The etymology of the word "alien" goes as follows:

c.1300 (...)from Latin alienus "of or belonging to another, not one's own, foreign, strange,"

first as an adjective and later transferred to a noun,

"foreigner, citizen of a foreign land," early 14c., (...) In the science fiction sense "being from another planet," from 1953.

according to this article:

the term arose sometime in the mid-14th century and was initially used to describe something as strange or of foreign origin. When dark age monks described something as alien, they meant it seemed unnatural within the context of the society and ecosystem.

and according to the same article:

The first recorded use of alien to mean “not of the Earth” was in 1920 — though one suspects it had happened previously. The word took off with the invention of the aircraft and the subsequent invention of the space shuttle.

And the OED puts some early examples:

1929 J Williamson in Sci. Wonder Stories July 102 (title) The alien intelligence. / 1932 C.A. Smith in Wonder Stories Aug. 224/1 The alien ship was now hanging near the tops of the giant plants

I think it is safe to assume the word's connotation with the unworldly, did not begin to overthrow the worldly/of this earth definition until the 1950s when the great science fiction pictures began to be released like, Forbidden Planet, The Thing From Another World, etc. and those delightfully gruesome Mars Attacks cards from Topps.
Prior to the word "alien" I assume extraterrestrial beings, like those that appear in H.G. Wells's War of the Worlds, were more likely referred to simply as Martians which is from 1877 in reference to "an inhabitant of mars", and similarly, Neptunian (1870), Mercurian (1755), Venusian (1866), and prior to that I could only assume anything "unwordly" would have simply been referred to as a divine thing, either it be angel or devil, as in Somnium by Johannes Kepler in 1608 or with Milton who hesitantly suggests life on the moon in Paradise Lost, "Stored in each Orb perhaps with some that live." You also have alien-like creatures in The Adventures of Bulukiya from One Thousand and One Nights, but obviously, none of these refer to the being as "alien", and so anyone who would have read these suggestions may have interpreted them as "monsters" or "devils", rather than actual life on any place other than earth, and the influences of the inhabitants of hell and heaven.

Therefore I think it is quite likely that the word "alien" did come up to mean life which is not from earth around the 1920s, which makes historical sense with the advancement of public interest in space, which would of course reach its height in the 1950s/60s with the space race, but regardless, as for my question:

  • I am interested if anyone could find anything that would prove the word "alien" was used, even if in obscure use, pre-1920s? or if there might have been any uses of the word in reference to the cosmic pre-20th century?
  • and if possible, besides the terms I found like "Martian", etc. which words may have been used in place of "alien" prior to its coinage of meaning extraterrestrial?
  • 1
    From Christ in the Universe Alice Meynell (b. 1847) But in the eternities, Doubtless we shall compare together, hear A million alien Gospels, in what guise He trod the Pleiades, the Lyre, the Bear. The context is definitely "extraterrestrial" - earlier in the text are references to stars, planets, and the Milky Way. But basically, I'd say "alien" came to acquire the specific sense of "extraterrestrial" as soon as the latter became a concept that we actually needed to refer to. Feb 9 at 17:01
  • This doesn't affect the question, but it seems rather odd that the quoted source claims that 'the word took off with the invention of the aircraft and the subsequent invention of the space shuttle'. It is not at all clear why somebody would think that there is a specially strong connection between aliens and space shuttles, as distinct from other kinds of spacecraft.
    – jsw29
    Feb 9 at 17:03
  • 1
    The author of the 1835 Great Moon Hoax used the term Vespertilio-homo for the creatures he claimed to observe, but that was more about their morphology (Vespertilio is a genus of bats) than about their lunar origin. In 1795, William Herschel wrote about intelligent life on other planets, on the surface of the sun (!), and on hypothesized planets outside the solar system, but he just called them "inhabitants [of a particular body]." Feb 9 at 17:35
  • @CanadianYankee Vespertilio-homo is excellent! Feb 9 at 17:47
  • @jsw29 "but it seems rather odd that the quoted source claims that 'the word took off with the invention of the aircraft and the subsequent invention of the space shuttle..." The same phenomenon occurred during the Baroque period (approximately 1590-1620) , a time when men's eyes were lifted above the horizon, and looked more to the heavens. If you take a look at Jacob van Ruisdael's work, it is definitely influenced by Newton and Galileo. Similar phenomenon occurred during the 1950s in the USA. It's cultural and regional.
    – Cascabel
    Feb 9 at 20:04

Prior to the 20th century, extraterrestrial life was referred to in fairly plain terms. For instance, in an 1803 English translation of the French book Conversations on the Plurality of Worlds by Bernard le Bovier de Fontenelle (1686), inhabitant is the most common term used, e.g.:

The posterity of Adam cannot have colonized the moon; therefore the inhabitants of that planet are not descendants of our first parents [...] I say there are inhabitants, and I likewise say they may not at all resemble us. [...]

Other terms are also used, like folks:

For why should the good folks in the moon have more sense than we?

These usages were common before the 19th century among authors who hypothesized life on other worlds. Cosmic pluralism, as the idea was known, was posited by thinkers like John Locke, who wrote in Elements of Natural Philosophy:

It is more suitable to the wisdom, power, and greatness of God, to think that the fixed stars are all of them suns, with systems of inhabitable planets moving about them, to whose inhabitants he displays the marks of his goodness, as well as to us; rather than to imagine that those very remote bodies, so little useful to us, were made only for our sake.

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