What do we call ourselves?

The Adam Roberts Project

I don’t mean “what do we call ourselves as SF fans”. I mean, what do we, SF fans and writers, call ourselves as inhabitants of this planet? It’s been troubling me.

SF writers have essayed various possibilities to cover the situation when, as members of a galactic federation, we’ll need to identify ourselves by our planetary origin. But none of them seem entirely satisfactory to me. Take Earthling, for instance. That has too juvenile a ring to it. I can’t see it without thinking of the most embarrassing of many embarrassing lines of Star Wars dialogue (“not … not the younglings?” … Peter Bradshaw nailed this when he said it made him think something terrible had happened to Mr and Mrs Youngling).

Earthmen is too sexist; and Earthperson – well, nobody says “earthperson”. There’s “Earther”, but given the recent demise of Eartha Kitt it just looks disrespectful. Besides, calling our planet Earth has altogether too loamy or dirty a feel to it. Surely we want something more high-tech than a name that implies the contents of a dungheap. Earth is where earthworms live; not the gleaming plastic-and-metal shiny-shiny environment of future humanity.

Another genre standard is Terran. Heinlein was fond of Terran. I’ve never liked Terran. If asked why, I’ll probably say something about the possible confusion with tera– the numerical prefix (as it might be: counting in ones, tens or terrans …) But the real reason is less rational. The truth is I can’t hear ‘terran’ without silently adding “June” in my mind, and imagining June Whitfield and Terry Scott. Not the ideal representatives of our species before the Galactic Council.

Perhaps you are thinking: “Gaiains”? But I say to you, now, be serious. Gaians has too many vowels. It just does. Moreover, with this term above all, we need to take a global perspective, we recognize that in some cultures “g” is pronounced “y”, which would result in Yaians, and that is just taking the piss.

What else, though? “Mondians” sounds like a model of car, and would anyway probably be objected to by the inhabitants of the planet Mongo as liable to cause confusion. “Worlders”? There’s a Gene Wolfe novel, I believe, in which inhabitants of our planet are called Worlders. It sounds a bit like Welders, but there’s nothing wrong with welders – a decent trade, and nothing to be ashamed of. But worlders/welders points up the uncertainty of first-syllable’s vowel sound in “worlder”. And once that uncertainty registers itself, grit in your mind’s eye, you find yourself slipping: Willders; Walder; Wueairlders. Won’t do.

I’m running out of options.” Globers”? Sounds a little obese, doesn’t it? More to the point, we can’t name ourselves Globers. Every planet is a globe. Calling ourselves Glober would be like an Icelander calling herself a ‘Lander’. We’d be permitted to say: of course you live in a land-we all live in a land-you need to be more specific.

So I’ve narrowed it down to two options. First, we could identify precisely which bits of the Earth we’re talking about. We are all, after all, Australia-Europe-Asia-Americans. Or Austreurasianamericans, for short. And when I say “short”, I mean … well, it’s obvious what I mean. You know the difference between “year” and “light-year”? By the same logic this is “light short”.

Now, it’s possible that by the time we join the Galactic Federation we’ll have spread our inhabitation to other portions of the planet, and the name may need elaborating: Polaraustreurasianamerican-pacificatlanticans. In fact the term could be, after the German fashion, be extended indefinitely.

Alternately we could identify ourselves not so much geographically as culturally. It is simply a matter of identifying some cultural phenomenon common to us all. That’s not as easy as it might seem: wars have been fought over which Gods to follow, which political systems, which football teams to follow. But there are some things that all humanity unites in admiring. Accordingly I suggest we style ourselves The Wallaceandgrommittians. Did not Nietzsche write a book called the Grömmitzen-Dämmerung?

7 thoughts on “What do we call ourselves?”

  1. There’s also Tellurians.

    But I think “earthling” is excellent. The objection that it sounds “juvenile” is silly — we are children! Children of earth, and children by the standards of stellar time.

  2. “Perhaps you are thinking: “Gaiains”? But I say to you, now, be serious. Gaians has too many vowels.”

    And, ironically, you’ve stuck one too many vowels in your first use of the word…

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