Aliens that look somewhat like humans probably wouldn't refer to themselves as humanoid or anthropoid. Is there a more generic term for beings who are bipedal, bimanual, and have a roughly human-like body and face shape? Assume no common ancestor with humans and no consensus among the population that they were created in the image of a deity.

Edit: In this scenario, thousands of sentient species exist in a community where it is known that many, but not all, are humanoid. Additionally, humans have been found on three separate planets. Taking available data into account, scientific discussion offers various explanations for why this has occurred. The existence of similar life forms on various worlds provides a mystery that scientists in this community are trying to unravel. In a universe that has developed differently from ours, even given the same data we have on Earth, it is not likely that communities would develop the same scientific constructs that we have. Convergent evolution is an option, but it may not be the best one here.

Because the community is not an anthropocentric one, respectful classification of species would involve a term that might be different in each language. Translation devices allow members of different species to understand each other, and those that do not have them installed typically speak a trade language. Because the story is written in English, I need an English translation of that term.

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    $\begingroup$ Do they speak English? $\endgroup$
    – Jimmy360
    May 22, 2015 at 5:06
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    $\begingroup$ This is a basic world building problem. You are trying to describe alien concepts with human language. You have to either make up a word or disregard word etymologies. Humanoids, anthropoids, hominids, or bipeds sound okay to me given your question parameters. $\endgroup$
    – palako
    May 22, 2015 at 5:43
  • $\begingroup$ I'm not sure this is a worldbuilding problem, actually. At the very least, it reads somewhat like an idea generation question. Jacob, on Stack Exchange we prefer it when questions can be answered authoritatively and answers judged on their respective merits with regards to the question. Can you at least edit your question to add some criteria by which we can judge any suggestions made? Compare What's wrong with “idea generation” questions?. $\endgroup$
    – user
    May 22, 2015 at 7:25
  • $\begingroup$ Also, related on our sister site Writing SE: Really Stuck: Writing Dialogue and How to convey that the POV character does not understand what's said in dialogue? (and quite possibly other questions there). $\endgroup$
    – user
    May 22, 2015 at 7:26
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    $\begingroup$ @MichaelKjörling, I think it is a worldbuilding question, although perhaps a rather narrow one. One of the key ideas of making aliens believable is to move away from our human-centric language and assumptions. I am assuming that the reference to political correctness means political correctness in-story, so depiction of sensitivities on naming conventions are part of the fictional world to be built. (So far as I know the real life politically correct humans haven't yet got around to telling other humans to "check their privilege" and avoid humanocentric terms when describing imaginary aliens!) $\endgroup$ May 22, 2015 at 9:58

9 Answers 9


Have your characters discuss the problem in-story, and perhaps move to a more neutral term to satisfy their universe's equivalent of political correctness.

In James White's Sector General series, in which a vast variety of species needed treatment at the hospital of the title, each broad type of species had a classification in a four letter alphabetical system. (I've just learned from Wikipedia that White took this idea from E.E. Smith's Lensman series.) In White's system humans and similar species were DBDG. Wikipedia has a list of all the species that turn up in the stories with their classifications here. I forget exactly what each letter meant, but they covered things such as what gas or liquid they breathed, how many legs and arms, what was their dominant sense and so on.

It's discussed in-story that all species' own terms for themselves can be translated into English as "human", and presumably that extends to each species' own equivalent for "humanoid". Hence the more objective alphabetical code. We must assume that the other species were also using their own equivalents to the letters of the Latin alphabet.

  • $\begingroup$ +1 Love the reference to classic SF and some of their better ideas. $\endgroup$
    – Jim2B
    May 22, 2015 at 16:49
  • $\begingroup$ Very helpful, thank you. This poses some potential solutions that I think could fit what I'm trying to accomplish. $\endgroup$ May 23, 2015 at 3:18

There's a reason we refer to things that look roughly like us as "humanoids", it's because we use ourselves as a basis of comparison. Your aliens probably use a comparable word based around their own name to refer to themselves and us by shape.

