"UFO" vs. "UAP": Which One Is Real?

, Freelance Writer
Updated April 20, 2023
Meanings of "UFO" and "UAP" from the article.
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If there’s something or someone out there in the universe, it’s a good idea to know what to call them when they arrive, right? Is it UFO or UAP? And is UAP a clever way to cover up the truth about aliens? 

The truth is, unidentified flying objects (UFOs) and unidentified anomalous phenomena (UAPs) are essentially the same things — but not exactly the same.

What Does “UFO” Stand For?

UFO is the general term for any unidentifiable, or unrecognizable, object or phenomenon seen in the sky from the ground.

UFO is an initialism of unidentified flying object, meaning the first letter of each word forms the abbreviation, which is pronounced as the separate letters (“you-eff-oh”), not as a word.

  • Most UFO sightings are hoaxes anyway.
  • Most UFO evidence boils down to eye-witness accounts or shoddy cellphone video.
  • One of the best UFOs in science fiction is the one in Close Encounters of the Third Kind.
  • Recently, I got really into UFO history and I found out that most sightings happen in the United States.

Where Does the Term “UFO” Come From?

The first mainstream use of UFO is from the 1950s, when the United States Air Force began using UFO or UFOB (the same meaning) in official documentation.

The Air Force initially defined UFO as “Any airborne object which, by performance, aerodynamic characteristics, or unusual features, does not conform to known aircraft or missiles.”

Generally, UFO is a synonym for flying saucer, a pop culture representation of an alien spaceship as a flying disc first popularized by a UFO sighting from pilot Kenneth Arnold in 1947.

Although Arnold never explicitly said that the objects he saw were discs or “flying saucers,” news reports and sensationalized sketches of the incident sparked global interest in flying saucers and UFOs.


Does “UFO” Always Refer to Aliens?

It’s worth noting that, although the term UFO is closely associated with aliens, and almost every UFO sighting is speculated by enthusiasts to involve extraterrestrials, the term UFO most literally defines something in the air that’s unknown, not necessarily something that’s from another world. 

For scientific and meteorological researchers, UFO was used as a general term referring to any unexplainable sighting in the sky. Examples of UFOs include rogue balloons, drones, or planes, as well as atmospheric illusions that cause lights to appear in the sky under certain conditions.

What Does “UAP” Stand For?

UAP stands for unidentified anomalous phenomena and effectively means the same thing as UFO.

Unidentified means the same as in UFO, anomalous means “abnormal or improper,” and phenomena means “unusual occurrence.”

  • Following the UAP investigation, the team determined it to be a missing weather balloon.
  • There are so many UAP videos out there. It’s hard to tell which are real and which are fake.
  • Actually, I try to use UAP now since it’s more descriptive than UFO.
  • That UAP report from the government was reality interesting, but it didn’t mention aliens.

Where Does “UAP” Come From?

Until 2022, UAP primarily stood for unidentified aerial phenomena. But the United States National Defense Authorization Act defined the abbreviation as unidentified anomalous phenomena, so teams at NASA and other research branches changed their terminology.

In 2021, the United States Department of Defense declassified a collection of documents related to unexplained occurrences in the sky titled Preliminary Assessment: Unidentified Aerial Phenomena. The document summarizes two decades of UAP sightings and investigations and concludes that UAPs are a matter of national security that require further research.

This document signaled the shift from using UFO to UAP in scientific research and formal discussion.

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Do “UFO” and “UAP” Mean the Same Thing?

Many believe that the government’s choice to pivot from the use of UFO to UAP in its investigations was to separate its research from the stigma and connotation of the term UFO in relation to aliens and flying saucers.

Another reason for the shift to UAP is that while all UFOs are anomalous phenomena, not all phenomena, such as weather, light, or optical illusions, are objects. The description of unidentified flying object further ties the term to that of a flying object or aircraft, which leads to additional connections to the flying saucer rumors. 

UAP is more encompassing and includes the previously mentioned phenomena. In addition, the shift from aerial to anomalous makes the term even more inclusive for any odd happenings or phenomena that might occur.


Tips To Remember the Difference Between “UFO” and “UAP”

In casual conversation, listeners will likely recognize and understand UFO over UAP. But, UFO is highly stigmatized and has a more narrow definition. For this reason, use UAP when possible, then explain what it means and why it’s more accurate. 

An excellent way to remember the reason for this, and to explain to others, is that:

  • a UFO is an object 
  • a UAP is a phenomenon (which is more encompassing when explaining these sightings that may involve lights or weather rather than true objects)

On the other hand, if you’re discussing aliens and extraterrestrials in a pop culture context, UFO might be the better term due to its association with alien myths. 

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