In this column I want to examine the changing terminology that’s been applied to strange things seen in the skies over the years, and see if and how this has affected the way in which the subject is viewed.
Since the dawn of time, people have seen strange things in the sky, but setting aside Biblical references to “fiery chariots”, and Twentieth Century terms such as “scareships”, “foo fighters”, “ghost rockets” and “ghost aeroplanes”, our story starts in 1947 with Kenneth Arnold’s sighting of nine strange objects over the Cascade Mountains in Washington State. When describing the motion (not the shape, as is often believed), he said that they moved in an odd, jerky way, “like a saucer skipped across water”. The media adapted this quote into “flying saucer” and a modern mystery acquired a new name.
Things stayed that way until the then Head of Project Blue Book, Edward Ruppelt, decided in around 1951 that a more scientific term was needed - not least because “flying saucer” had become synonymous with disk-shaped craft, whereas people were seeing a great variety of different shapes. He coined the phrase “unidentified flying object”, which was abbreviated to “UFO”, and slowly replaced “flying saucer”.
We were stuck with “UFO” for a long time – and still are, for the most part. The problem with this is that in pop culture, the term “UFO” has become synonymous with “alien spacecraft”, leading to nonsensical questions such as “Do you believe in UFOs?”, when what people actually mean is “Do you believe that some UFOs are extraterrestrial vehicles”?
This was a problem at the UK Ministry of Defense, when – for example – we wanted to secure funding for a highly-classified intelligence study into the phenomenon. Given competing demands on the defense budget, we were unlikely to get financial approval for any study into “UFOs”. So we changed the terminology to “unidentified aerial phenomena”, which we abbreviated to “UAP”. The strategy worked and the study was funded. It evolved into what the UFO community now knows as “Project Condign”.
The closure of the UK MoD’s UFO project and the declassification and release of the huge archive of its files inadvertently led to the introduction of yet more terminology. The fact that the MoD axed the UFO project obviously didn’t stop people seeing UFOs, and while reports from the public could be ignored, if a military pilot sees a UFO that’s tracked on radar, clearly the chain of command won’t ignore it. And if a commercial aircraft has a near-collision with a UFO, clearly the UK’s Airprox Board won’t ignore that either. It’s just that such things will be looked at on a case-by-case basis, outside of any formally-constituted investigative program.
This new situation created a problem, because any investigation of such incidents might be regarded as contradicting the government’s “We no longer investigate UFOs” line, which is now routinely parroted to any journalist or member of the public who asks about the subject. So pilots tend to get around this by using phrases such as “unusual aircraft”, “unconventional helicopter”, and other variations on the theme.
Aside from helping to preserve the integrity of the “We no longer investigate UFOs” line, this new terminology has other advantages. Firstly, it encourages more pilots to make reports, because the stigma of reporting a “UFO” (with the fear of being ridiculed, disbelieved or having one’s active flying status questioned) is no longer an issue. “Unusual aircraft” carries with it the subtle implication that what was seen was a new spy plane or drone, which is perfectly acceptable for pilots to see. The other great advantage of the new phrases is that they avoid creating a Freedom of Information Act liability, as people tend to ask questions in terms of “UFOs”, and not “unusual aircraft”. It’s not clear to what extent this constitutes a deliberate policy (a deliberate attempt to subvert the Freedom of Information Act is illegal), as opposed to a case of “unintended benefits”.
Whatever the truth of the matter, it shows how the words and phrases that we use are important. Any graduate of psychology, media studies, politics and a host of other disciplines knows how thinking and language are inextricably bound together. The terminology we use can be deliberately chosen to provoke a reaction – positive or negative. One person’s terrorist is another person’s freedom fighter. So it is with UFOs. Phrases like “flying saucer” and “little green men” may have been acceptable decades ago, but now seem so old fashioned that they make the subject seem ridiculous. Even “UFO” has sufficient stigma to discourage most politicians and mainstream media outlets from wanting to be associated with the subject. Some people know this and use this knowledge deliberately to disparage the subject and those who study it.
However, the UFO community might ultimately profit from all this. Finding out more about the words and phrases that pilots and air traffic controllers use to describe UFOs will enable Freedom of Information Act requests to be better targeted. Adopting more scientific-sounding terms like “UAP” might enable ufologists to make their case more effectively. And being aware when someone is deliberately using archaic terminology to disparage the subject should enable the UFO community to be better aware of when it’s under attack, and thus better able to fight back.
Nick Pope is a former employee of the UK Ministry of Defense. From 1991 to 1994 he ran the British Government's UFO project and has recently been involved in a five-year program to declassify and release the entire archive of these UFO files. Nick Pope held a number of other fascinating posts in the course of his 21-year government career, which culminated in his serving as an acting Deputy Director in the Directorate of Defense Security. He now works as a broadcaster and journalist, covering subjects including space, fringe science, defense and intelligence.