When you refer to general shape, I see no reason to think that "humanoid" or whatever term the aliens use for it to be "politically incorrect" any more than it is politically incorrect to refer to their appendages as "arms", it's just the english word for the thing you speak of.

If you want a word that doesn't refer to their shape but their ability to think or want to group them and humans in a way that excludes other things carrying the basic shape, consider using "sentients" or something of the such as a grouping word based around the concept of high intelligence.

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    $\begingroup$ "Why would you think that we refer to ourselves as humanoid? In our language, you are kerbaloid!" $\endgroup$
    – Mike L.
    May 22, 2015 at 9:14
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    $\begingroup$ I'm going for a grouping based on anatomical appearance, but one that English speakers could use to show respect to all members of that classification. I edited my question to provide what I hope is a better framework for the question. I see your point, though. I could just take "humanoid" as the word humans use, while other species would have a word in their own language meaning, "like us." $\endgroup$ May 23, 2015 at 3:23


1. a suffix meaning “resembling,” “like,” used in the formation of adjectives and nouns (and often implying an incomplete or imperfect resemblance to what is indicated by the preceding element)

If the alien has bilateral symmetry, bipedal, with four limbs, and a head; it would be appropriate to use the term humanoid - meaning "human like" in appearance.

As for the political correctness of what to call thinking beings that are not human; I've always liked terms like "being", "sapient", "sentient", "citizen" (if they belong to the same political entity), etc.

As an exercise for the reader...

I'd like to elaborate on @LostinFrance 's answer by using a thought experiment.

Thought Experiment
Pick 5 of the most intelligent creatures living on Earth. For example, based upon EQ.

Encephalization quotient, or EQ, is a way to measure the brain's development in an animal (or, more properly, a vertebrate) species. It could be thought that mere brain size would be indicative of intelligence, but let's consider this list of 38 animal species, ordered by brain mass.

Some quick factoids about intelligence

As an average, herbivores (with the notable exception of the elephants) and insectivores stay under 1.0 EQ, while carnivores (especially cetaceans) and omnivores (especially primates) are above; social animals rank higher than solitary animals (dogs higher than cats, horses and lions higher than rats). Only a few species approach, reach or exceed 3 EQ, with both extinct and modern hominids at the very top.

--from the Speculative Evolution link above

So if terrestrial life is an indicator of life in general, we can expect the vast majority of alien intelligence to share these traits too. Carnivorous or Omnivorous social animals. An SF story may include solitary and/or herbivorous animals as exceptions to the standards.

The animals I'll pick:

  1. Humans - EQ ~ 8.1
  2. Bonobos - EQ ~ 5.9
  3. Dolphins - EQ ~ 4.2
  4. Crows - EQ ~ 4.1
  5. Cuttlefish - EQ ~ 1.4 about a Husky's (dog) level of intelligence

2/5 of these animals (Humans & Bonobos) belong to the same

  • Domain - Eukarya
  • Kingdom - Animalia
  • Phylum - Chordata
  • Subphylum - Verbrata
  • Class - Mammalia
  • Order - Primates
  • Family - Hominidae

With Cetaceans diverging from them at the Order (Order - Cetacea, Family - Delphinidae) level.

Crows are birds which are closely related to mammals and diverging from them at the Class (Class - Aves, Order - Passerifores, Family - Corvidae) level.

Only the cuttlefish are significantly different, diverging at the Phylum level - pretty high in our phylogenetic tree (Phylum - Mollusca, Subphylum - ??, Class - Cephalopoda, Order - Sepiida, Family - Sepiidae).

Nearly everything we think of as intelligent in this world is extremely closely related to each other from a phylogenetic and genealogical perspective. We have the same basic structure (bilateral symmetry based upon a quadrupedal layout), have nearly all the same organs, use the same proteins, enzymes, etc. Our surfaces are mostly similar (with hair and feathers interchangeable).

Even though it's different and really stands out as being different, it too descended from the same basic set of biochemistry as other intelligent life on Earth.

Now imagine an alien life form from a planet which uses a completely different biochemistry. Would it be even more different from all intelligent terrestrial life as cuttlefish are from humans?

