This question on a different SE site asks the question of what the etymology of the word "Xenomorph" is, and the consensus, from the comments at least, is that it has none - that it was purely invented for that movie.

My question is, is this true? Did this word purely exist as a creation of the movies, as a portmanteau of two separate words? Or is there an origint that dates back to before the creation of these movies?

I realize this is the ELU stack exchange, so I don't expect a detailed explanation of the etymological origins movie-side, I'm simply curious if there is any evidence that this word existed prior to the Alien franchise.

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    It's put together out of two common Greek words: ξένος, xénos, 'stranger; foreign'; and μορφή morphé 'shape, appearance'. So it means 'strange shape' and that means it looks like an alien. Anybody can do this with Greek roots; Lego is coming out with a new set. Commented May 30, 2014 at 14:11
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    "Entymological origins"? These would be those xenophobically stereotypical aliens that evolved from insects, I take it. (So technologically advanced they use Leg6, rather than Leg0 to coin new words :) Commented May 30, 2014 at 14:20
  • The word exist since the XIXth century...but in German, in the field of geoglogy. And under the form xemorphae in English, in entomology.books.google.ca/…
    – P. O.
    Commented May 30, 2014 at 14:31
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    @Jo: oic. So OP's Entymological wasn't necessarily a typo then? (But it's still a misspelling, whichever way it goes). Commented May 30, 2014 at 14:34
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    @JohnLawler : would that be a new Lego λέγω set? Commented May 30, 2014 at 18:46

2 Answers 2


The word existed, and exists, with a different meaning in geology, in which it refers to crystals trapped between other rocks and crystals (I may have the geological details of that not quite right). It is used in such works as Edward Huntington Williams' Manual of Lithology: Treating of the Principles of the Science with Special Reference to Megascopic Analysis ... from 1895, which considerably predates the Alien franchise.

In both this case and the films, the etymology is from the establish process of combining Latin and/or Greek words (in this case both Greek) and so ξένος (stranger, foreign, alien) and μορφή (shape, form, body).

It applies in the geological sense, because such crystals are foreign bodies within another rock.

It applies in the film because such creatures are alien/foreign to all organisms otherwise known to the protagonists.

(Incidentally, as used in the film it does not refer specifically to the eponymous aliens; it refers to any real or hypothetical non-terrestrial being. If, on their way to LV-426, the crew of the USS Sulaco came across a being that looked like a lovable turd, asked to "phone home" and healed people with a glowing finger while saying "ouch", they would have called that a xenomorph too [and then cut him up to see if his finger was of use to medical research]).

Both the Greek words involved have a history of being used in English, such as xenophobe and xenoblast for ξένος and endomorph and lagomorph for μορφή. This last example compares well, as it is similarly used to describe creatues (it covers both rabbits and hares, and literally means "having the form of a hare").

As such, it would be a pretty unsurprising coinage for a scientist to make, whether a real 19th century scientist looking at crystals in rocks, or a fictional 22nd century scientist describing an extra-terrestrial species.

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    Here's a usage from 1979 that seems to be pretty much OP's "sci-fi" meaning: "The xenomorph says they have adopted human form to avoid frightening Earthlings with their appearance". Commented May 30, 2014 at 14:31
  • @FumbleFingers good find. Not at all surprising given how obvious the coinage is (though not the only such possibility), but I failed to find one such myself in a quick search.
    – Jon Hanna
    Commented May 30, 2014 at 14:47
  • Presumably because as @Jo comments above, the word seems to have a long history in German texts. I don't know why Google Books have so many obviously foreign texts filed under "English", but it does rather complicate searching sometimes. Commented May 30, 2014 at 14:52
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    It wouldn't demonstrate that the word wasn't (re-)coined for the films though. The practice of combining classical words in such a manner being so common, it's pretty likely to have been independently created for the film.
    – Jon Hanna
    Commented May 30, 2014 at 15:01
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    Right. It isn't like words are always created once and then exist forever. Words have lives, like RPG avatars, and they can get resurrected in new environments, if they have the right properties. And Greek roots are always available, just like Latin, only more impressive. Commented May 30, 2014 at 15:09

As mentioned by @JohnLawler, Xenomorph breaks down into Greek xenos (or, prefix xen- + [vowel]) meaning strange[r] or foreign[er], and morph meaning shape or form.

Outside of the movie, xenomorph can be used in a few scientific contexts:

  • Xenomorphic minerals have no intrinsic crystalline structure of their own, but have a structure impressed on them by surrounding structures or conditions.
  • Xenomorpha is a synonym of tardigrada, a phylum of extremophiles.
  • Does xenomorpha for waterbears definitely predate the movie?
    – Jon Hanna
    Commented May 30, 2014 at 14:51
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    I didn't have time to find the full etymology, but I did find an example from 1869, which I am fairly certain predates the movie, but I am not a film buff so don't quote me on that.
    – Andy
    Commented May 30, 2014 at 15:30
  • Well, even the John Carter film only took 80 years to finally get made, so I think you might be comfortably ahead of it there :)
    – Jon Hanna
    Commented May 30, 2014 at 15:35

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