UFO,” suggesting that he pronounced the term acronymically as “oo-foe” rather than as the initialism “yoo-eff-oh.” Later, in his 1956 book “The Report on Unidentified Flying Objects,” Ruppelt recommended pronouncing it as “yoo-foe,” though “yoo-eff-oh” would remain the most common way to say it.

“UFO” might have remained military jargon were it not for the publication of a 1953 book with the sensational title “Flying Saucers from Outer Space,” written by Donald Keyhoe, a former Marine Corps aviator. In an advance excerpt of the book for the magazine The Air Line Pilot, Keyhoe described an incident in which two F-86 jet fighters chased a “UFO (Unidentified Flying Object).” According to Jonathan Lighter, editor of “The Historical Dictionary of American Slang,” before the release of Keyhoe’s book, “‘UFO’ was a term quite unknown to the public.” By the late 1950s, a whole field of amateur “ufology” would be born.

Thanks to speculation about the interplanetary origins of such objects, “UFO” would soon join “flying saucer” as a popular designation for alien craft making earthly flybys. That necessitated yet another shift in nomenclature to avoid suggestions of science-fiction-style invasions from outer space. “Unidentified aerial phenomena,” or “UAP” for short, became the new term of art.

In the latest terminological twist, NASA has modified “UAP” to stand for a slightly different phrase: “unidentified anomalous phenomena.” But no matter the bureaucratic relabeling, that won’t stop people from using the word “UFO”—with all the cultural baggage it entails.

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