SF Treatment
Most SF treatment of this problem is similar to Star Trek. Dress the alien up in a strange costume, give the actor some bumps on their forehead, and call them an alien. We go along with the gag for convenience but in reality if scientists discovered aliens like this - we'd have to assume we shared common ancestry and not all that long ago (10s of millions of years at the most).

Enter the Analogs

The universe is not only stranger than we imagine, it is stranger than we can imagine.
-- J. B. S. Haldane

and so alien life is likely to be.

Because I can't predict what alien life might be like, I'd use something I like to call "analogs". We can assume organisms about our size evolved to life on a planet with the gravity and atmosphere of our planet will have some things similar to us:

  • Skinlike structure
  • Skeletallike structure
  • Respiratorysystem
  • Circulatorysystem
  • Digestivesystem
  • Organs which perform the same functions ours do

Based upon a study of evolutionary biology, the plan form would be likely to possess bilateral symmetry (human like), radial symmetry, or segmented (worm / insect like) as these allows the same genes to be used repeatedly to make larger body size.

Viva la Difference!

  • But the number and type of limbs could be any number from 0 - 100s.
  • Their manipulators could be like ours or could be tongues, tails, antenna, mouth pieces, lips, teeth (analogs), etc.
  • I think they'd be more likely to possess a central nervous system but this isn't necessarily so.
  • Their sensory organs could detect everything we detect plus other stuff we can't (taste with their "feet", see into UV/IR, etc.).
  • Their primary sense organ could be sound, scent, taste, feeling, etc. and wouldn't necessarily be vision.

Convergent evolution
It is possible (but probably uncommon) that aliens from different planets could evolve similar structures from completely different biochemistries. This has happened on Earth in which the eye was developed at least 5 different times by evolutions. Eye structures in most cases are coarsely identical but often have drastically different details (the octopus / squid eye is much better than our mammalian eye - their blood vessels don't interfere with their vision).

So you might find vaguely humanoid intelligent aliens out there. They might be bilaterally symmetric, bipedal quadruped layout, upper limbs devoted to manipulation, lower limbs devoted to locomotion, and possess a central nervous system concentrated in a lobe on the top of the body. That head might possess the bulk of the sensory organs.

But it wouldn't look human to us. The limb's joints would probably swing differently than ours. Their movement would look very strange to us.

In short, aliens would be very alien to us and until/unless we became familiar with them, being around them would make us feel very uneasy (and the reverse would probably be true too).

So what we call that wormy thing?
Ordinary humans, being the lazy and imprecise critters that we are, will probably use references to organisms we are more familiar with when naming alien species with common vernacular. So if an alien creature resembles reptiles to us, we will probably call them reptiloids (regardless of the details of their gross structure). The same goes for other gross physiological appearances. Expect exoskeletal aliens to be called insectoids, flying ones to be called avioids, swimming ones to be called fishoids (that just sounds wrong though), etc.

If writing fiction, you might point out that scientifically speaking the alien creature in question is really nothing like the referenced creature on Earth other than some external factor which lead to the comparison.

In Summary
I really like the ideas behind White's categorization scheme because it can accommodate most any plan form and alien physiology and any sort of classification would have to do this.

But for appearances, humanoid is appropriate and what to call other thinking entities, being or sentient would be appropriate.

  • $\begingroup$ Wow, did I every go off on a tangent. I've got to wrap this up with a real answer to your question. $\endgroup$
    – Jim2B
    May 22, 2015 at 18:29
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    $\begingroup$ Thanks so much for such a thorough response. I will use this as a reference for future species development. I have an in-universe explanation for why humanoid aliens exist. It just isn't one that the populace of this universe has discovered yet. I edited my question to reflect this. $\endgroup$ May 23, 2015 at 3:16
  • $\begingroup$ Yeah, the topic is actually a rant of mine in fiction. Few authors even bother thinking about what aliens might actually be. $\endgroup$
    – Jim2B
    May 23, 2015 at 3:53
  • $\begingroup$ I agree. I think the challenge is in making aliens with "scientifically probable" anatomies relatable to readers, unless you're wanting to attract a hard science niche. I'm trying to develop a blend of humanoid and non-humanoid aliens to balance goals of realism and relatable characters, while exploring alternative scientific constructs these cultures may have developed to explain their origins. $\endgroup$ May 23, 2015 at 4:00
  • $\begingroup$ "allows the same genes to be used repeatedly to make larger body size." Also fractal-like. Used by trees, for example. (P.s. the tl; dr slang is really getting sour and will be dated when this is read by others years later) $\endgroup$
    – JDługosz
    May 23, 2015 at 4:17

