Tuesday, July 26, 2011

Word of the day: earthling

The Oxford English Dictionary Word of the Day is earthling. I was surprised to learn that the word is much older than I’d thought. The meaning that I think of — “A person who lives on or comes from the earth as opposed to another planet” — first appeared in 1858, in a newspaper item about a comet. As the OED notes, this meaning later turns up mainly in science fiction. (As in, say, “Attention, earthlings!”)

But earthling has earlier meanings. In 1600, Sir William Cornwallis used the word to denote “A worldly or materialistic person.” In 1593, earthling appeared in Thomas Nashe’s Christs Teares Over Iervsalem, meaning “An inhabitant of the earth as opposed to heaven”: “Wee (of all earthlings) are Gods vtmost subiects.”

Earlier still (beyond today’s Word of the Day), earthling (that is, yrðling, yrþling, or urþling) meant “A ploughman, a cultivator of the soil.” And as yrðling, ærðling, and irdling, earthling also meant “A kind of bird (not identified).” Perhaps a bird that couldn’t fly? I wonder.

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