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In a future where humanity has expanded to live on multiple planets and then encounters life that does not trace ancestry back to earth, what is an appropriate term for such life?

"Extraterrestrial" has an unfortunate ambiguity, since at this point, plenty of humans and other Earth-originating species have been born beyond Earth. A human born on another planet could be argued to be an extraterrestrial, depending on how it's used.

"Alien" has its own problems, especially since human governments use the term to refer to people born in other countries.

Is there a better term?

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  • $\begingroup$ Planet or planets? $\endgroup$ Nov 23, 2023 at 17:22
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    $\begingroup$ How exactly do you expect is to evaluate, whether one term is better than another? This question is far too subjective to be suitable for this site. $\endgroup$
    – sphennings
    Nov 24, 2023 at 0:45
  • $\begingroup$ Can you specify what kind of "species" you're talking about please? You seems to be talking about people here, with several references to humans and people. If you're also talking about plants and non-sophont animals, I'll happily delete my answer. $\endgroup$
    – elemtilas
    Nov 24, 2023 at 15:37
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    $\begingroup$ VTC:Opinion-Based. Though occasionally ignored, it's actually the policy of the Stack to not answer questions about how to name something. It's an aesthetic that has nothing to do with worldbuilding. Worse, it violates several Stack Exchange rules being open-ended, hypothetical, and leading to all answers having equal value (none is more objectively better than others). See the help center for details. $\endgroup$
    – JBH
    Nov 25, 2023 at 21:28

11 Answers 11

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Xeno

Used as a noun or prefix, meaning "foreign" or "different in origin".

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    $\begingroup$ "If you can confront the xenos, look upon the xenos, even think upon the xenos, without revulsion, then you are as damned as they." Warhammer 40K $\endgroup$ Nov 22, 2023 at 3:34
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    $\begingroup$ @Zags its a prefix, and as such you can certainly conjure up other reasonable terms that escape trademark risks... xenobiota (includes plants), xenosophonts for intelligent things, etc. Possibly xenotheria for animals, but I'm on shakier ground there. $\endgroup$ Nov 22, 2023 at 16:50
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    $\begingroup$ @MatthieuM. are you trying to use common sense to defend against trademark law? cos I have some bad news for you. $\endgroup$ Nov 22, 2023 at 16:51
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    $\begingroup$ xeno is just the Greek to Latin's "alien". $\endgroup$
    – hobbs
    Nov 22, 2023 at 22:00
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    $\begingroup$ Xenosapiens sounds nice. $\endgroup$ Nov 24, 2023 at 5:23
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Extraterrestrial

You are mistaken in your usage of extraterrestrial, humans born on another planet are still terrestrial life (in both uses) as far as biology is concerned, it originated from earth.

If you want to create a new word for things from earth born on another planet THAT is were a new term is needed, non-terran is a popular choice in fiction, or you could try Exo-terrestrial for a similar usage to expatriate, someone living outside their native country. But extra-terrestrial already has an establishing meaning in biology and other sciences.

But you would only use extraterrestrial to cover everything not from earth, it is like using extra-marine for everything that does not live in the ocean, it can be used but their is not a lot of reason to other than legal definitions. You might also use extra-solar for things that do not come from our solar system.

More likely it will be referred to as X-an or X-ial with X being whatever the origin of that life is. We are terrestrial life, life from Jupiter would be Jovian life because there is not much reason to to refer to all life not from earth and still include things of earth origin.

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  • $\begingroup$ Yeah, Extraterrestrial would probably be the most fitting thing for the question asked, I agree. $\endgroup$ Nov 25, 2023 at 7:31
  • $\begingroup$ I like the term extraterrestrial, but the arguments in this answer only highlight the problems with the term rather than support it. Modern scientific use uses "terrestrial life" to refer to things that live predominantly on land (as opposed to categories like "marine life"). $\endgroup$
    – Zags
    Nov 28, 2023 at 14:56
  • $\begingroup$ @Zags that is one of the uses of terrestrial, I mentioned both. extraterrestrial however has only one meaning. $\endgroup$
    – John
    Nov 28, 2023 at 21:42
  • $\begingroup$ @Zags you might want to use terran instead of terrestrial if you are worried about confusion, extra terrestrial vs terran and extra-terran or ecto-terrestrial for earth life born somewhere else. $\endgroup$
    – John
    Dec 1, 2023 at 21:21
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It's a problem we have already faced, once European scientists started to study life form from outside Europe.

In the same way as flora and fauna originated outside of Europe was called African, American, Asian, Australian and in general autoctone to indicate that originated in the same place without being imported, the name will follow the location, planet in this case, where it is born: Martian, Jovian, Venusian, Trafalmadorian and so on.

