The semantic scope of ‘Martian’

When the horror comedy film Slither came out in 2006, I thought it far too derivative, with major plot points and big reveals rehashed from ideas I’d seen before – in David Cronenberg’s Shivers and Rabid, Brian Yuzna’s Society, and the entire first half of George Romero’s career.

But there were things I liked about it too, so I felt I owed it another look. Second time around I appreciated its queasy charms and lively sense of fun much more, and as an unexpected bonus it contains a brief semantic dispute.

This takes place in a car as our heroes escape from unspeakable weirdness and try to figure out what’s going on. Slight spoilers follow in the subtitled images below. Some dialogue is repeated here to accommodate editing cuts and show who’s speaking. If strong language bothers you, flee now while you can.

Slither - Martians scene 1         Slither - Martians scene 2

Slither - Martians scene 3

Slither - Martians scene 4

Slither - Martians scene 5

Slither - Martians scene 6

Slither - Martians scene 7

Slither - Martians scene 8

Slither - Martians scene 9

Slither - Martians scene 10

You know me: I had to take the advice of the foul-mouthed town mayor and look up Martian (n.) to see whether it’s recorded as referring only to hypothetical inhabitants of Mars, or also to ‘outer space fuckers’ more generally. To my surprise, most of the major dictionaries offer only the narrow sense for the noun:

A hypothetical inhabitant of the planet Mars, especially as a stock fictional character (American Heritage Dictionary)

An imaginary creature that lives on the planet Mars (Macmillan)

A hypothetical or fictional inhabitant of Mars (Oxford Dictionaries)

A being from or living on the planet Mars, as in science fiction (Webster’s New World College Dictionary)

A supposed inhabitant of the planet Mars (

An inhabitant of Mars, esp in science fiction (Collins)

An (imagined) inhabitant of Mars (Shorter OED)

And so on. I asked about Merriam-Webster’s Unabridged on Twitter and was told it doesn’t contain the other sense. [Edit: M-W’s Emily Brewster has, however, proposed a cheeky revision.]

Not until I checked the full OED did I find coverage of the noun’s broader possibilities:

In extended use: a person likened to an inhabitant of Mars, esp. because of strange, unconventional, or eccentric appearance or behaviour, or apparent unfamiliarity with what is generally considered to be normal.

For example, in Armistead Maupin’s Maybe the Moon: ‘I could sit on a beer crate in a gay bar and amuse myself for hours, drinking and laughing and doing ‘Ludes, and never once feel like a Martian.’

But this too refers specifically to people, not to denizens of supra-Mars outer space. It makes me wonder where the mayor wanted Nathan Fillion’s police chief to look it up. Here’s an example of the sense I have in mind, found in the British National Corpus (via Skylight):

Talus president, Steve Sarich says ‘it’s like we’ve been dropped on a different planet and all the Martians love us’.

If Sarich had meant Martians to mean inhabitants of Mars, I think he’d have said ‘dropped on Mars’, not ‘dropped on a different planet’. Martians here appears to mean, as Slither’s mayor put it, ‘outer space fuckers’.

Before we knew that no (macroscopic, sentient) life existed on Mars, the planet was the default home of outer space intelligence in the popular imagination, and even now Mars retains the role in metaphor and idiom. For example, we use it in the common thought experiment Imagine you’re a Martian looking down on Earth, or Imagine you’re a Martian scientist visiting Europe, etc.

We know that Martians in the literal sense are not suggested by such phrases; rather, the word has come to also mean ‘intelligent alien’, essentially, with no Mars origin implied. Temple Grandin has said she often feel ‘like an anthropologist on Mars’, a phrase Oliver Sacks used as the title of a book in which Grandin features.

Such uses of Mars and Martian could be a kind of fossilised anachronism. But browsing various language corpora I found several non-ironic examples of phrases such as Martians from another galaxy and Martians from another planet, which clearly show the word’s extended sense.

