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Which wars does the title "Star Wars" refer to? Are they:

  • the struggle between the Rebels and the Empire?
  • the Clone Wars (mentioned as early as the first half hour of A New Hope)?
  • the age-old conflict between Jedi and Sith?
  • the war between good and evil in general?
  • all of the above?
  • none of the above, in which case the title was chosen just to sound cool and/or alluring?

When Lucas wrote down the phrase "Star Wars", which events in the Star Wars universe was he referring to, if any?

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    Such an obvious question, yet something I'd never considered: +1! – Often Right Sep 7 '15 at 1:35
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    I thought it referred to the many, many galaxy-spanning wars from the movies and EU. – Rogue Jedi Sep 7 '15 at 1:41
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    One concept George Lucas had were the droids (R2-D2 & C3P0) were hapless witnesses to the "folly of man." Meaning if you look at the history of the original film's development, there were parallels to the futility of the Vietnam war; FWIW George Lucas was originally going to direct "Apocalypse Now." A large "empire" (U.S.A.) was toppled by a bunch of rag tag "rebels" (North Vietnamese). So my contention is "Star Wars" just refers to the endless state of war some civilizations go through. Is there such a thing as one "Star Wars" film without any war of some type happening? – JakeGould Sep 8 '15 at 6:03
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    The real question is: What Stars are the Star Wars? – Möoz Sep 9 '15 at 5:30
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    @Mooz “Begun the Star Wars has…” – JakeGould Sep 9 '15 at 5:37
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+50

For an out-of-universe answer, George Lucas did address the origin of the title in this article from the March 1979 issue of The Atlantic

"The title Star Wars was an insurance policy. The studio didn't see it that way; they thought science fiction was a very bad genre, that women didn't like it, although they did no market research on that until after the film was finished. But we calculated that there are something like $8 million worth of science fiction freaks in the USA, and they will go to see absolutely anything with a title like Star Wars." Beyond that audience, Lucas was firm that the general public should be encouraged to see the film not as esoteric science fiction but as a space fantasy.

This would lend credence to the idea that Lucas was not referring to a particular in-universe event, but rather chose the title to "sound cool and/or alluring."

Of course, there are good in-universe Wars the title could refer to, as the other answers document.

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    Since the term "Star Wars" does not (to the best of my admittedly limited knowledge) appear in-universe, I believe out-of-universe reasons are probably more relevant. – Kevin Sep 7 '15 at 4:28
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    @Kevin; as the question does specifically ask 'which events in the Star Wars universe was he referring to', I think that considerations as to the events in-universe is also important – Often Right Sep 7 '15 at 5:03
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    the question asks " which events in the Star Wars universe was he referring to, if any". an answer focusing on the out-of-universe answer is completely acceptable if the answer is that no in-universe events are being specifically referred to. – phantom42 Sep 7 '15 at 13:11
  • @N_Soong Even if the question were just "which in-universe events was the title referring to?" then the correct answer would be "none". Rori answered this way and provided justifying information. – Samthere Sep 7 '15 at 14:52
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    @Rori : Your answer is definitely within the bounds of the original question. If you were to add a conclusion to the effect of "So it seems that Lucas was not referring to any conflict in particular, and chose the title purely for its out-of-universe effect" (which seems to be Lucas' implication), I would be happy to award acceptance --- assuming that nothing else is dug up by another user. – Praxis Sep 7 '15 at 20:15
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Probably the Galactic Civil War and the Clone Wars

At the beginning of Episode IV, we see Princess Leia escaping from the forces of the Empire after the plans of the Death Star have been stolen.

Now, according to Wookieepedia refers to the 'Galactic Civil War' as having its roots back in the Clone Wars, but that:

The Alliance scored its first major victory against the Empire when it stole the plans to the Death Star, the Empire's planet-destroying battle station

That is the beginning of Episode IV!

When we consider that over the two trilogies, there are two central 'wars'; the Clone Wars and the Galactic Civil War, it seems most likely to me that the title is referring to these two wars, which form the basis of the plots throughout the trilogies.

Think about it:

  • Episode I: we have the invasion of Naboo, leading to tensions between The Republic and Separatists escalating, leading to the Clone Wars
  • Episode II: we have the beginning of the Clone Wars
  • Episode III: we have the end of the Clone Wars
  • Episode IV: essentially the beginning of the Galactic Civil War; the Rebels' first major strike against the Empire
  • Episode V: the Empire strikes back against the Rebels, continuing the Galactic Civil War
  • Episode VI: the Empire and Rebels continue fighting in the Galactic Civil War

Despite all the battles, we really only have the two wars throughout the trilogies - one per trilogy. Hence, the title of 'Star Wars' is probably referring to these two wars. Bear in mind that Lucas had prepared the ideas for the first three films before making the original trilogy, so he probably had this intention in mind.

Also note that I'm only focusing on the core canon materials - the movies; I'm not even scratching the surface of the rest of Legends material!

From a purely out-of-universe perspective, it's interesting to note that:

Lucas wrote a short summary called "The Journal of the Whills", which told the tale of the training of apprentice CJ Thorpe as a "Jedi-Bendu" space commando by the legendary Mace Windy. Frustrated that his story was too difficult to understand, Lucas then began writing a 13-page treatment called The Star Wars on April 17, 1973, which had thematic parallels with Akira Kurosawa's The Hidden Fortress

After revisions, Lucas wrote more drafts (my emphasis):

The film was titled Adventures of Luke Starkiller, as taken from the Journal of the Whills, Saga I: The Star Wars. During production, Lucas changed Luke's name to Skywalker and altered the title to simply The Star Wars and finally Star Wars.

(Source)

So, one aspect about the title is its simplicity - Star Wars is certainly more catchy than Adventures of Luke Starkiller, as taken from the Journal of the Whills, Saga I: The Star Wars!

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    +1 Interesting. It never ceases to amaze me how we almost escaped every dumb or silly-sounding name George Lucas could think of, only for it to resurface later in the saga with minor alterations. "Mace Windy"!? I now dread that sooner or later we will have a new character, Jedi Master Journal Whills. Or maybe not, if Disney and the dark gods hear my prayer. – Andres F. Sep 7 '15 at 2:59
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    Glad that the name "Starkiller" was never used. Especially not by a Sith, that would just be silly... starwars.wikia.com/wiki/Galen_Marek – PointlessSpike Sep 7 '15 at 11:01
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    "Bear in mind that Lucas had prepared the ideas for the first three films before making the original trilogy" - I believe this to be a rather implausible myth. It would make no sense to construct a sequence of six (or nine) films in which the first three films focus on the transformation of Anakin Skywalker into Darth Vader, and then the fifth film has a big reveal in which Darth Vader and Anakin Skywalker turn out to be one and the same. – Nathaniel Sep 9 '15 at 3:49
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    If there ever was an outline for the first three films, it's clear that the third film was supposed to end with Princess Leia stealing the plans for the first Death Star, since that's what's summarised at the start of the film that was later retconned as "episode 4". In any case, it's clear from plot inconsistencies in the original trilogy that there was only the very vaguest concept outline for episodes 5 and 6 when the first film was shot, let alone episodes 1, 2 and 3. I'm not sure if "Vader=Anakin" had even been decided at that point. Leia being Luke's sister certainly hadn't. – Nathaniel Sep 9 '15 at 3:53
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    @N_Soong : I decided to accept Rori's answer, given that it contains more direct evidence, but I wanted to let you know that I appreciated your answer, with its reasonable speculations. I have placed a bounty on this question. I am hoping that both of you reap further recognition from it. :-) – Praxis Sep 9 '15 at 5:30

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