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"?

  • You got it mostly right; alien is a legal term. But it's also popular with those who despise foreigners or resent their presence. Sep 28 '13 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? Sep 28 '13 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". Sep 28 '13 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
    Sep 28 '13 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.
    Sep 28 '13 at 18:02

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.

  • 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 Sep 29 '13 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
    Sep 29 '13 at 1:38
  • +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.
    Sep 30 '13 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
    Aug 25 '18 at 9:16

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