The adjective Martian has also been extended to refer generally to something unearthly or very strange, as in Sacks’s earlier book The Man Who Mistook His Wife for a Hat:

He was very unclear as to what was going on, or who was who or even what sex they were. His comments on the scene were positively Martian.

But again this sense is earth-based, meaning something like ‘utterly incoherent, confused, and irrelevant’ – nothing to do with aliens per se.

I’d be interested in hearing what you think of the noun Martian. Is it necessarily Mars-related, or would you accept the mayor’s (robustly defended) extension of its meaning?


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22 Responses to The semantic scope of ‘Martian’

  1. Matt says:

    There’s been a lot of philosophical ink spilled about questions in this vicinity. At the risk of boring non-philosophers with too many distinctions and irritating philosophers (whom I ask to silently preface each sentence below with ‘roughly’, to avoid pedantry induced brain injury) with too few, I thought I’d chime in from that perspective.
    There are two main theories in the philosophical literature about how words mean what they mean. According to one (attributed to Gottlob Frege and Betrand Russell), a word come associated with them some descriptions which serve to uniquely describe what the word stands for. So,e.g., ‘water’ might have an associated description “the clear potable liquid found in lakes, whose molecular formula is H20”.
    According to the other, associated with people like Saul Kripke and Hilary Putnam, words get their meaning ostensively: a person points to a puddle of water, and says, “that’s called ‘water'”, introducing ‘water’ to his or her language. They then go around saying sentences containing the word, and others start using it intending to talk about the same thing the person who introduced the word meant.
    Here’s a way to map these ideas onto the Martian question. It seems plausible, on the face of it, that “Martian” has associated with it, per the dictionaries, the descriptive property being a humanoid from Mars. If one is descriptivist, like Frege and Russell, then that determines what it means, so it can only stand for such people.
    But one could also tell the other story. One could say that ‘Martian’ was introduced ostensively to stand for extraterresterials of any kind: one could imagine H.G. Wells pointing into space at some distant planet (let’s assume he has very good eyesight), seeing some creatures scurrying about, and saying “they’re what i’ll call ‘Martians'” (perhaps because he erroneously believed that Mars was the only planet other than earth).Then just as ‘water’ refers to all liquid samples that are like enough to the object initially ostended, so ‘Martian’ would refer to all creatures like enough to the ones Wells ostended, i.e. extraterresterials of any kind. So we’d get the “outer space fucker” answer.

    So that’s two answers. Here’s a third: it depends on who you ask. Recent work in experimental philosophy (that’s not an oxymoron; google it) has suggested that different cultures have different theories of reference: some favour descriptivist theories a la Frege-Russell, and some ostensive a la Kripke-Putnam. Here’s a recent paper which explains all this much better than I have, for the interested.

    • Stan Carey says:

      Thanks for the comment and link, Matt. At first I found the use of descriptivist in theory of reference a bit strange, since I’m used to the linguistic sense of the word, with which it’s incompatible. The cultural differences those researchers found in the Gödel case are interesting, and suggest considerable (and in some ways systematic) variation in semantic intuition. As they note, an assumption of universality is ‘spectacularly misguided’ – but then, it usually is.

  2. astraya says:

    For some reason, ‘Venusian’ doesn’t sound anywhere near as scary. If Martians are martial, then Venusians are presumably venereal.

    • Stan Carey says:

      Martian hints at martial, its etymological cousin, and it’s hard to avoid the connotations of war the word has accumulated over the last century or so. Venusian is positively melodic by comparison, and relatively free of connotative meaning (for me anyway). The words it reminds me of most are rhymes, like Andalusian and Malthusian.

  3. marc leavitt says:


    I once had a girlfriend who was a true Martian; she was born on 3 Mars (March 3rd).

  4. The mayor’s broader definition does sound like something one would hear in 1950s’ sci-fi movies. But perhaps the meaning is “most likely from Mars but maybe from somewhere else”–in the way that all Asians are first assumed to be and referred to as “Chinese” by some less cosmopolitan Americans.

