Mars is to Martian as Earth is to… Tellurian? | Vol. 3 / No. 44.4

If you’re from here, you might be a Tellurian (someday) | Image: Kevin Gill, CC BY-SA 2.0

Earthy? Earthling? Terran? Tellurian? If someone or something is from or on Mars, we call it “Martian,” but what do we call it when something’s from Earth?

There’s no strict convention for the naming of people from a particular place — after all it’s “Canadian” not “Canadan,” but “American” not “Americian;” it’s “British” not “Britander,” but “Michigander” not “Michigish.” So what would we call people or things from Earth? What’s the adjectival form? What’s the Earth-resident’s demonym?

Well, to be blunt, there isn’t one yet. That’s probably because it’s something that’s taken for granted, because we’re all (I’m pretty sure, so far anyway) from Earth. We don’t need a word to distinguish it yet.

But there are options: people from Plymouth are called “Plymothian,” people from Nazareth are “Nazarene,” and people from Perth (which rhymes with Earth!) are either “Perthert,” “Perthite,” or “Perthian.” Which gives us “Earthan” (which sounds a little too much like “earthenware” for my tastes), “Earthian,” “Earthite,” and “Earthene.” Unfortunately, these sound like the names of fictional elements (“what luck, a vein of Earthite!”), bizarre cultists (“watch out for those Earthians, now”) or new metamaterials (“at just a single atom thick, Earthene may be the future of room-temperature superconductivity”). And frankly, they’re also so aesthetically displeasing that one finds oneself just desperate for other options.

There’s always, of course, “terrestrial,” but more and more that’s coming to mean “of or pertaining to the ground beneath your feet” as opposed to “of or pertaining to Earth,” probably by virtue of its opposition to “celestial” — not to mention that pluralizing it to mean the inhabitants of Earth (“terrestrials”) makes it sound as though everyone else can fly.

At a certain point, you really start to wonder whether we shouldn’t just rename the damn planet.

And we often do, at least in science fiction: there’s the ever popular “Terran,” which in the Oxford English Dictionary is helpfully filed under the heading “science fiction.” Its first recorded use in W. D. Hay’s 1881 “Three Hundred Years Hence” is delightfully obscure: “I am speaking of the Terrane Exodus and the Cities of the Sea.”

And then there’s an option I’d not heard of before, but which enjoys a longer (but perhaps less well-known) pedigree in English: “Tellurian.”

Described in the OED as deriving from the Classical Latin tellur-, tellus, for Earth, “tellurian” thus means “of or pertaining to the Earth,” as in “a tellurian sunset” or, as in Bartholomew Burges’s 1789 “A Short Account of the Solar System, and of Comets in General” the “heliocentric position of the tellurian orb.”

Now of course this particular usage is also listed as “in later use freq. in science fiction,” but then the first usage of the word “robot” — which as you may have noticed, are no longer solely in the realm of science fiction — was from Karel Čapek’s 1921 play “Rossum’s Universal Robots,” itself a work of science fiction, so that’s not exactly a deal-breaker, anyhow.

If we ever find ourselves with colonies on other planets, we may find ourselves in need of an adjective to describe something that heretofore has been taken for granted, and as a result, we may well find ourselves referred to as “historical Terrans” or, as I think I prefer, “historical Tellurians.” Perhaps our great-grandchildren will get to find out.


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Richard Ford Burley is a human, writer, and doctoral candidate at Boston College, as well as an editor at Ledger, the first academic journal devoted to Bitcoin and other cryptocurrencies. In his spare time he writes about science, skepticism, feminism, and futurism here at This Week In Tomorrow.