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When used in the context of foreigners, rather than extra-terrestrial beings, is "Alien" commonly used?

I suspect that it's only used in legal contexts, such as government forms. But I'm not totally familiar with American English, so I don't know if it's more common in the USA. Is it used outside of legal contexts there? For example, could you say "Aliens are surprised when I tell them I don't have a television"?

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  • You got it mostly right; alien is a legal term. But it's also popular with those who despise foreigners or resent their presence. Commented Sep 28, 2013 at 13:14
  • @StoneyB is this with regards to Mexicans living in America (who are sometimes referred to as "illegal aliens"), or others as well?
    – Golden Cuy
    Commented Sep 28, 2013 at 13:16
  • That's the hot-button issue right now, of course. But people who don't like perfectly legal immigrants from somewhere like, say Papua-New Guinea, will refer to them as "aliens in our midst". Commented Sep 28, 2013 at 15:14
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    I wouldn't understand the sentence in your question without further context. As you mentioned in your comment, "illegal aliens" is the complete term to refer to illegal immigrants, and if you used the term in its entirety you would be understood. But "alien" simply by itself would refer to extra-terrestrials, yes.
    – WendiKidd
    Commented Sep 28, 2013 at 16:16
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    I would think "foreigners" would be much more common than "aliens". Your "aliens are surprised" sentence sounds very alien to me.
    – J.R.
    Commented Sep 28, 2013 at 18:02

1 Answer 1

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First, I'll put on a veneer of scientific-ness and consult a corpus!

I searched the Corpus of Contemporary American English (COCA) for alien. That had 8783 results, which is a lot more than I intended to look at, so I clicked the SAMPLE: 100 link to get a random sample of 100 results. (The order of the first 100 results is not random by default, so that's a helpful thing to do.)

Looking at those results, here's what I noticed:

  • Alien by itself usually means space alien.
  • Alien is used sometimes in legal contexts, usually in terms like legal resident alien or illegal alien, though it does occasionally appear by itself.
  • When people are described as "aliens", it's often put in quotes as though it's an unusual term.

Although these results are based on a corpus of published material, these observations fit my intuition about how the term is used in American English. Personally, as a speaker of American English, if I heard your sentence:

Aliens are surprised when I tell them I don't have a television.

I'd assume you meant space aliens, and this assumption is supported by the corpus results I looked through.


And now for my opinion:

My personal impression is that the term alien is very "other-izing". It's a term that makes whatever you're describing feel very different and unfamiliar. My feeling is that it's not appropriate to apply to people outside of specialized contexts precisely because people aren't "other" enough. We're all humans, after all!

If my impression is correct, it might follow that xenophobes (people who fear the "other") are more likely to use this term to describe people. And for both of these reasons, I think it's possible that people could feel marginalized by the term or take offense to it. So to me, it feels like it's best to avoid using alien this way.

My guess is that this is true outside the U.S. as well, but I don't really know.

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  • I wonder if there's a connection between a word being unusual and it being offensive? Some view "A Japanese" as unusual, and some view it as offensive: ell.stackexchange.com/q/183/54
    – Golden Cuy
    Commented Sep 29, 2013 at 1:34
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    @AndrewGrimm This is just my opinion again, but I think that's very plausible. If you call someone something they aren't used to being called, I suppose they might notice and wonder why you called them that...
    – user230
    Commented Sep 29, 2013 at 1:38
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    +1. As an aside, I believe most xenophobes wouldn't use the word alien, but only because alien has come to mean "extraterrestial alien." A more familiar term would be foreigners, and xenophobes would be more likely use something like damned foreigners, as opposed to carefully selecting a different word like "aliens" to convey their feelings on the subject more subtly.
    – J.R.
    Commented Sep 30, 2013 at 9:35
  • FWIW I've lived in Germany for a while and have a few papers referring to me as "alien". As a result that got me thinking how exclusive the term is even for a country as socially concerned as Germany.
    – Alex.U
    Commented Aug 25, 2018 at 9:16

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