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Odd language in Star Trek

The gender-neutral "sir" in Starfleet.

Star Trek 2: The Wrath of Khan introduced the odd Star Trek custom of referring to both male and female officers by male terms ("Mr", "Sir"). I suppose English usage might have gone in that direction as a form of equality but in fact it didn't, and it now sounds both grating and ironically perhaps even sexist (men as the norm, powerful women as honorary men) rather than unisex. They guessed wrong; well, it happens. The problem is that Star Trek stuck with it rather than quietly forgetting about it. By Voyager they seem to have been sufficiently embarrassed that Captain Janeway goes for "Ma'am", but apparently only as a personal preference.

According to OED, "sir" as an address to women was used sometimes in earlier times, first recorded in 1578. But it is obsolete except in dialect (OED doesn't say which dialect), and I am doubtful this can be regarded as relevant.


TNG used the word "sentient" to describe a being that was not only conscious but self-aware in the sense that human beings are (but most animals do not seem to be). In Data's memorable "Ode to Spot" Spot (Data's cat) is said not to be sentient. This is contrary to trasitional English usage, in which "sentient" means able to feel, and is a key term in discussing (for example) animal welfare. The Memory Alpha website has an entry on the term which suggests that the word changed meaning during the period of the Federation—very possible, of course.

However, I have to concede that the use of "sentient" for "conscious and self-aware" seems to be entering general usage, though it wasn't in the OED last time I looked. I have seen it in discussion of AI, for example. I wonder whether Star Trek has influenced this.


In DS9, the Bajoran religion is centred on gods referred to as "the Prophets", which suggests the writers thought it sounded religious but no-one actually looked up the word. A prophet is someone who is inspired by God or a god to speak for them, not a divine being. Possibly the writers had a vague idea of the Bajoran gods being like prophets in foretelling things.

Michael Burnham

In Star Trek: Discovery, the leading character Michael Burnham is female but has a masculine name. This is not explained (at time of writing I have only seen the first season). There have been some comments that it may show the greater fluidity of future gender or names or something. This would make sense except that quite early another character (Tilly) remarks, when she meets Michael, that the only other female Michael she ever heard of was the one convicted of mutiny. (In fact, it's the same person.) So it seems to be just as odd in that century as now.

In English the gender significance of names has historically changed over time, and in reality it's quite likely that in 200 years time many people will have unfamiliar names. But for TV this introduces an unnecessary complication for viewers. Isaac Asimov discusses somewhere the problem of how to give SF characters names that seem different without creating confusion.

Where no man has gone before

The famous opening to Star Trek: "To explore strange new worlds; to seek out new life, and new civilizations; to boldly go where no man has gone before—"

Star Trek TNG, however, changed the text to "where no one has gone before." "No one" achieved gender-neutral language. But it did so at the price of wrecking the line.

"No man" and "no one" would have been taken, in the 1960s, to mean about the same. But "no man" is much more dramatic. Also, in the context of Star Trek it added the sense of emphasising no human being—not necessarily no one, there might be aliens.

TNG's "no one" is less dramatic. More seriously, it confuses the sense. If the Enterprise goes to a planet where the Z-people live, and they are the first human visitors, can you say "no one" was there before? What about the Z-people? That sounds rather like the way Europeans used to "discover" places and become "the first to visit" them.

"No human being" would be unambiguous, but as dramatic as a wet blanket. "Human being" is a rather technical-sounding term. (Someone remarked that we don't find it necessary to say a "pig being"; a pig not being is a dead pig.) "Where no human has gone before" sounds like a Vulcan drawing up a star-chart.

The moral is that when language is unsatisfactory, it is often better to start again rather than try to squeeze old wine into new wineskins.

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