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The War of the Words: Revamping Operational Terminology for UFOs

By Mark Raimer
Posted on: 4/18/2002

The term 'UFO' is old, tired, and ready to get a long vacation - and its replacement is ready.

Human history becomes more and more a race between education and catastrophe.

— H.G. Wells, The Outline of History

We have tried to analyze the most baffling phenomena while disregarding structural peculiarities of languages…

— Alfred Korzybski, Science and Sanity
Do UFOs exist?

Most people who read about UFOs want that question answered. Knowing this, writers on the subject of UFOs often spend an entire book, or series of books, trying to prove whatever answer they provide. So that those demanding an assertive answer from this author won’t feel cheated, I shall give one here as precisely and concisely as I can. Fortunately for the attention-deficient reader, this should require only a few paragraphs. First, to answer the question: Yes, UFOs exist. I say this with such certainty because I have seen them hundreds of times while driving to the store, taking a stroll, and just gazing up at the stars. In fact, I dare say that anyone who denies ever seeing a UFO has:
a. lied
b. lost their vision
c. spent their life under a rock, or
d. misunderstood the definition of the term UFO.
In the early 1950s, Captain Edward Ruppelt, head of the U.S. Air Force Project Blue Book investigation, coined the term UFO (Unidentified Flying Object) and its necessary counterpart IFO (Identified Flying Object). We can consider the primary aspiration of ufology — a neologism denoting UFO investigation — as an attempt to accurately reclassify UFOs to IFOs.

When you drive down the road at 50 MPH and peripherally see a black blur, you have had a UFO experience by definition. If you take the time to look back and examine the perceived object/event in question, you have graduated into a ufologist of sorts. In your investigation, you may recognize the black blur as a member of the bird species C. brachyrhynchos. Having thus identified a crow, you have turned a UFO into an IFO. People see UFOs (and UNFOs, unidentified non-flying objects) quite frequently, and accurately “turn them into” IFOs (or INFOs) perhaps most of the time.

At this point, I would wager that the reader has picked up on a problem with the term UFO. Put simply, the problem stems from the synonymity between UFOs and other-worldly spacecraft. This semantically-erroneous generalization of the term has caused much unwarranted controversy and confusion over the years. (We’ll get back to this in a moment.)

Another, perhaps more critical, problem exists in ufology which derives from the widespread use of the term “Unidentified Flying Object” in the first place. I refer to the fact that “flying object” implies qualities which do not accurately describe the characteristics of many documented sightings. According to definitions provided by my Merriam-Webster and American Heritage dictionaries, “flying object” signifies a material entity which propels itself through the air via some mechanical means. It seems ludicrous to cram all the data on unidentified things in the air into such a limited, elementalistic definition.

To avoid ascribing inaccurate qualities across the board, I introduce the term UAP (an acronym, pronounced “you-app”), which stands for Unidentified Aerial Phenomenon. Like UFO, it also generates a counterpart, IAP (pronounced “eye-app,” denoting Identified Aerial Phenomenon). I think these terms generalize the bulk of reported sightings far better than the terms UFO and IFO. I say this, first, because the word aerial does not necessarily denote self-propulsion, mechanisms, or an operator. More importantly, the word phenomenon in both physics and philosophy signifies an occurrence perceptible by the senses. This usage does not make hasty ontological judgments of physicality from the get-go. For instance, Kantian philosophy defines the word phenomenon as the appearance of something to the mind as opposed to its objective existence, independent of the mind. (I also think the word phenomenon incorporates a more modern scientific approach by its implication of perspectivism, as opposed to the archaic notion of “true objectivity” in the pre-quantum sense of “solid objects existing independent of an observer.”)

To illustrate the usefulness of UAP over UFO, I would direct the curious to the case of the enigmatic lights reported in the sky over Greifswald, (then) East Germany in 1990. (See UFOs: The Best Evidence Ever Caught on Tape with host Jonathan Frakes.) According to some sources, dozens, if not hundreds, of German and Russian employees at a nuclear power plant witnessed the formation of unexplained luminous orbs which hovered above the restricted site for over an hour. At least one person produced a video tape of the dancing lights, and in a segment of the tape we see one of the orbs merge with another in midair.

