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I know it's first uttered in Cameron's Aliens (1986). Once. It's a word that seems was coined for the movie itself, but one constructed of well-known root words that seem to mean "alien-shaped".

In other words, it's in the same category as "humanoid" and "quadruped". In fact, something that is neither of those might well be "xenomorph" by default.

Can anyone offer any explanation as to why (and when, and how) this word was chosen by the fan community to represent the aforementioned nasties in this franchise?

It would seem to me that if you just had to give them a name, naming them after the artist that created the initial artwork (H. R. Giger) would be the most appropriate thing to do.

  • It sounds cool. That's all that I needed to like the term. – DVK-on-Ahch-To Aug 16 '12 at 18:38
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    It's like naming your dog Dog. – John O Aug 16 '12 at 18:39
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    @JohnO Are you suggesting we give them names like, Beethoven, Lassy, Spot, Toto? ... Cujo might work... – NominSim Aug 17 '12 at 21:28
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    in fact, I have written it for you: english.stackexchange.com/questions/174074/… – Zibbobz May 30 '14 at 14:03
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    The use of xenomorph is so established that most posters can't even understand your question. Most people think that xenomorph refers specifically to the species encountered even though it was clearly used in a generic sense. – TheMathemagician Apr 17 '18 at 18:41
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Why do fans call them Xenomorphs? Because the characters in the movies referred to them as such.

From Wikipedia:

The term xenomorph (lit. "alien form"—from Greek xeno- or "strange" and -morph, shape) was used by the character Lieutenant Gorman in Aliens and by Ellen Ripley in a deleted scene from Alien 3.

From the Aliens script:

GORMAN: All we know is that there's still no contact with the colony and that a xenomorph may be involved.

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    "Xenomorph" is clearly a very generic adjective. Good thing someone didn't mention that they were slate gray, or they'd be called "slate grays". – John O Aug 16 '12 at 19:01
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    So when Hudson calls them assholes, we should use that as the semi-official name too? – John O Aug 16 '12 at 20:33
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    We get it. You don't like the name. But you wanted to know why fans ran with the name 'Xenomorph'. We've given you some answers to that. If you want to discuss/complain about whether or not that's a good name for the creatures, take it somewhere else. – phantom42 Aug 17 '12 at 11:01
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    "Can anyone offer any explanation as to why (and when, and how) this word was chosen by the fan community to represent the aforementioned nasties in this franchise?" You asked why the fan community used the name, NOT the characters in-movie. The fan community uses the name because that's what the characters referred to it as. – phantom42 Aug 17 '12 at 14:18
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    @John O I think you're missing the point that things get named like this all the time. People see something new and make up a descriptive name, sometimes in an "old" language, and that is now its actual name. Yes, "xenomorph" is just kinda-Greek for "alien shape" but nothing else in the Alien canon is ever called by that name, because it's now and forever attached to that specific creature. We have no reason to think it has any other meaning besides a fancy-sound name Hudson made up to call the aliens. – KutuluMike Aug 18 '12 at 1:45
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Sorry you believe "morph" has "no verb or action" connotation, John, but it does. Has for a long, long time. Most people probably would not even know its original meaning and would ONLY know it as a synonym for "changing from one shape into another."

The aliens go through a lot of shape changes in their life cycle. A face hugger looks nothing like the birth creature which looks little like the adult. They literally are alien lifeforms that change shape, hence xeno-, alien, and -morph, with the connotation of shape change.

No "mouth breathing" comic book fans or anything outside the first two movies need be considered. In movie chronology, those who use the term have Ripley's report. They know details of the alien's life cycle, but little else. Hence the rather generic term xenomorph. If I went looking for a one horned bear creature I might call it a unursine until I knew more about it and could classify it more distinctly. Same thing happening here with the term xenomorph.

Were we not supposed to read the "morphing" aspect into the name, I suspect they would have used xenoform. Choosing xenomorph instead seems a pretty clear, conscious choice. Of course, in an ideal world, a definitive answer could be found by asking the person who wrote the term on the page the first time.

