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.
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 (Dictionary.com)
An inhabitant of Mars, esp in science fiction (Collins)
An (imagined) inhabitant of Mars (Shorter OED)
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?