English Language & Usage Stack Exchange is a question and answer site for linguists, etymologists, and serious English language enthusiasts. Join them; it only takes a minute:

Sign up
Here's how it works:
  1. Anybody can ask a question
  2. Anybody can answer
  3. The best answers are voted up and rise to the top

A satellite town is a town that is located in the outskirts of a major city. What is the origin of this name, satellite town? What does "satellite" exactly mean here?

share|improve this question

At OED.com* the 6th noun definition of satellite is firstly of a state (country, principality, etc.,) that is politically or economically dependant on and subservient to another. Their earliest quote:

[1776 T. Paine Wks. (1796) II. 24 In no instance hath nature made the satellite larger than its primary planet; and as England and America‥reverse the common order of nature, it is evident that they belong to different systems: England to Europe, America to itself.]

As you can see, satellite is being used in a metaphorical sense, so the origin is the astronomical definition of satellite. The meaning of satellite with regards to towns being:

A community or town that is economically or otherwise dependent on a nearby larger town or city.

Which you can see is parallel to the definition for states.

* OED.com requires a subscription, which might be provided by your library. Try your library card number to find out.

share|improve this answer
N.B. of course it isn't the earliest quote that is necessarily very interesting, but rather quotes of the early 1900s (when "satellite town" appears to have been coined). Though... taking usage from that time, I think you arrive at the same conclusion :) – Neil Coffey May 16 '12 at 13:48
The OED has an entry for satellite town, first is from 1925. – Hugo Nov 6 '13 at 16:39

In space, a satellite is something that orbits (or goes around) something else. Usually the smaller object orbits the bigger one.

Geographically, then, a satellite town is a community located near a big city. Typically, there is some "attachment" between the satellite town and the nearby city (for example, a large percentage of the workers in the satellite town are employed in the city).

share|improve this answer
Well, technically both always orbit each other. :) – vsz May 16 '12 at 19:19
@vsz: Maybe we should migrate this to Physics.SE? :^) – J.R. May 16 '12 at 19:26

'Satellite' simply means a 'follower' -- a smaller object or person following a bigger one.


1540s, "follower or attendant of a superior person," from M.Fr.satellite (14c), from L. satellitem (nom. satelles) "attendant" ...

The term was used in the astronomical sense by Kepler in the 1610s.

By extension, a thing dependent, and typically found around, a larger one of its like is a satellite.

share|improve this answer
As I say in my other comment, this is an interesting observation from a historical viewpoint. But it doesn't reflect the meaning of "satellite" in 2012. – Neil Coffey May 16 '12 at 13:39
And looking at usage of "satellite" in the decades leading up to "satellite town" being coined, the use to mean "attendant" doesn't appear to have been common at all-- the planetary use had apparently already supplanted it by a long way. – Neil Coffey May 16 '12 at 13:53

Well, a "satellite" of a planet is an object in its orbit. As far as I'm aware, it's simply an analogy on that. Doing a quick unscientific Google Books search and looking at how "satellite" appears to be predominantly used in the 19th and early 20th century ("satellite town" appears to have been coined in the 1910s/1920s), this would seem to be how speakers have always conceived of the term.

It is true that "satellite" is occasionally used in other contexts to mean "adjoining"/"accompanying", e.g. the term "satellite vein", which apparently predates "satellite town" by some decades, but this usage appears to have been marginal compared to the use of "satellite" in the planetary context.

share|improve this answer
A planet's "satellite" is itself an 'analogy'. – Kris May 16 '12 at 12:13
Kris -- I suspect that nowadays that's not the case and that the word has evolved so that the planetary context is the main meaning. However, it's interesting to note that etymologically, the word has come 'full circle'. – Neil Coffey May 16 '12 at 13:38
Have you heard of the cronies hanging around a political lightweight being called 'satellites'? This usage has been around for ages. Plus, the term has been in use in an 'analogous' sense in many specialized fields as much as in astronomy -- only not as popularly known. I know of engg & medical terms. – Kris May 16 '12 at 17:03

It is taken from the Sanskrit word Sathiya, which means follower. The French spelled it their way from Sanskrit/Hindi.

share|improve this answer
This does not answer the question as currently written. Adding some detail as to how the word "satellite" led to the term "satellite town" would fix that. – user867 Nov 7 '13 at 0:29

Your Answer


By posting your answer, you agree to the privacy policy and terms of service.

Not the answer you're looking for? Browse other questions tagged or ask your own question.