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There are three major different meanings for the word "UFO". As originally coined, it was a shortening of a phrase used inside the US intelligence community (primarily Air Force intelligence) to refer to the supposed real world objects behind the reports they were studying. Note that the Air Force categorized the reports they received with such classifications as "hoax", "astronomical", "insufficient information" and "unidentified".
Strictly speaking, it is only the "unidentified" reports that were UFOs originally. The intelligence officers had another word for the reports that were bunk: flying saucer. So as originally understood, a UFO referred to an anomalous report that had been studied and classified as unknown. This definition was specifically endorsed by J. Allen Hynek after he left Project Blue Book. And it makes sense because as a scientist, the interesting reports are the ones that are known to be unidentifiable. If there is a signal, it exists there.
In the mid 50s and early 60s, a new working definition for "UFO" emerged within the Air Force. A UFO became any stimulus that caused someone to file a UFO report (this was an early Hynek definition while he was working with the Air Force). Or, as Carl Sagan would later put in 1963, a UFO is anything that is unidentifiable to the observer.
In the 60s this was adopted as the Air Force definition of a UFO. Note that defined this way, a UFO is a tautological fact. They must exist. But according to this definition, a misidentified Venus is a UFO. This definition contains all of the categories of identification used by intelligence studies: a hoax is just as much a UFO as a true unknown.
A third definition of UFO is "alien spaceship". This is perhaps the most popular definition to this day. Originally it was pushed hard by Donald Keyhoe in the 50s and 60s.
The second and third meanings here are frankly stupid. The second is so vague as to be meaningless, while the third is so specific as to defy epistemic justification. It is only the first definition that is useful if you want to study UFO reports using the scientific method. This is the definition used currently by GEIPAN, the official French UFO/ONVI investigation. They even break it down into "unidentified after investigation" and a more restrictive "unidentified after investigation and odd".
As a historical note, I believe the adoption of the second definition was part of a broader policy decision to close official UFO investigations and decrease interest in the subject. If a UFO is anything that an observer can't identify, then UFO is so broadly defined as to be meaningless.
The term "UFO" as literally interpreted is so overused that it's become almost a cliché.
reply to post by intrptr
I know of "UAP", which is Unidentified Aerial Phemonenon, but what's "WIT"? Never heard of it. Paul Hill argues that UFOs obey the laws of physics, but are used in unfamiliar ways to us.
The problem is that the majority of humans alive now have grown up during an age which saw the development of advanced jet planes and rocketry.
Now, jet planes and rockets make a lot of noise. They're also fast. So when people see a genuine UFO, they tend to describe it in familiar, i.e. aerodynamic/rocketry terms. But the UFOs we talk about aren't reported to make noise.