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  • $\begingroup$ This could still be ambiguous since the term usually indicates where a species is found or associated with, rather than its genetic origin (we currently don't have much need to disambiguate). Suppose an earth rose is taken to Mars, and diverges into a new species. That would very reasonably be called a Martian rose because it is found exclusively on Mars, despite the fact that it traces its genetic ancestry to earth. Genetics aren't as easily observed, people will likely name things based on what they can see. The Australian Shepherd dog breed, for example, has zero genetic links to Australia. $\endgroup$ Nov 22, 2023 at 16:03
  • $\begingroup$ The problem with this comparison is that exobiological creatures don't share a root family tree with each other. Terrestrial species can all be traced back to the first recombination of GATC, making the differentiation equivalent to a nationality. Non-GATC life would very likely be incapable of becoming an invasive species due to not having the right building blocks in the system. $\endgroup$ Nov 23, 2023 at 18:10
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Perhaps "non-Terran" would be sufficient? "Terran" in other science fiction works has been used to mean "inhabitants of Earth" (Terra being the Latin name for the planet). There is some ambiguity in that it is occasionally meant as a stand-in for "human" and other times as a word meaning "any thing originating from Earth;" you would borrow from this latter definition for "non-Terran" to mean "any life form not originating from Earth." A usage example: "The reticulated lava snake was the first non-Terran life form we encountered on the planet Magmor."

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    $\begingroup$ I think this is the cleanest if you need to be specific about origins, yeah. You can also modify it a bit further. Orion's Arm uses "terragen" (presumably from terra + genesis) to indicate that something has the root of its evolutionary tree (or creation history in the case of machines) on Earth. $\endgroup$
    – parasoup
    Nov 23, 2023 at 17:44
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Consider words in -genous: indigenous, exogenous, xenogenous, extragenous.

And then if planets or solar systems have names: planetname-genous or starname-genous. Earthgenous or Geogenous or Terragenous, Marsgenous or Martigenous or Areogenous, Centaurigenous, etc.

If you want to put emphasis on the fact that a species comes from a near or far solar system, without explicitly mentioning the particular system, you can use greek adjectives μακρινός (distant) or πλησίον (near): macriogenous for an extraterrestrial species from the other side of the galaxy, and plesiogenous for a species native of a planet or system close to Earth.

If you want to refer to the distance explicitly, you could use prefixes mono (1), deci (10), hecto (100), kilo (1000) and mega (1000000), along with "phyto" which means light, to specify that we're counting in lightyears. A species which comes from between 1 and 5 lightyears, ie from Alpha Centauri, is monophytogenous. A species which comes from between 6 and 50 lightyears is deciphytogenous, or decigenous for short. Etc. Note that the galaxy is only 100000 lightyears in diameter, so "megagenous" would be a bit of a rounding-up hyperbole for "coming from the other end of the galaxy".

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    $\begingroup$ "Geogenous" sounds better than "Earthgenous". I would also accept "Terragenous". And "Marsgenous" should probably be "Martigenous (using the proper stem for euphony) or "Areogenous" (using the Greek to match to match suffix) $\endgroup$
    – No Name
    Nov 23, 2023 at 19:54
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There are many terms, with varying degrees of acceptableness. I'd like to draw attention to one set of them that Orson Scott Card put together for the Ender's Game series. I draw attention to it because it addresses what appears to be a thorn in your side: our current words are all ideal for a culture that doesn't have a presence on more planets. A real culture facing such an environment is likely to have to invent an additional set of words to capture the meanings that are important to them.

In the Ender's Game series, Valentine Wiggin constructs the Hierarchy of Foreignness. It uses not one word but several to describe key relationships. The words Card chose happen to be Sweedish:

An utlänning was defined as a stranger recognized as human from the same planet as a subject, but of a different nation or city. Utlänning means "foreigner" in Swedish.

A främling was defined as a stranger recognized as human, but from a different planet than a subject. Främling means "stranger" in Swedish.

Ramen were defined as strangers recognized as "human", but of another sentient species entirely. The term was only ever used to refer to the entire species as a whole rather than an individual member. Although not a common word, Ramen may be constructed in Swedish from rå + män, where rå indicates "coarse (not refined); brutal (crude or unfeeling in manner or speech)" and män = "man" or "person" (e.g. råmän).

Varelse were defined as true aliens; they may or may not be sentient beings, but are so foreign that no meaningful communication is possible with the subject. Varelse means "creature" in Swedish.

This was sufficient for their world. Feel free to invent your own. By Card's chosen set of words, your other form of life would be Ramen or Varelse, depending on the life. And I think Card was smart here, as there's a distinction between the two that would be very important in such a world.

Depending on the past-history of your story, it might even be possible to give Card a nod and have the characters explicitly reference him for coining terms that they found beneficial.

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A Thousand Words For Stranger:

The answer says more about the user. Language is a funny thing, and fluid. The words people use to describe each other reflect the attitudes they hold about those people. Are they dismissive, angry, fearful, arrogant, trusting, dependent on trade or hopeful of immigrants? Have they experienced an invasion?

But ambiguous naming is a good thing (at least story-wise). Using different language allows you as a creator to tell a story with less tell and more show.

Consider grades like an epithet (“dirt people” for Earthers, for example). In our own culture, look at the difference between illegal alien, foreigner, undocumented resident, or economic refugee.

