Quite often in science fiction we read an Alien character say:

"They're going to the Terran system".

"That's a Terran ship."

"They're from the planet Terra".

I get that Terra is the Latin name for Earth. I'm trying to work out how it became a science fiction idiom for referring to things from Earth, or things near the Earth. (Our solar system being the Terran system.) It feels like a jump that the Aliens would know Latin.

My question is: What is the origin of the word "terrans" when referring to humanoids and other earth-related things?

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    Latin for earth is Terra, like terra firma.
    – Escoce
    Jan 30, 2016 at 0:38
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    The origin is from very bad pulp novels during the fifties and sixties when writers were trying to move away from the other awful terms used to describe Humans, such as Earthlings. Ugh. Terran was considered an improvement and became the defacto expression until it became more common to call people from Earth, what WE call them: Humans. Though some writers would go back to using such terms as Terrans, Earthlings, Pink-skins or other pejoratives when they talked about Humans in a less than ideal light. Jan 30, 2016 at 0:46
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    @ThaddeusHowze Why is "Earthling" an "awful term?" Is it a fingernails on chalkboard thing, where you either hate the term or you do not? I don't mind it especially. Naming for a place of origin does not necessarily imply perjorative. Contrast with New Yorker, Chinese, or Brit.
    – Lexible
    Jan 30, 2016 at 0:49
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    I'm a fan of "Ugly bags of mostly water," myself.
    – Politank-Z
    Jan 30, 2016 at 0:49
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    @Lexible - I think it's mostly because the word itself sounds odd to us, unnatural. It doesn't match other names for place-of-origin (the examples you name, do not end in "ling" or "ing". I can't recall many words with these suffixes, which doesn't help it sound natural. I also recall it is used as a diminutive, which would suggest an inferior relationship to whoever is doing the naming (so, perhaps something to avoid).
    – Megha
    Jan 30, 2016 at 1:39

3 Answers 3


We don't have to assume that the aliens know Latin! The supposition is that the future humans call their home planet Terra instead of Earth and call themselves Terrans, and the aliens follow suit. The idea is that, in a science-fictional future where space travel is commonplace, the Earth, instead of being the World, is a place; and, like any other place, it should have a proper name, instead of a common noun meaning "dirt". (I've been told that, if you know Latin, then "Terra" is no better than "Earth", and "Tellus" would be a better choice. In fact, in some science fiction stories the Earth is called Tellus and its people are Tellurians.)

According to the Historical Dictionary of Science Fiction, the earliest known use of "Terran" as a noun meaning "a native or inhabitant of the planet Earth" (aka Earthian, Earthie, Earthling, Earthman, Tellurian, Terrestrial, Terrestrian, etc.) was in Astounding Science Fiction, April 1946 (available at the Internet Archive), in part 2 of the serialization of George O. Smith's novel Pattern for Conquest. The quotation is from p. 10, column 2:

Neckal spoke: "The battle progresses."

Vorgan frowned. "Why or how can one so small defend himself against one of the Planet of Terror?"

"The Little Man is agile and the Terran is clumsy."

Lindoo nodded. "We may both curse and praise that. If the Terran were less clumsy, he might well be more difficult for Kregar."

The earliest citation for "Terran" as an adjective is from part 1 of the same story, in *Astounding Science Fiction, March 1946, available at the Internet Archive. The quotation is from p. 9, column 1:

Stellor Downing was Martian by birth and by six hundred years of Martian-born forebears. His family could trace its line back to the first group of Terran colonists that braved the rigors of Martian life before technology created a Martian world that was reasonably well adapted for human life.

However, the form "Terrane" was seen earlier, in the 1881 novel Three Hundred Years Hence by William Delisle Hay:

I am speaking of the Terrane Exodus and the Cities of the Sea.

The earliest citation for "Terra" as a name for the planet Earth is from an 1871 lecture "Science & Revelation" by Robert Payne Smith:

Now, let us suppose ourselves philosophers come, we will say, from the planet Jupiter, on a mission intrusted to us by the Jovians, to examine and report upon the nature of the creatures which people the four inferior planets, Terra, Venus, Mercury, and Mars.

