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Naming the Enigma: UFOs, Abbreviations and Acronyms

The subject of unidentified flying objects has long been a confusing one. Since its inception in the late 1940s when reports of unusual aerial objects or vehicles began to appear in our skies, there was a lot of debate about what they might be, and where they might come from. Theories ranged from new Soviet surveillance technologies, perhaps being developed with the help of former German scientists that were divided among the world superpowers after the end of the war, to the more exotic possibility that some of these things might be from elsewhere, and of extraterrestrial origin.

Little about this debate has changed over the years, and even to this day, calls for renewed “official” interest in the phenomenon continue, on account of the potential security threats they might represent.

“What these UAPs were and who was flying them — whether friends, foes or unknown forces — remains a mystery,” wrote Christopher Mellon, former deputy assistant Defense secretary for intelligence and one of the current stars of History’s UFO-themed television program Unidentified, in an op-ed published by The Hill in May. “Yet careful examination of the data inevitably leads to one possible, disturbing conclusion: A potential adversary of the United States has mastered technologies we do not yet understand to achieve capabilities we cannot yet match.”

Putting aside some of the controversies presently associated with the To the Stars Academy (of which Mellon is a member), these points are valid: the possibility that new technologies could be produced by another government, and that they could be used against American interests, must be taken seriously.

Returning again to the outset of the UFO enigma in the 40s and 50s, it became apparent that the term “flying saucers” had some issues. Having come into popular use after Kenneth Arnold’s sighting of disc-like objects over Mount Rainier in the summer of 1947, the term did no justice to the discussion of alleged objects that ranged in appearance from spheres and discs, to elongated “cigar-shaped” vessels (more commonly referred to as “tic-tacs” in the parlance of today). For this reason, Edward Ruppelt, the first chief of what became the U.S.A.F.’s Project Blue Book, proposed a new and more ambiguous name for these mysteries of the sky: unidentified flying objects or UFOs.

The name stuck, although it didn’t become the exclusive phrase that Ruppelt had hoped it would. “All flying saucers are UFOs, but not all UFOs are flying saucers,” were the immortal words of the late Stanton Friedman, who had been among the many serious proponents of UFOs over the years who continued to use both terms, albeit under slightly different circumstances. Friedman’s argument, in other words, had been that any number of things could be an unidentified flying object, whereas if one were to say “flying saucer,” it is understood as being in reference to an exotic alien craft… whether or not it’s really saucer-shaped. There are good arguments that justify the use of either term, in other words.

Stanton Friedman

The debate over terminology hasn’t been confined simply to what these objects should be called; there has also been lasting confusion about the pronunciation and grammatical usage of “UFO”. This was recently brought to my attention again by a friend and colleague of mine, Charles Orton, who wrote to playfully scold me after hearing me refer to UFOs–the abbreviated form of unidentified flying objects–as an acronym. Charles wrote:

At the cost of sounding like my eighth grade English teacher Miss Thistlebottom, I should have thought you knew the difference between an acronym and an abbreviation (you recently referred to “UFO” as an acronym). An acronym is an abbreviation that can be, and often is, pronounced as if it were a word. An example is NASA. NASA is an acronym. NAFTA is an acronym. AATIP can be an acronym. But UFO and UAP are not acronyms. FBI and CIA and NSA and USA are not acronyms. They are abbreviations. Yet so many people in the u-fool-ogy realm today are always referring to UFO and UAP and other abbreviations as acronyms.

As my colleague correctly points out, UFO is not an acronym… if it is read as “You-Eff-Oh,” which is the common usage today. However, when Edward Ruppelt proposed the use of the term back in the early 1950s, he had also suggested that UFO be pronounced “You-Foe.”

Edward Ruppelt, first chief of the USAF’s Project Blue Book.

For whatever reason, this never quite caught on, although if it had, it certainly would have made “UFO” the acronym he had intended for it to be. Nonetheless, we could argue that the use of the term as he intended it was as an acronym, and should be pronounced as “Youfoe”… but good luck getting people on board with making that change!

Another brief side note, while we’re discussing all of this: another item of debate I’ve seen over the years has to do with whether the plural form of UFO should be written as UFOs (with no apostrophe), or as UFO’s. Checking this with Ashford University’s online Grammatical Resource Page, they state explicitly that either form is acceptable: “For numbers, abbreviations without periods, and symbols used as words, the apostrophe before the –s is optional if the plural is clear.” To further illustrate the point, one of the examples they provide is “UFOs OR UFO’s.”

Today, the matter remains as complex as ever. Since the terms unidentified flying object (as well as its abbreviated form, UFO, which as we’ve seen, was originally intended to be an acronym) and flying saucer were both popular terms for use in the discussion of alleged extraterrestrial aircraft, many today would argue against the use of either term, instead calling for the use of unexplained aerial phenomenon or UAP. It’s a nice way of taking an expression that was intended to be ambiguous, and replacing it with something even more ambiguous… and paradoxically, in an effort toward making sure we’re all on the same page in terms of what we’re talking about!

As far as this subject is concerned, it looks like there’s still an awful lot that gets lost in translation… even when we’re all speaking the same language. But one thing we can (hopefully) agree on would be that, in the event that “UAP” does ever become the new norm when discussing aerial mysteries of this sort, it’s definitely an abbreviation and not an acronym… at least until some wise-ass comes along and starts saying, “it’s pronounced Ooh-app!”


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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