It might require finer detail. What if they can use the same hand tools as us, but can't use the same chairs? What if they are humanoid by most definition but their hands are proportioned and sized differently enough that that can't use our everyday items like scissors, can openers, etc.

In a rich multi-species universe, scientists may have words for the reoccuring most-common patterns for body design, different words for metabolism, different again for which environments can be tolerated.

For mixed-species environments where they mingle and work together, there will be a mismash of practical terms that emerge as needed. When you make restaurant reservations, you need a table with 3 chairs for one anatomy, a high chair, a harness for a different anatomy, and a latter-like set of bars for another. If body plans reoccur in a small number of common designs, they will have names. But the major plan alone is not enough for compatibility needs.

Words for different types may be imports, so English and Japanese would indeed be likeky to supply the one for us, if the word was already in use to apply to our robots that can interoperate with our workspaces, in full or above the waist only.

  • $\begingroup$ This is a community where different species have had to learn to develop a functioning infrastructure together, so this answer makes a lot of sense. Are compatibility-related issues the only reason such a term would develop? What about an innate tendency of sentient beings to develop classification systems? $\endgroup$ May 23, 2015 at 3:28
  • $\begingroup$ Sure: blonde, brunette, tall, fat, ... and terms to enable racial prejudice, noting the "in" and "out" groups even if based on arbitrary criteria. $\endgroup$
    – JDługosz
    May 23, 2015 at 3:46
  • $\begingroup$ @JacobJones check out Still River by Hal Clement. Part of the test the students face is learning to work as a group. They have some overlap in tolerable environment, but totally different manipulators and different sensitivies to different grequencies if light. One creates a device (using on-ship fabricators) that the human needs tomuse later, and can't. She didn't hqce hair-like tenticles to insert into the holes,, his equivilent of our buttons. $\endgroup$
    – JDługosz
    May 23, 2015 at 4:09

Linguistically, there is not a problem with referring to another species as humanoid. In English, that's just what we call them. In French or Spanish or Russian, they'd use their own words. The aliens would perhaps refer to us as 'alienoid' or the '-oid' of their species' name.

Therefore, I see no political incorrectness with referring to the aliens as humanoid. If we're communicating with them and they don't like it, presumably they'll tell us; if we're not, what does it matter what we call them? They won't know.


This question may be better suited for the English Language Stack Exchange. The word you are looking for is humanoid, which means having an appearance generally resembling humans. It carries no implication of shared ancestry, although that's certainly possible (robots designed to resemble humans, or some form of interstellar genetic seeding).

Words that would be less applicable include "hominid" (the great apes), "hominoid" (apes), or "anthropoid" (simians), as those refer to families of Earth primates.


Depends on what language they speak, but I would suspect that we would have to invent a term that means "bipedal, bimanual and human-like" but without implying "human". Mashing those words together results in "Bipedman" or the equivalent in their language.

"Pentanoids" might also work. Human(oids) have 5 (= penta) main senses, 5 main protutions from their body (2 arms, 2 legs, 1 head), 5 fingers, etc. Pentanoids might not be the best name however. Any other descriptive name would also work. A name that referes to them as intelligent beings (also fine for non-humanoids) such as "sophonts" or "sentients" might also be approprate.

Names could be very arbitrary in this case. We would probably call them what ever they call themselves and vis versa.