Jeff Prucher, an associate of the Science Fiction Citations site (precursor to the Historical Dictionary of Science Fiction), wrote the following essay on "Earthlings" in his Hugo-winning book Brave New Words: The Oxford Dictionary of Science Fiction:

In science fiction, when beings from different worlds encounter each other, they are generally named by their planet or star of origin; thus Martians are from Mars, and Sirians are from some hypothetical planet orbiting the star Sirius. While there are generally few terms in use for beings from any given planet or solar system, there is much greater variety in the terms for people who are from Earth. Many of these terms have been in use for centuries in other senses. Some, such as Earthling and Terrestrial, originally designated earthly (as opposed to heavenly or spiritual) beings. Terrestrian was once an adjective used to describe animals that lived on land rather than in water. Earth-man and -woman once referred only to beings that were associated with soil or the ground in some way; once SF writers got hold of them, they added Earth-folk, Earth-girl, and Earth-person as variations. SF writers also coined the fairly common terms Terran, Tellurian (after Tellus, the Roman goddess of the earth), Earther, Earthian, and Earthie, in addition to many more that never quite caught on, including Earthan, Terrene, and Terrestial. However, when faced with creatures from another star system entirely, beings from the Moon or Jupiter may seem slightly less alien, and so the word Solarian was coined to refer to any inhabitant of Earth's solar system, human or otherwise—Earthling, Martian, and Plutonian alike.

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    Terrene actually caught on vs contraterrene as a way to refer to matter and antimater. Jack Williamson wrote about contraterrene matter based powerplants back in 1942: en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Seetee_Ship He may well have run across this 1940 publication in Astrophysical Journal: The hypothesis of the existence of contraterrene matter adsabs.harvard.edu/full/1940ApJ....91..257R The terminology is now considered obsolete. Jan 30, 2016 at 4:56
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    @WayfaringStranger: The adjective terrene has been well-attested for centuries. When Prucher says that Terrene "never caught on", he's talking about its use as an analogue of Martian. (Likewise terrestrial, which is actually an extremely common adjective in a different sense.)
    – ruakh
    Jan 30, 2016 at 5:43
  • @WayfaringStranger - Neal Asher's Polity books make great use of "contraterrene" weapons (as crust-busters or planet killers). I wondered where the term came from (but clearly not enough to actually look it up), so thanks for solving that mystery for me :-)
    – Spratty
    Feb 11, 2021 at 11:32

Isaac Asimov used the term “Terrapolis” in his 1940 story Homo Sol:

Tan Porus stared thoughtfully out the window. Terrapolis, capital city of Earth, sprawled beneath him to the very edge of the horizon.


The earliest Sci-fi reference I've found to "Terran" or "Terrans" (in a scifi context) is from a February 1945 edition of Astounding Science Fiction where the word is used twice, firstly in a story called called Lilies of Life by Malcolm Jameson where it is used to describe terrestrial plant life.

Maxwell studied the plants with interest, but saw little to distinguish them from the Terran variety except their great size and yellow color.

And then again in a separate story called Nomad by George O. Smith under his pseudonym, Wesley Long.

The nomad world that wanted no part of Sol’s warfare and strife; killing and death. They knew — they knew from the things he said — that Terra was a planet of self-aggrandizement and that Terrans were proud, haughty, and belligerent.

Note that the word Terran is used as a direct contrast alongside Venusians, Martians and Ertinians (after a fictional planet called Ertene that's entered the solar system).

  • Good early cite for "Terran" as an adjective, beats the George O. Smith cite by 15 months. However, in Jameson's "Lilies of Life" the word is used to describe plants, not "humans in space as part of a grouping". Also, there are no "Martians and Ertinians" in Jameson's story. They must be from a different story in that issue, probably George O. Smith's Nomad which involves a rogue planet called Eterne.
    – user14111
    Apr 16, 2016 at 23:40
  • @user14111 - My bad, I've only got the text scan of that issue so it's quite hard to see where one story stops and the next starts.
    – Valorum
    Apr 17, 2016 at 7:16
  • Mind taking another look at those "Ertinians"? I don't have that issue of Astounding but "Ertinians" sounds fishy if the planet is called "Eterne" as the Wikipedia page says.
    – user14111
    Apr 17, 2016 at 7:23
  • @user14111 - Scanned text says Ertinians. I'd consider that it might be a scanning error except that it says it 44 times. Note that the planet is Ertene, not Eterne.
    – Valorum
    Apr 17, 2016 at 7:30
  • Oops, and I "corrected" it to Eterne. I blame Wikipedia.
    – user14111
    Apr 17, 2016 at 7:34

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