The Semantics of Flying Saucers
In studying "flying saucers" it soon becomes apparent that some of the knottiest problems encountered are purely human in origin. Accordingly, it is appropriate to begin with a comment by an anthropologist. In his book The Human Animal, * Professor Weston LaBarre of Duke University neatly epitomizes the age-old human problems of communicating intelligibly in two consecutive chapter titles: "Man Starts Talking," (Chapter 10) "And Gets All Balled Up in His Grammar" (Chapter 11). In my opinion the terminology used in discussing "flying saucers" has become so balled up that there is widespread confusion as to just what we are talking about.
What is a "flying saucer?" What is a "UFO?" Are we asking the same question in both cases? That, of course, depends entirely on what the people using the two terms intend them to mean. Words and languages are uniquely human tools, but all too many human beings are awed by their own creations and act as if words have some intrinsic, inviolable meaning. Often there is confusion between words and the objects referred to by them. To use Professor LaBarre's example: An American farm-boy serving in the Army in Germany had a large equine animal pointed out to him as a "Pferd." "Well, “the soldier protested, "it may be called a Pferd, but it sure as hell acts like a horse!"
Lewis Carroll, a pioneer semanticist, had his fairy-tale characters express the view of modern logical empiricism, by contrast to the naive view of the soldier above. Humpty Dumpty, at least, did not let words lead him around by the nose.
* University of Chicago, 1954.
"When I use a word,” Humpty Dumpty said, in rather a scornful tone, "it means just what I choose it to mean--neither more nor less.”
"The question is, “said Alice, "whether you can make words mean so many different things."
"The question is," said Humpty Dumpty, "which is to be master--that's all." (From "Through the Looking Glass.")
Though words may mean whatever we choose them to mean, they will not communicate anything unless we make it clear to our readers or listeners what meaning we have in mind. No two people, it seems, mean exactly the same thing even when they use the one term "flying saucer." Two of the leading non-believers in "flying saucers," for example, have their own special definitions thereby making it uncertain whether they disbelieve the same thing. These two are Dr. Donald Menzel of Harvard, and the U. S. Air Force.
Dr. Menzel at least used language consistently (i. e. in conformity with his own definitions) in his book on "flying saucers." In so doing, he has provided an excellent negative example of how to control and use language rather than be controlled and used by it. In my opinion, however, his logical arguments are virtually devoid of factual content relevant to the best UFO reports. By presupposing that nothing truly unique is being seen, Dr. Menzel is able to treat each case as some misidentification caused by a trick of nature. Then he can guess at the mechanics of the trick and find something that seems to account for it.
In the preface to his book, we immediately learn from Dr. Menzel that to the question "What are Flying Saucers?" "No single answer suffices, because the apparitions stem from not one but many dozens of causes."* Clearly he uses the term "flying saucers" to mean "apparitions." The phrase "true flying saucer" he reserves for the cases referred to by the Air Force as "unknowns." These, he admits, are real--real natural phenomena.
The Air Force, whose language has been more flexible than consistent, at least set a good example in the usage of its Project Blue Book. "UFO" was the term for reliably reported objects which had no immediately obvious explanation. It was a temporary classification until an investigation could be made. The object would then either be identified or else become an "unknown." If a report lacked detail and could not be thoroughly
* Menzel, Donald H., Flying Saucers, (Harvard University, 1953,) p. vii.
checked, it fell into a category called "insufficient information" and was doomed to remain a "UFO" forever.
A UFO report accepted for study by the Air Force had, therefore, three possible fates: (1) identified, (2) inexplicable ("unknown"), (3) not enough data to pass judgment ("insufficient information"). Note that both of the first two categories supposedly did have enough data to allow thorough investigation. In the Blue Book report* it will be found that all "unknowns" are classified as "certain." So to the Air Force a "UFO" is an unanalyzed report; an "unknown" is one which has been analyzed and found "with certainty" to be inexplicable on conventional grounds. Air Force spokesmen, however, are in the habit of misusing their own terminology. For example: "Even the unknown three per cent (referring to reports during the first few months of 1955-Author) could have been explained as conventional phenomena or illusions if more complete observational data had been available."**
Air Force Secretary Donald Quarles, author of this statement, spoke as if there were no difference between "unknown" reports and "insufficient information" reports--two categories which, in fact, are mutually exclusive. "Unknowns" are objects or phenomena that have been definitely classified as of unknown nature; they are not vaguely reported objects that might have had conventional explanations.
