In my recent adventures, I've taken to asking (seemingly) obvious questions of words I thought I understood. Language is organic and fluid, mysterious and multi-faceted. Naturally, there is never a dull moment with the lexicon.
This week's question is about the word "alien." In our culture we are so accustomed to the word that it automatically means one of two things: 1.) illegal or out-of-place immigrant in another country, or 2.) any non human, extraterrestrial being of the "little green men" or Klingon, Vulcan or Dalek category. Number 2 is a relatively new development, if you think about it: what with the dawn of flight and space exploration, Area 51 and alien-abduction hysteria.
But looking at Shakespeare or the Bible, "the alien" is usually the former definition: a dispossessed, homeless person in a foreign place. So using "alien" to refer to extraterrestrials is actually quite logical. They're not from earth. They don't belong. They are strange. They are "not like us."
But... does alien mean more than that? Looking up "alien" (as an adjective) for a Latin translation points to peregrinus: foreign, strange, etc. It is related clearly to the Latin word for "other", which is alius: "different." So that's all it means, pure and simple. In this century the word has been associated with "scary non-human" - it is amazing to think how a meaning could change, grow and accumulate (sometimes strong) connotations.
The above photo is, of course, the Doctor. For those of you who don't know, contrary to his outward appearance, the Doctor is not a human being. He is an alien with two hearts, psychic abilities, and who doesn't age, but regenerates into another man when his body is damaged. Among other pieces of evidence.
Why am I thinking about this? I have been thinking lately about how "alien" is a bit outdated - that "little green men" connotation. After all, we're surrounded by the weird and the unusual all day, every day. "Alien" to me has become very much a below-the-skin, can't-put-a-finger-on-it sort of thing... probably because of the significant influence the likes of Doctor Who has had on my creative thinking in the last four years.
Far more powerful than green skin or a cyclops-eye is the unshakable feeling that creeps exist among us (just watch Criminal Minds - but not too much, mind - and you'll get the picture) in human form. What if the extraterrestrials we always feared are among us, and either don't know it or are entirely indistinguishable from our office and flat mates? Battlestar Galactica dealt with this issue, as did the thankfully short-lived ABC remake of V.
Instead of "alien," I've been playing with that simpler word "other"... because in that sort-of context it could mean many things, and it is both terrifying and intriguing poetry that leads us toward the question of what it actually means to be human.
Here's for the lexicon!