When we see “illusory” behavior like this, we feel compelled to ask whether the phenomenon had any physical mass to it at all. For the sake of argument, let’s assume that the phenomenon actually occurred and that the Greifswald footage does not represent a computer-generated hoax. If so, we might seek an explanation such as a demonstration of high-tech holography. If this theory proved accurate, then the terms UFO/IFO no longer seem applicable. As most people know, holographic projections do not constitute solid objects or involve mechanics of flight such as the aerodynamic lift generated from the camber of a wing. However, the term UAP (Unidentified Aerial Phenomenon) works quite well to incorporate such “ethereal” possibilities. Similarly, Identified Aerial Phenomenon (IAP) describes holography in general as accurately as it incorporates such documented phenomenological possibilities as ball lightning (kugelblitz), corona discharges, vaporized barium clouds, hallucination, etc. (Note that the term Identified Flying Object falls short of the mark in these cases.)

Four hundred years before the Greifswald video, in Nuremberg, scores of inhabitants reported seeing formations of illuminated spheres, cylinders, and disks above the town. (See “Nuremberg Broadsheet,” 1561, reproduced in Jung’s Flying Saucers: A Modern Myth of Things Seen in the Skies.) Using even the most extreme models available to ufologists — including various fringe psychological, theological, or extraterrestrial/extradimensional theories — to explain these events, UAP applies far better than UFO does. Aside from its more encompassing description, the term UAP avoids the heavy cultural baggage attached to UFO, whose initial association with “paranormal” origins, however true or untrue it may prove upon final analysis, sets up a narrow and inflexible framework for honest scientific research. An investigator can benefit greatly from using the term UAP, I think, simply because it does not have the cultural connotations of UFO. We can see this acculturation (or “occulturation”) of the term UFO clearly in Polish Archbishop Jozef Miroslaw Zycinskis’ reply at a Vatican news conference to a reporter’s question concerning interest in UFOs. The Archbishop dismissed ufology as indicative of the “intellectual paucity of our era.” (Simpson, 1998) Many in mainstream science and academia seem to agree with the Archbishop’s assertion. Physicist Bruce Maccabee, for example, notes the reality of ridicule that exists for those in the scientific community who investigate airborne anomalies, likening the endeavor to “professional suicide.”

(See Dr. Maccabee’s online reply to the New York Post editors’ criticism of the recent ufological study conducted by the Society for Scientific Exploration, or SSE. Paul Flatin of the Kyodo News Service wrote on June 29, 1998: “Despite the abundance of UFO reports over the past 50 years, the scientific community had shown little interest in the subject due to a lack of funding to support research and a perception that the field is not respectable, the [SSE] report said.”)

For a long time scientists sneered at reports by numerous witnesses of luminous phenomenon seen during earthquakes in various countries. Experts ascribed all kinds of explanations to the sightings, from hoax to hallucination. It took a team of scientists at Idu, Japan to accidentally observe the strange lights firsthand before they became an accepted occurrence:
Until then, in spite of the abundance of eyewitness accounts, there was some doubt as to the reality of those long flashes of lightning, balls of fire, spreading beams, pencils of light, and curtains of varying color and intensity… Ordinary explanations for phenomena of this kind — storm lightning, aurora borealis, electric arcs between high-tension cables, and above all, the witness’ own emotion… could be refuted one after the other at Idu, and the luminous manifestations attributed to the earthquake. (Tazieff, 1966).

Science seems replete with mysterious aerial phenomena, including the earthlights at Idu, the more recent observations of lightning sprites, and numerous other unknowns of today. Bearing this in mind, I think the mental myopia of Scientific Orthodoxy concerning “UFOs” stands as a far better example of intellectual paucity than the investigation of as yet unidentified phenomenon.
If only we can internalize the concept of UAP over UFO…