As for "insufficient information" reports, these serve no purpose in any scientific study except to show statistically the great number of poor reports received. It is completely unscientific to treat such poor and useless data equally with good data as the Air Force seems to do. "Unknowns" are converted to "insufficient information" reports by spokesmen, then "insufficient information" reports are used to bolster the "identified" category by hints that they "... perhaps, could have been one of several known objects or natural phenomena."** Which all goes to show, allegedly, that there is nothing mysterious about UFOs. The three possible fates have thus been telescoped into one actual fate: More or less identified. (1) Identified (2) "unknowns" which "could have been explained if more complete data available" (3) "insufficient information" cases which "perhaps could have been known objects." One could argue with more validity that these categories should read: (1) identified as probable natural objects
* Davidson, Leon; "Flying Saucers; an Analysis of the Air Force Project Blue Book Special Report No. 14,"(White Plains, N. Y., 1956). This document contains photostatic copies of the text, and many of the tables, of the original Air Force report.
** Davidson, op. cit., p D-5
(2) "unknowns" for which mere is no ready explanation (3) "insufficient information" cases which we will throw out. But the Air Force has never seen fit to be that straightforward about it.
Characteristic of Air Force statements on UFOs is this quotation attributed to Mr. Quarles from an Air Force News Release, October 25, 1955:
"On the basis of this study we believe that no objects such as those popularly described as flying saucers have over flown the United States." (My italics --author.) Perhaps he intended to say "flown over." At any rate, this statement pretends to say that no unexplained objects have flown over the United States. Taken to mean what it seems to say, the statement flatly contradicts the Blue Book study. Of course, it all hinges on what Mr. Quarles meant by "objects such as those popularly described as flying saucers." He could not possibly have meant either "UFOs" or "unknowns" because USAF pilots have pursued those over every part of the country. * Heaven only knows what he did mean.
The American public is so used to hearing phrases like "our cigarette tastes better... " and "laboratory tests prove. .. " that it is hardened to such gobbledygook and doesn't bother to question and analyze it. What do the cigarettes taste better than? Did the "laboratory tests" really prove anything worth mentioning, or are the ad-men merely seeking to clothe themselves in the prestige of science, laboratories and doctors?
The same abuse of language prevails among those who pretend to explain UFOs. There is a minimum of clear, candid argument and a maximum of attempting to sell an idea with the use of meaningless catch phrases. So we find Dr. Menzel "proving" with "laboratory tests" that saucers are merely apparitions. Air Force says "our investigation was better, "and it "proved" that "flying saucers" do not even exist, without ever saying what is meant by "flying saucers."
If, just once, either the commanding general of the Air Force or the President would state publicly: "We are convinced, on the basis of careful and serious investigation, that no controlled alien objects (either from a foreign country or from outside the earth's atmosphere) have flown through our airspace, " it would be difficult not to accept it as an honest statement. But clear, unambiguous language of this sort just does not occur in Air
* See Ruppelt, Edward: Report on Unidentified Flying Objects, (Doubleday 1956), for some of the details.
Force statements on this subject. Rather it is the overwhelming authority of the Air Force, reinforced by skeptical statements from Dr. Menzel and others, which carries the day and forestalls a deeper probe into their parody of a scientific investigation.
For those who would dig deeper, the question remains. Are the terms "flying saucer," "UFO," and "aerial phenomena" to be used interchangeably? If so, the vocabulary of UFOlogy is drastically limited. To illustrate the point, I will trace briefly the history of these terms. The word "flying saucer, "originally applied in 1947 to flat, skimming aerial objects, was almost immediately used by headline-writers to refer to objects of any shape or flight characteristics--in fact to anything in the sky, seen by anyone under any sighting conditions. Accordingly it soon became inexact and non-descriptive. Through a fortunate accident, it was originally quite descriptive since the objects seen in 1947 were mostly saucer-like both in appearance and motion through the air. The result of this carelessness with words was the lack of intelligent attention to the well-substantiated sightings; they could all be tagged with a funny name and treated as jokes.
