Context: I rewatched Star Wars: A New Hope in preparation for the impending release of The Force Awakens, and was struck by this, in the opening crawl:

A long time ago, in a galaxy far, far, away...


It is a period of civil war. Rebel spaceships, striking from a hidden base, have won their first victory against the evil Galactic Empire.


Pursued by the Empire's sinister agents, Princess Leia races home aboard her starship, custodian of the stolen plans that can save her people and restore freedom to the galaxy...

I was surprised because starship is a term we intimately associate with Star Trek:

Space: the final frontier. These are the voyages of the starship Enterprise. Its five-year mission: to explore strange new worlds, to seek out new life and new civilizations, to boldly go where no man has gone before.

Now, at least part of the story involves Starship Troopers which was published by Heinlein in December, 1959, predating Star Trek.

Obviously this term has no purpose before the concept of interstellar travel, so it must be a relative neologism.

What exactly is the history of the term starship ?

Related: Is there a difference between a spaceship and a starship?

  • 1
    Good finds so far. Can anyone trace the path of the term through to the more prominent uses (Starship Troopers, Star Trek, and Star Wars) ? There's more to the history than just the first mention. Nov 24, 2015 at 16:54
  • @ThePopMachine it looks like, as most of the research shows, it became a popular word in the 30's in sci-fi mags, i have found 3-4 stories from the 30's now that all include it, in prominent publications. at appears to take a slight hiatus, and is picked up by starship troopers, which appears to be the major player in starting its current popularity/usage.
    – Himarm
    Nov 24, 2015 at 17:04
  • 3
    Well, first there was Jefferson Airplane, then Jefferson Starship, then just The Starship ... ;-)
    – GreenMatt
    Nov 24, 2015 at 18:20
  • 2
    All, it does probably make sense to include Jefferson Starship in the answers. Jefferson Starship was post-TOS, but pre-SW. Nov 24, 2015 at 19:01
  • 1
    "starship is a term we intimately associate with Star Trek" ahem Well, maybe you intimately associate it with Star Trek, but the rest of us don't. As it were this question probably belongs on the EL&U Stack Exchange site since it's asking for the etymology of a word.
    – TylerH
    Nov 25, 2015 at 16:56

4 Answers 4


The term starship appeared in The Pageant of Life by George Barlow, first published in 1888:

enter image description here

(Original Print, see page 206)

This is likely the first appearance of the term in print and in the correct context — a ship traversing the "heavens".

After this, we have appearances in

  • R. Quiex's "War in Space" story (1926, as in Himarm's answer)
  • F.K. Kelly's "Star Ship Invincible" story (1934, as in Jason Baker's answer)

As for the term's proliferation and popularity, Heinlein's adoption of the term into the title of his famous novel Starship Troopers (1959) probably had the biggest impact — it seems to have single-handedly ensured the survival and continued usage of "starship" in science fiction.

  • 1
    Any evidence (beyond speculation) that Heinlein was influenced by anyone in particular? Any evidence specifically where the term came into Roddenberry's consciousness? (We'll make a truly great answer of this yet!) Nov 24, 2015 at 17:14
  • 2
    @ThePopMachine : I'd suspect it was in the general consciousness at that time.
    – Praxis
    Nov 24, 2015 at 18:36
  • 4
    It could easily have been reinvented several times (up to the point where Starship Troopers and/or Star Trek popularized it) since it's such an obvious construction. Nov 24, 2015 at 19:21
  • 1
    Never mind, I found it on p. 206. The full stanza: "To peer between life's prison-bars / And watch those golden ships, the stars ; / Yet never in life, nor death maybe; / To board a single star-ship ! no. / For ever through heaven's deeps we go, / Yet hail no consort on the sea." It would seem that the "star-ships" are just the stars, viewed poetically as ships.
    – user14111
    Nov 25, 2015 at 4:19
  • 3
    @Scott I know no German equivalent of starship. We use Raumschiff, which corresponds to spaceship. Raum is short for Weltraum here, meaning space. That old German text talks about Staubwolken, dust clouds created by horses on a road. I guess that starship was merely a candidate word produced by google's imperfect OCR software since it has a similar shape as Staubw. Nov 25, 2015 at 9:25

jessesword has reference to some very early uses, such as

1926 R. Quiex War in Space in Boys' Mag. 16 Oct. 30/1

Before they quarrelled, the two scientists invented a wonderful projectile, capable of travelling through the millions of miles of ether that separated Ikon and the world, swearing a solemn vow that neither would use it except in the interests of the earthmen. But crazy, planning diabolical schemes of world rulership, Swarfsmidt travelled, aboard his starship, to Ikon, where he obtained supreme power.

