The term "flying saucer" is ubiquitous in American pop culture. Say it and almost everyone will immediately have an image in their heads of a shiny, mysterious spacecraft hovering above an American city, ready to invade. It's a seminal science fiction image, appearing in everything from The Day the Earth Stood Still to The X-Files, but where did it originate? Well, it turns out we can trace the term back to a 1947 UFO sighting, and newspapers that either misunderstood or sensationalized (or both) an eyewitness account.
On June 24, 1947, an amateur pilot from Idaho named Kenneth Arnold was flying his private plane near Mount Rainier, Wash., when he saw a strange, bluish flash in the sky. At first he thought it must have been the sun glinting off another plane, but after looking around he realized there wasn't a plane anywhere near enough to have created such a flash. Then he saw more flashes, nine total, and would later describe them as coming from objects moving in "a diagonally stepped-down, echelon formation," in unison, faster and more precisely than any aircraft at the time could have (Arnold's own rough calculations placed their speed at 1,700 mph).
When Arnold landed at an airfield in Oregon, he told some friends what he'd seen, and eventually word got back to a local reporter, who asked him for an interview. In telling the reporter what he'd seen, Arnold said the objects flew “like a saucer if you skip it across the water.” As the story spread across the country, an editor or headline writer somewhere morphed that into "flying saucers," and the name stuck. In 1950, during an interview with Edward R. Murrow, though, Arnold said that his use of the term "saucer" did not refer to the shape of the objects.
"These objects more or less fluttered like they were, oh, I'd say, boats on very rough water or very rough air of some type, and when I described how they flew, I said that they flew like they take a saucer and throw it across the water," Arnold said. "Most of the newspapers misunderstood and misquoted that too. They said that I said that they were saucer-like; I said that they flew in a saucer-like fashion."
How we got from "like a saucer" to "flying saucers" is still a little murky, but despite Arnold claiming very clearly that he was misquoted, flying saucers were suddenly being seen all over the United States, and the UFO phenomenon never stopped.
(Via The Atlantic)
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