So there is and will be no perfect name to universally apply. It will all be about the attitude the people have towards that particular brand of outsider.

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autochthonous formed in it's present condition. "from the rocks"

In a future where humanity has expanded to live on multiple planets and then encounters life, that life will be autochthonous. It will be encountered on planets where it is autochthonous. Even when a few individuals travel between planets, most of the life they encounter will be autochthonous. Even when humans become indiginized and native to foreign planets, most of the life they will be in contact with will be autochthonous.

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Sophonts


Problem solved!


If you're looking for a good general term for "people" that doesn't specify a place of origin, this is a good choice. It's best feature is that, unlike the other choices, it is, in and of itself a positive term in that it emphasises intelligence, wisdom, self-awareness, etc that "people" have in common. Other key features are its place-neutrality. It's an English word, but but doesn't specifically refer to one race the way "Terran" or "Terrestrial" do. Lastly, it lacks all the negative connotations that (humans) have about words like "alien" or "xeno".


Thus, even if a sophont from Znabu doesn't take offence at being called a xenoalien, because she doesn't share the human cultural baggage, she will certainly appreciate the more positive nature of sophont.

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    $\begingroup$ I don't think this term fits. It refers to a general class of sapient/sentient beings regardless of their genetic origin - human beings are sophonts, and a plant from another galaxy is not, but that's exactly the opposite of the classification the OP is looking for. I don't see any indication the OP is only trying to describe other intelligent species. This term refers to a being's mental abilities, but indicates nothing at all about where it comes from. $\endgroup$ Nov 22, 2023 at 18:51
  • $\begingroup$ @NuclearHoagie --- I read the OP as interested in people more than plants. Oh well! $\endgroup$
    – elemtilas
    Nov 22, 2023 at 19:04
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    $\begingroup$ Frankly, "people" is a perfectly cromulent word for this concept. It's only a synonym for "humans" because humans are the only people we know $\endgroup$
    – No Name
    Nov 23, 2023 at 5:13
  • $\begingroup$ There is nothing particularly unusual in a term engaging in semantic drift like that. "Gentile" means "nations" in origin but now means "Non-Jewish nations." Likewise, commonly referring to non-human sophonts as sophonts would cause semantic drift. $\endgroup$
    – Mary
    Nov 23, 2023 at 21:14
  • $\begingroup$ I like the word and use it on occasion, but you're answering the wrong question: OP says nothing about whether the species encountered are rational. $\endgroup$ Nov 24, 2023 at 7:39
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Extraterrestrial can be justified

Your ambiguity in "extraterrestrial" hinges in your definition of Terra. Right now, we have one planet, which is why it shares the word for "ground" (earth vs Earth, terra vs Terra). This applies to many things. We wouldn't be calling our sun "the Sun" if we had more than one sun (i.e. because we inhabit multiple solar systems or live in a binary solar system). The same applies to the Moon. We would've given them a proper name (different from "moon") if there was a need to distinguish between them.

When the colonization process begins, i.e. when have more than one thing (planet, solar system, ...), a need to distinguish between them arises, and people will naturally find unique names for the unique things.

The question is, how does the definition of the non-capitalized word change when there's more than one inhabited planet? Does earth refer to any kind of soil, or specifically soil from Earth? I think you have freedom of choice here.

However, I can reasonably argue that the Terra in extraterrestrial is always going to be relative to the speaker. So the question is: is the speaker speaking as a citizen of NewPlanet, or is he speaking as a citizen of the entire human civilization (or a subset of humanity that defines itself independently and inhabits several planets).

Depending on what the speaker defines as "our domain", extraterrestial refers to "from outside our domain".

This means you can do what you want with it. You could keep the definition to be "from a non-human-inhabited planet", or you could put the word in the mouth of someone who sees everyone not from their planet as an "extraterrestrial" (heavy analogy towards the use of "alien" to mean non-citizen even in today's world).

The short answer here is that the conflict/ambiguity that you currently see with your 2023 eyes is likely something that will have been addressed during the colonization of additional planets, so you can decide exactly how the meaning of the words shifted.

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In the context you're describing, where humanity has become a multi-planetary species and has encountered life that is not of Earth origin, the term "extraterrestrial" indeed becomes ambiguous. Similarly, "alien" can have different connotations that might make it less desirable for clear communication. Here are a few alternative terms that could be used:

  • Exogenic Life: This term emphasizes that the life form originates outside the Earth's biosphere. "Exogenic" derives from "exo-" meaning outside and "genic" relating to origin or production.

  • Xenobiological Life: This term is often used in science fiction and scientific discussions to describe life that is foreign and of biological nature. "Xeno-" means strange or foreign, and "biological" refers to life.

  • Non-Terrestrial Life: This term directly states that the life form is not from Earth ("Terra" in Latin) without implying that it is necessarily from outer space, which would include humans or Earth life on other planets.

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  • $\begingroup$ xenobiological is already used for artificial biology. $\endgroup$
    – John
    Dec 1, 2023 at 21:07

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