Now A Sci-Fi Staple, The Term “Earthling” Originally Referred To?
Read the word “Earthling” and you most likely think of sci-fi movies and alien beings talking about their domination of the Earthlings or similar matters. Long before the term was bandied about in B-movies, however, it was an Old English word.
In Old English, the terms yrþling, ierþling, and eorþling meant “one of the Earth” literally, but ploughman or farmer in daily use. The term wasn’t used in the sense that Earthlings were inhabitants of the Earth until the late 16th century, and even then, it was in a religious context—as in we humans did not inhabit the celestial sphere, but the earthly one, and therefore were earthlings.
It wasn’t until around four centuries later that the term was applied to the inhabitants of Earth. One of the founding fathers of modern sci-fi, Robert A. Heinlein, put the term on the sci-fi map in his 1949 novel Red Planet. Its use grew from there until by the 1960s, everyone understood that “Earthling” was the term an alien race would use to refer to us.
The term “Earthling” doesn’t have a monopoly on the concept in sci-fi, however, as some sci-fi franchises such as Star Trek and Doctor Who have made an earnest effort to popularize other terms like “Terran” and “Tellurian”, respectively, to refer to humans.