My research thus far indicates the use of the term “unidentified aerial phenomenon” as early as March 22, 1949, as described in a memo from the U.S. Strategic Air Command to the director of the FBI (released under the Freedom of Information Act, 1977). The reader should note that although I have advocated the initial use of the term UAP over UFO, I have not prescribed replacing it altogether. I say this for two reasons: 1. UFO has decades of cultural staying power (as a MUFON State Director once quipped to me, “we’re not going to change our name to MUAPN!”), and 2. despite its inherent neuro-semantic inadequacies, UFO has its place in the specialized study of ontological oddities. For instance, in his classic Anatomy of a Phenomenon, Dr. Jacques Vallee wrote, “UFO phenomena are to be found among reports of objects, lights, beings, or physical effects that are regarded by the witnesses as anomalies because of their appearance or behavior.” (Vallee, 1965). (Also see Vallee’s Confrontations: A Scientist’s Search for Alien Contact for more on definitions and classification systems in ufology.) As Vallee, Clark, Randles, and other veterans of ufology have extensively documented, many “UFO” cases don’t even involve aerial phenomenon at all! To encompass these types of “Fortean” cases, I introduce a change from the conventional UFO (an acronym, all caps) to ufo (pronounced “you-foe”). (See “Mytho-Ufology” in the Winter-Spring 2000 issue of Rhesus Monkey Magazine — [Link defunct - Ed.] — for an example of ufo usage.)

The reason for this change stems from linguistic and semantic factors concerning the term. As Professor Steven Pinker of MIT recently pointed out, UFO has evolved, through decades of use, into a bona fide word. (Pinker, 1999). So why not treat it as such? Of course, we do not pronounce VCRs as “vikers” or POWs as a sound effect in a comic book, so why change the pronunciation of UFOs (“you-eff-ohs”)? Put simply, the term UFO no longer remains synonymous with its root, no longer operates as a “true” acronym. (This goes to explain the confusing result from polls which ask people questions like, “Do you believe in UFOs?”, or “Do you think the government knows more about UFOs than they divulge to the public?”) Thus, changing the defunct acronym to a base word divorces it from its old meaning to accord with modern multiordinal interpretations.

Since this essay’s original printing in the Spring 1999 issue of ETC: A Review of General Semantics, my prescribing the general use of the word ufo has only seen opponents, curiously enough, from some ufologists (and a few writers of the “paranormal”). Since a few of the bios printed about me claim otherwise, I feel I should state for the record that — although I have done much work interviewing, researching, writing, etc. in their field of study — I do not consider myself a “ufologist” (or any other kind of “ologist” for that matter). It does, however, seem wryly amusing to note that the few “ufologists” who disdainfully replied to my verbal alteration of UFO to ufo actually referred to themselves as ufologists (“you-follow-gists”) in their calls and letters to me, not one having called him or herself a UFO-logist (“you-eff-oh-low-gist”). You follow the gist?

Dr. Jacques Vallee has commented, with great disappointment, that ufology seems to have “slipped back into its infancy.” (Vallee, 1995) Perhaps the re-introduction of the “technical” term Unidentified Aerial Phenomenon and my prescription of the word ufo will help to ensure this field of investigation avoids unnecessary atavism and academic enmity. As Tennessee Williams once said, “It’s an unanswered question, but let us still believe in the dignity and importance of the question.”

We can use all the help we can get in a field of scientific investigation whose subjects remain — to borrow a phrase — up in the air.

Copyright 1999-2000 by Mark A. Raimer. All rights reserved.

The author welcomes queries, comments, complaints, corrections, and conundrums via e-mail at

“The War of the Words” originally appeared in ETC: A Review of General Semantics (ISGS, Vol 56, No 1, Spring 1999).


ETC: A Review of General Semantics. Concord, CA: International Society for General Semantics, Vol. 56 No. 1, 1999, pp. 53-59.

Jung, Carl. Flying Saucers: A Modern Myth of Things Seen in the Skies, Princeton University Press, 2nd printing, 1991.

Pinker, Steven. Words and Rules: The Ingredients of Language. New York: Basic Books, 1999, p. 28.

Simpson, Victor L. “Pope Defends Church Central Truths.” Associated Press, October 15, 1998.

Tazieff, Haroun. When the Earth Trembles. New York: Harcourt, Brace & World, Inc., 1966.

UFOs: The Best Evidence Ever Caught on Tape, Fox Television Network, US: July 1997.

Vallee, Jacques. Anatomy of a Phenomenon. Chicago: Henry Regnery Co., 1965.

Vallee, Jacques. Confrontations: A Scientist’s Search for Alien Contact. New York: Ballantine Books, 1990, pp. 208-19.

Vallee, Jacques. “Jacques Vallee Issues Warning to UFO Researchers.” UFO Magazine, November-December, 1995.

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