In view of the supposedly undignified connotations of "flying saucers," the Air Force, in deciding on a name for the alleged mysterious objects, coined the term "Unidentified Flying Object," abbreviated "Ufob" or "UFO." This term was not intended to be applied to any and every aerial occurrence, but only to what appeared (to such observers as experienced pilots) to be unusual, solid, controlled objects. It is obvious that "UFO" like "flying saucer," is today being used in a broader sense than that originally intended. It is also becoming a general catch-all word to tag on anything puzzling in the sky.
The term '"aerial phenomena, " also in wide use, is clearly an extremely general term--"phenomenon" probably being close to the most general word in the English language. The use of this term was prompted by a desire for a neutral vocabulary, but unfortunately it leads to the intrusion of an endless array of irrelevancies into the mystery. Meteors, auroras, cloud formations, birds, "Fortean" falls of ice and living things, unidentified objects, etc., all properly come under the classification of "aerial phenomena. " Certainly this is a broader field than the
* Davidson, op. cit., Table IV--p. 45; Table-- p. 48.
one we are primarily concerned with in a study of the strange aerial objects under consideration. Most of these aerial phenomena are already in competent scientific hands, while the objects of our inquiry are not. To treat all of these aerial phenomena in one package is to make the uncritical assumption that all mysterious aerial events are somehow connected with UFOs (the apparently controlled, generally circular objects which have caused all the furor.)
So we see that the three terms most commonly applied to the objects in question are so general and all-inclusive that we are left without any really specific name for the objects of our inquiry. Clearly, the crux of the mystery lies in the category that the Air Force designates as "unknown." The objects we are really interested in are those which are observed in some detail, investigated carefully, and which defy explanation--both because of their unusual appearance and their unusual actions. In spite of Air Force statements which try to slur over its significance, the term "unknown" is a great deal more meaningful than "UFO" or "flying saucer."
Once attention is focused on the "unknown" category, it is a matter of record that the largest single category within the class of "unknowns" is that of elliptical-shaped objects. This is true even though Air Force analysts, for reasons that are not obvious, have refused to class "lenticular" objects with "elliptical" ones. Instead the familiar "lenticular" or disc-shaped objects are lumped in with "tear drop" and "conical" objects. There is good reason to suspect that many "elliptical" objects were, in fact, discoidal or lenticular objects seen in perspective. If this assumption were made, there would be an even more obvious pattern to the "unknowns."
These ellipses and/or discs, I submit, are the prime objects (if any) of our concern. What should we call them? The fact is that we have no specific name for them! Calling them "UFOs" or "flying saucers" won't do because those terms are, as we have seen, too inclusive. Imagine how enlightening it would be to a little girl at the zoo who asked her father the name of a certain cat-like beast with stripes, if he could only answer: "That, my dear, is an animal."
I have no simple solution for this problem. It is one thing to suggest logical and unambiguous terminology, and another to persuade most people to use it consistently. My own preferences are as follows:
Aerial phenomena--a general, all-inclusive term referring to unusual or mysterious aerial events such as UFOs, ice-falls, aerial explosions, etc.
UFO--temporarily unexplained aerial object, reported in some detail by reputable observers, which maneuvers as if controlled intelligently.
Unknown--UFO which remains unexplained after careful and thorough investigation, because of its actions and/or appearance.
Flying saucer--flat, circular UFO.
The "unknowns" may or may not be space ships, but they are something requiring an explanation. The UFO mystery is frequently mistranslated into such questions as: "Are space ships possible?" Or, "Are most people who report UFOs fooled by conventional objects or natural phenomena?" The obvious answer to both of these questions is "yes." But the objective question which remains unanswered is: "What are the unknowns?" That there is a residue of well-reported, carefully investigated, unexplained objects showing definite patterns can no longer be doubted.
At the present rate of progress, the UFO mystery may be talked to death by irresponsible people unless precise language is used to shear away the nonsense that has been uttered about UFOs. On the one hand we have indisputable evidence of an unexplained phenomenon, and on the other a collection of semantical evasions. We agree with Humpty Dumpty: "Which is to be master, that's all."