    I’m familiar with the OED’s ‘strange earthling’ sense, but maybe only because I’ve heard a few interviews of Temple Grandin. I’m also reminded of a line from an early season of “The Wonder Years.” Winnie Cooper’s parents had been distant from each other for some time, and I think Winnie was worried they would divorce. But, as she told Kevin Arnold, her parents’ rapprochement was also not good for the 13-or-so-year-old:

    They’re like deviated sex perverts from Mars.

    • Stan Carey says:

      The major is a bit rough around the edges, but he’s a sharp enough character for all that; it’s safe to assume he knows that Mars is uninhabited. Your analogy with Chinese is useful, but whereas there’s a fair chance someone who might lazily be called Chinese really is Chinese, there’s less chance that someone/something who would loosely be called a Martian is a (fictional) Martian, since the planet is no longer the default location for outer space intelligence in imaginary contexts. I think few who use the word Martian would consider an inhabited Mars to be a real possibility, still less a ‘most likely’ one. It seems to me very much a fringe belief. But I could be mistaken.

      I love the Wonder Years line.

  5. adamf2011 says:

    Well, a Martian is a Martian is a Martian — isn’t it (/he/she)?

    Maybe I’m kind of literal-minded, but I’d never thought of a Martian as being anything other than a being from Mars. On the other hand, Martians seem to have been — at least for some period of time, in the popular imagination — the quintessential/paradigmatic alien, especially of the pulp-fictiony B-movie-y gonna-hop-on-a-flying-saucer-and-invade-your-planet kind. Which now makes me wonder why, unless it’s simply for the association with the Roman god of war. Like, if the Venusians had invaded, would it have been a love-invasion? :P

    I agree with Kevin S. though — indiscriminately labeling all extraterrestrials as “Martians” regardless of where they come from is ignorant and insensitive!

    • Stan Carey says:

      Mars came to play this role for various reasons, not least its proximity to Earth and broadly similar size and orbit. Early observation of its ‘canals’ hinted strongly and vividly at a civilisation there, fuelling both the controlled imaginations of science fiction and fantasy writers and the uncontrolled ones of others. For several decades then it served as a convenient template for all sorts of projections, fears, and assorted cultural and psychological baggage. By the time we had confirmed that the planet was uninhabited, the word Martian had become too embedded in popular fancy to simply dispense with, so it makes sense that it would break free of its origins a bit and extend its semantic range as we extended the range of our interplanetary exploration, theoretical, robotic and otherwise.

  6. Everyone knows that Martians are from the planet Mars, while aliens from other planets are known by the generic term “little green men.”

  7. wisewebwoman says:

    The book “Men are from Mars, Women are from Venus” came to mind.

    A film that gave me nightmares for years (I was maybe 11, 12 when I saw it at the Capital Cinema in Cork) was the War of the Worlds when Martians came to call on us poor old things on planet earth.) I was terrified.

    Of course, the adult me finds it laughable.

    The present inhabitation of Mars be a race superior to ours is very probable.

    — Camille Flammarion, French astronomer and founder of the French Astronomical Society, La plan—te Mars et ses conditions d’habitabilit—, 1892.

    Maybe we just can’t “see” them, a thought that always has intrigued me.


    • Stan Carey says:

      The film The War of the Worlds is fine entertainment, though I didn’t see it at an impressionable enough age to be terrified by it – nor was I around when Orson Welles made his famous broadcast that gave so many of his listeners the heebie-jeebies. That story in its various guises probably lies behind the popular conception of Martians more than any other cultural artefact.

  8. johnwhye415 says:

    I agree, Martian has become a generic term for anything weird, otherworldly or totally alien, without any direct ties to the planet Mars necessary…

  9. […] For (vaguely) related reading, see the semantic scope of Martian, a fine distinction from Philip K. Dick […]

  10. […] An Anthropologist on Mars, incidentally, owes its memorable title to a phrase from Temple Grandin, as I mentioned in a recent post on the semantic scope of Martian. […]

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