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    $\begingroup$ Unless you limit your lessons on anatomy and physiology to Aristotle, we have a lot more than 5 senses, more on the order of 20 or possibly 30. Also, 'pentanoids' would equally well describe 5-armed starfish, who are probably closer to having 5 senses, anyway. $\endgroup$ May 22, 2015 at 7:51
  • $\begingroup$ @WillihamTotland True, but the most people only think about five senses, sight, sound, smell, taste, touch, even though taste and smell are fundamentally very similar. Most people tend to take (eg) balance/acceleration for granted, too. Your point regarding pentanoids is valid, Bi- anything is probably better, I will edit that in. $\endgroup$
    – amziraro
    May 22, 2015 at 8:14

The question you should ask is whether it's realistic in your universe for all those features to come together enough for that term to be useful. The majority of biped people might have six arms. The majority of people with two arms might have a snake like body. The majority of creatures with four limbs might rather crawl.

So I think there are two real possibilities:

If particular combinations are very common, then there might be a special name. 'Standard' configuration, or perhaps something named after the most numerous or the first encountered species with that configuration.

If not, then there wouldn't be a name for such a combination of features. Instead people would refer to specific features as required. "Can I get a biped chair, please? And set his display to 400-700nm?"



Literally, "with the form of a man".

Of course, the word is, itself, antropocentric. But so is our language, for good measure (it has evolved to serve use).

"They", in their language, will probably use a "themcentric" term, so do not worry about that.

Additionally, when the common characteristic is not form but intelligence, you could use sapiens or sapients1.

1: With permissions from Howard Tayler's Schlock Mercenary.

  • $\begingroup$ Wait for a few generations. Due to political and societal developments, populations have mingled. Some of the aliens have been born on an otherwise human planet. They have grown up among humans, their first language is English. At some point, they might feel that antropocentric terms like "antropomorphic" do not sound neutral enough to represent them. At that point, there is every reason to worry about a neutral term in English then. $\endgroup$ May 23, 2015 at 15:30
  • $\begingroup$ @O.R.Mapper it is an interesting idea... were the aliens (or their parents) forcibly brought into Earth, treated as an inferior race due not being human, mistreated and used as cheap labour with no rights (or at best, treated as second class citizens) for centuries, while the human race presented as themselves as inherently more superior and civilized? Is still persecution against aliens (v.g., if an alien rises to an important public post, public threats against him multiply manifold, or if are aliens in a considerable risk of being shot without reason by security forces)? $\endgroup$
    – SJuan76
    May 23, 2015 at 17:17
  • $\begingroup$ @O.R.Mapper in fact I do not think your idea is sound. I know you thought of an analogous situation here in Earth, but it does not work that way. People does not claim against the common, unbiased term, but against the segregationist, biased term. In the situation you are thinking of, some people do not like being categorized as "secretaries" due to the negative connotations the word has added over years of use, and ask to be called "administrative assistants". Yet they do not reject using the common denomination of "workers" or "people" because it is a shared word, with no bias against it. $\endgroup$
    – SJuan76
    May 23, 2015 at 18:02
  • $\begingroup$ I'd argue it is how things work in case of terms that are based on a particular group, yet come to use a more general group. Clearly, that is not the case for designations like "workers" or "people", because those still apply to "administrative assistants". However, think of how "spokesman" is gradually replaced with "spokesperson". It's also how "Merry Christmas" is sometimes replaced with "Happy Holidays", when it is at least assumed that a significant portion of the target group would feel excluded by the explicit reference to a particular religion. $\endgroup$ May 23, 2015 at 18:38
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    $\begingroup$ @O.R.Mapper your last comment is barely related to the first one, but I'll address it. Societies change, and their language change to reflect that. At some time, recoginizing oneself as atheist or homosexual would get you in a lot of trouble, so you could say "Happy Christmas" or "How is your wife?" without risk of someone claiming against it. Now one may say "Happy Holidays" or "How is your couple?", to avoid looking like you do assumptions based only in social pressure. Likewise, if your father were not married when you were born, you no longer are called "a bastard" $\endgroup$
    – SJuan76
    May 23, 2015 at 20:22

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