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The Best Mistakes That Lead to UFOs: A Matter of Definition?

Sure, this post is titled a bit curiously. “Wait a minute,” you’re probably thinking. “What kinds of mistakes do I have to start making before I start seeing UFOs?” Ah, I too wish it were only that simple… hence, before I go any further, I’d best clarify a bit.

Earlier today, SiFy Network featured a roundup at their website detailing the “Top 10 most common explanations for UFOs.” Sure, conventional wisdom doesn’t seem to conflict with many of the items included in SiFy’s list being mistaken for alien spacecraft, including meteors, the planet Venus (now there’s a classic), ball lightning and even “experimental military aircraft,” which ranked at number one (while regular, non-military aircraft came in close behind at second place). But the thing that always get’s me going when I see articles like this is that, as a matter of definition, many of these things actually are UFOs!

Think I’m kidding, or maybe just crazy? Before you begin casting stones, follow my rational for a moment, since when we get right down to the matter of definition, this observation actually does begin to make sense. Simply put, the acronym “UFO” doesn’t stand for “Unwanted Foreign Occupants,” or anything that specifically entails an actual extraterrestrial spacecraft. Instead, the popular term merely denotes the presence of an Unidentified Flying Object. Arguably, the funniest thing about all this is that what I’m pointing out here is so well known–even among those who don’t consider themselves UFO buffs–that it’s almost silly to devote time to spelling it out; and yet, somewhere along the way, the notion that a “UFO” is a term that specifically refers to an alien craft obviously began to take shape. How did this happen?

It’s rather difficult to nail down exactly what caused this to occur, much less find an exact date, although when viewing the Wikipedia entry for the term UFO, the authors note a similar aspect regarding the way the definition began to evolve after its inception in the early 1950s:

The United States Air Force, which coined the term in 1952, initially defined UFOs as those objects that remain unidentified after scrutiny by expert investigators, though today the term UFO is colloquially used to refer to any unidentifiable sighting regardless of whether it has been investigated.

Although it is not directly implied that the United States Air Force intended “unknowns” to be accepted as alien visitors, they certainly remained unaccounted for according to USAF records once official investigations turned up empty-handed. Again, many would argue that UFOs today–whether or not they’ve been investigated–are most often also associated with alien visitors from other planets, rather than foreign military craft and other terrestrial possibilities. The last place these things appear to come from is anywhere on Earth, right? Hence, following this logic (and maybe a healthy dose of Occam’s Razor) we can see how easily the notion could have developed over time that if these strange objects are seen in the sky, it’s only rational to conclude that they descended into view from even greater heights (outer space), and that they are likely visitors from other worlds.

When it comes to its application, “UFO” was also a more all-inclusive term for use with the variety of strange objects people began reporting after WWII, especially after pilot Kenneth Arnold’s famous sighting of “flying saucers” over Mount Ranier, Washington, in 1947. Ironically, the craft Arnold spotted weren’t really “saucers” either, but were half-moon shaped, although Arnold had noted they flew “like a saucer would if you skipped it across the water.” “UFO” wouldn’t begin to see common use until five years after Arnold’s sighting, but the test of time proved it to be the more popular name in the long run, and by the mid 1950s, various “contactees” claiming to have made contact with spacemen were morphing their wild stories from secluded seances into physical encounters with occupants of UFO craft (often claiming they traveled here from neighboring planets like Mars or Venus, which are less than impressive locales by today’s standards).

The way we perceive UFOs as a culture, right down to nit-picky little definitions, is a fascinating subject when we consider the way our attitudes and beliefs toward them have changed over time; and no doubt are continuing to change in ways we may not yet perceive. How will we treat the subject ten years, or even ten decades from now? Who knows… but one thing is for certain: next time you spot something bizarre and unexplainable in the night sky, you can proudly proclaim with a degree of certainty to those around you, “yes, that is indeed a UFO!”


Micah Hanks is a writer, podcaster, and researcher whose interests cover a variety of subjects. His areas of focus include history, science, philosophy, current events, cultural studies, technology, unexplained phenomena, and ways the future of humankind may be influenced by science and innovation in the coming decades. In addition to writing, Micah hosts the Middle Theory and Gralien Report podcasts.
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