According to Oxford English Dictionary

1934 Astounding Stories Dec. 9 To start the year we offer you Star Ship Invincible, by Frank K. Kelly. 1956 F. POHL Alternating Currents 77 A particle of meteoric matter slammed into Starship Terra II in hyperspace. 1967 J. BLISH Star Trek 40 Capt. James Kirk of the star~ship Enterprise..had seen more planets than most men knew existed. 1972 H. C. RAE Shooting Gallery iv. 242 Now he was to be..flung, like one of those plastic star~ships, out into a galaxy of worlds which didn’t really exist. 1978 Listener 30 Mar. 405/1 Smaller monitor screens were scattered about. It could have been the bridge of a star-ship. 1980 Daily Tel. 14 Jan. 8/1 Could star ships ever be propelled by the violent mutual annihilation of matter and anti-matter?

A Very early possible reference, is

OED notes that “star-ship” can refer to the southern constellation Argo Navis, and gives a citation from 1606. (“SYLVESTER Du Bartas II. iv. I. Tropheis 216 ‘Twixt Eridanus And th’ Heav’nly Star-Ship.”)


According to Brave New Words: The Oxford Dictionary of Science Fiction, the first usage of the word "starship" is a short story by Frank Kelly called Star Ship Invincible. It was published in Astounding Stories in December 1934:

starship n. a vehicle that is capable of travelling to other stars. Compare spaceship.
1934 Astounding Stories (Dec.) 9: To start the year we offer you *Star Ship Invincible*, by Frank K. Kelly

I'm not prepared to track usages of the word throughout literary history, but you can see from this Ngram search that it started to grow rapidly in popularity in the late 1960s/1970s, though has been consistently less popular than "spaceship":

enter image description here

  • See this comment Nov 24, 2015 at 16:55
  • Also worth noting that in an episode of the original series of Star Trek a character makes a distinction between the two. From Bread and Circuses: > MERIK: He commands not just a spaceship, Proconsul, but a starship. A very special vessel and crew. I tried for such a command.
    – C02Equinox
    Nov 25, 2015 at 22:14

The word "star-ship" occurs many times in Oahspe: A New Bible in the Words of Jehovih and His Angel Ambassadors by John Ballou Newbrough, first published in 1882. Oahspe is available on the web here and here.

Book of Aph, Son of Jehovih, Chapter XI, verse 12:

Hardly had this been accomplished when the larger star-ship alighted on the floor of the Congress, before the Council, and near the altar of Jehovih; and the five million volunteers alighted, amid the applause of the many millions assembled.

Book of Aph, Son of Jehovih, Chapter XV, verse 12:

While this work was proceeding, lights began to appear in the firmament above; these were the marshals of the Orian fields in etherea, in their star-ships, taking course for Hored, and their number was legion. But presently one brighter and more powerful than the rest made its way from the western arc of Onah'yi, and it steered directly to God's throne, growing brighter and larger as it came. And when it entered past Chinvat, and was well within the vortex of the earth, in the belt of the moon's orbit, its light spread across the whole atmosphere of heaven, and Hored was illuminated, and the angels of Hored were stirred up with enthusiasm.

Book of Aph, Son of Jehovih, Chapter XV, verse 13:

The brilliant star did not prolong the suspense of the angel world, for he who sailed it was a God of millions of years; and by his wisdom, attained to such mastery that the elements of earth and atmospherea gave way, as if appalled by a heaven on fire. Down to the arena of the Council of Hored came the star-ship, whose majesty outweighed all ceremony, a very crown of magnificence. And he who came, attended by half a million, was Sue'ji, marshal for that which was soon to follow.

Book of Aph, Son of Jehovih, Chapter XVI, verse 7:

And now another gateway opened amid the stars; and a cluster star was seen approaching from the southeast. It was like a star surrounded by stars, and brighter than all the others. This was the star-ship of Aph, the Orian Chief. At the sight of which, all souls in the firmament turned in pride and wonder. In the play and management of worlds, he had attained to be swift and mighty, above all the countless millions of Gods and Goddesses assembled. And at the sight of his etherean star, angels and Gods whispered: Aph! And the magic of his name, widely known in the Nirvanian fields of the emancipated heavens, spread abroad, till every soul uttered, Aph! in all the regions of atmospherea and on the earth.