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  • I don't consider this an answer so much as an argument. When the marines called it a "xenomorph" they had little information on its life cycle. They called it this because it was "alien shaped" as opposed to any number of other generic adjectives like serpentine, humanoid, quadruped, etc. It wasn't a name then, inside the canon of the franchise. My question deals with fans and those who licensed the IP for comic books or video games. At some point in time (hopefully identifiable), they first decided to make the adjective the official name of the species. When, and under what circumstances? – John O Nov 15 '12 at 0:58
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    I think finally I understand what you're going for, @JohnO, and why everybody keeps talking about the words instead. Your question text is quite clear, but there's a big, bold Etymology above it steering us wrong. Might I suggest retitling "When was 'xenomorph' made the official name for the Alien, rather than a generic strange-shaped thing?" – luser droog May 21 '13 at 7:12
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Hard to find a concrete answer, as I have not read the fiction much outside of the movies themselves. However, this wiki discusses how in the AVP series the Xenomorphs come from a planet nick named "Xenomorph Prime" which implies the widespread adoption of the name is not done by the fanbase, but rather stems from the literature such as the AVP comics.

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    I'm suspected the comic books though I have no proof. "Xenomorph Prime", really? Damn that'd dumb. – John O Aug 16 '12 at 18:35
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    But fans have been calling them Xenomorphs since before the AVP franchise existed. – phantom42 Aug 16 '12 at 18:39
  • I guess the essence of my answer is, the name was not chosen by the community. It has always been the name given by the canon, and therefor can not be traced back to a different source other then the one already mentioned in the question. – Ashterothi Aug 16 '12 at 21:56
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    All evidence points to it being the canon name, can you present any evidence that it is not it's name. There are other aliens in the universe that fit that description, but are not called Xenomorphs. – Ashterothi Aug 17 '12 at 17:04
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    "Xenomorph" is not an adjective even in its pre-Aliens form. You would say "That is *morphic" or "That is a(n) *morph", not "That is *morph." – user1030 Aug 18 '12 at 10:17
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The other answers have the same breakdown: xeno- (strange, alien) -morph (form). But 'morph' in current usage has adopted a verb connotation and has come to mean "change of form". This reflects the Aliens' ability to acquire characteristics from the host mother. The films reflect this in the change of the Alien's size and movement to match its most recent host (Alien - giant alien Captain host: giant Alien; Aliens - human host: human-size Alien; Alien 3 - dog host: doglike Alien). In Resurrection, they produce a whole "Burbank Spectrum" of variations.

Ref: Morphing

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  • I don't buy that at all. "Morph" is clearly the root word for shape, and has no verb/action connotation. It can only have meant "alien-shaped" as opposed to humanoid, quadruped, serpentine, etc. Any other connotation has to be understood to be retconning by mouth-breathing comic book fans. In the first two movies, there is no suggestion that they take on characteristics of their host, that's an invention of the third (awful) movie. Unless someone is claiming they parasited beehives in Cameron's film. – John O Aug 17 '12 at 3:27
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    The idea of taking on characteristics is necessary in order that the alien's bizarre xenogestation have a biological function. In other words, what's in it for the Alien, to burst out of John Hurt's belly? Because a super-warrior-acid-for-blood-Alien +plus+ something of John Hurt =equals= a bigger, meaner super-warrior-acid-for-blood-Alien. – luser droog May 21 '13 at 7:06
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There may be a hint of "morphing" action verb in the name morph. However, in the movie, the characters are not acquainted with the fast evolution abilities of the xenomorph. Hence their intent is clearly to use morph in the original sense of the Greek word: shape. This is proven by the fact that the context of the entire word is Greek. However, the characters' world and existence is fabricated by a being from Earth who needed a cool name and who is subtly breaking through the fourth wall to make the audience wonder if maybe there's more to the name. In a sort of etymological realm, the word itself has a mini-narrative that suggest "maybe my full Greek meaning has been invaded by an alternative meaning in one of my root words, and these stupid humans can't take a hint".

If the characters had had an Language PhD among them, he would have nipped it in the bud and say "excuse me, did you mean 'morph' as in shape, or 'morph' as in 'changing shape'? But alas the movie didn't have this.

Furthermore, if the characters had been privy to the morphing abilities of the xenomorph, they would have had a meeting to re-designate the class, and call it "xenomorpher", which clearly denotes action. Maybe they would have met to do this, but they were too busy running for their dear lives.

We shall take this quandary with us to the grave, like when Ripley was holding her chestburster and falling into lava. Why, James Cameron? Why?

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    That's the sort of attitude that this site was set up to dispel. There must be some sort of canon reason, explanation, interview, etc to explain Cameron's choice of language – Valorum Feb 13 '14 at 19:17
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morph is from the Greek 'μορφή' which means form. xeno is from the Greek 'Ξένο' means foreign or foreigner. hence foreign form (alien) simples.

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    This doesn't add anything new that hasn't already been articulated in the question itself or in other answers. – Stan May 30 '14 at 11:57

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