Book of Aph, Son of Jehovih, Chapter XVI, verse 10:

This was the morning of the third day in the tide of dan, in which there were still four days left. But now the marshals took their parts. First, Sue'ji, Chief over all the rest, cried out from the throne of God: All hail, O Aph, Son of Jehovih! And the words were caught up on every side, and uttered in one breath around the world. All the while, the great star-ships and sun of Hautuon gathered in, nearer and nearer, till, like a net, they joined and filled the earth's atmosphere in the east and west and north and south, and below and above; on every side. And the words of the marshal: All hail, O Aph, Son of Jehovih! traveled like an echo over all the heavens.

Book of Aph, Son of Jehovih, Chapter XVI, verse 18:

And now Aph went and sat down at the foot of the throne, at which, God came down according to custom, and took his hand, saying: Arise, O God, Son of Jehovih, and go your way! And Aph rose up, saluting, and he and his attendants departed and entered his star-ship. The es'enaurs chanted, the trumpeters played, and the solemn march of Jehovih's sea of fire sounded from heaven and earth.

Book of Sue, Son of Jehovih, Chapter II, verse 10:

For three days and nights Sue held his star-ship to the wonderful task of mastering by the marvelous scene. Then slowly he entered the vortex of the earth, holding his course, but not with the rotation of the earth and her heaven; for he desired that both corporeans and atmosphereans would witness the coming power. So, slowly he came, only fifty thousand miles a day, so that when the ship neared the disorganized Hored, the self-Gods and self-Lords fled and left their well-supplied kingdoms desolate, and down to the earth they rushed in thousands, and with their hosts in millions, to hide or safely stow themselves from Agni's just hate.

Book of Divinity, Chapter XVI, verse 14:

Thirty days later the star-ship, Gee'onea, from Haot-saiti, in etherea, appeared in the heavens above, being first observed when it was on the borders of the bridge Chinvat. Immediately God sent a swift-rising Ometr to meet the star-ship and conduct it to Craoshivi, where he had gone with one of the transports, with two hundred million, well selected, to found a new city in heaven. Suffice it to say that in three days' time, the star-ship landed in Craoshivi with one million laborers provided to endure till the coming dawn.

God's Book of Eskra, Chapter XLII, verse 17:

When the birth was completed, the angels of heaven re-entered their star-ship and hastened back to Paradise, God's heavenly seat.

God's Book of Eskra, Chapter LX, verse 2:

It was a star-ship from the Nirvanian heavens of Chia'hakad, only four hundred years from the dawn of the arc of Kosmon, of the era of Kosmon.

God's Book of Eskra, Chapter LX, verse 5:

Then the star-ship descended, till it anchored near the throne of God.

  • 3
    Arguably, this seems like a slightly different meaning, as a ship that resembles a star, i.e. glowing. In particular, "It was like a star surrounded by stars, and brighter than all the others. This was the star-ship of Aph, the Orian Chief." Furthermore, none of these ships travel between stars, but between metaphysical planes.
    – samwyse
    Nov 25, 2015 at 0:26
  • 1
    @samwyse Yes, that is arguable. The earliest use of a word often has a slightly different meaning from what develops later. I haven't read Oahpse (and don't intend to), so I don't know if they are traveling between "metaphysical planes" or worlds in space. What about the fifth quote from the bottom, where the ship approaching earth slows down to "only fifty thousand miles a day"? Is distance between metaphysical planes measured in miles? I don't see a problem with glowing starships; e.g., UFOs are thought by some to be starships, and often reported as glowing.
    – user14111
    Nov 25, 2015 at 2:01
  • +1. What is #7 referring to? It seems to be something other than a "ship"?
    – Praxis
    Nov 26, 2015 at 5:27
  • I don't understand any of that stuff. Not sure I want to. If I counted to 7 correctly, you're asking about the passage from the Book of Sue, Son of Jehovih, Chapter II, which you can read here. Let me know what you make of it. According to the Wikipedia article, Oahspe (oops, misspelled it in my answer, gotta correct that) was produced by an American dentist and spiritualist, by automatic writing on a typewriter.
    – user14111
    Nov 26, 2015 at 6:05

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