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OpinionColumnistsDan Janison

It's a bird. It's a plane. It's a UFO.

Highway 375 in Rachel, Nev., near Area 51,

Highway 375 in Rachel, Nev., near Area 51, is home to many UFO sightings. Credit: Getty Images / MyLoupe

Sensibly enough, the U.S. Senate is due in June to receive a long-sought report from intelligence agencies on "unidentified aerial phenomena." The report contains Pentagon materials on unexplained sightings.

Fine. Hope springs eternal that facts and evidence can be credibly evaluated and help inform and enlighten, and douse false rumors and irrational belief.

Maybe it adds up to something that advances our collective knowledge and understanding. Maybe there are surprises in store. Maybe the report will be a dud.

But whatever it says, we don't need official information to break an annoying linguistic habit that muddles truth. We can either trash the term "unidentified flying object" or start using it literally.

"UFO" was coined as a neutral term to mean something up in the air that had not been identified. Period. Then the true meaning of the words became ignored in our conversations. UFOs became reflexively associated with age-old visions of slimy, lumpy fellows descending ladders from their flying saucers.

Check Merriam-Webster’s definition for UFO. It’s straightforward enough, but a sentence example reads: "In 1966, the first UFO ‘abduction’ was described in journalist John G. Fuller's book The Interrupted Journey."

See how fast the mental picture runs from "unidentified" to "abduction"? (By the way, if a UFO is subsequently identified as something mundane, like an airplane, does that make it an FO?)

Maybe this substitute phrase, "unidentified aerial phenomena," or UAP, will ring useful. Still unidentified, still aerial, but without the presumption of an "object," allowing for light beams or whatever else.

A phenomenon is just something observed to exist, like tides or gravity. But in conversation the term can get stretched into presuming something unnatural.

Fortunately, the exposure of hoaxes, and more refined observation methods over the years, have given Americans a good sense of humor.

Remember that the New York Mets had a Nevada minor-league affiliate called the "Area 51s," named after the highly classified United States Air Force facility in Nevada that spawned years of "alien" speculation.

No, that’s not a slam on anyone who takes reports and collects data aimed at honestly explaining real-life sightings of things unidentified, including hundreds of UAPs noted out of Suffolk County over the years.

Sincere searches for truth are never a bad idea.

Nor does healthy skepticism deny the existence of the extraterrestrial on earth. Look at the awesome findings of recent decades that stretch the human imagination. Consider chondrites, found on earth, associated with asteroids, their geological makeup possibly shedding light on the origin and age of the solar system.

Exoplanets are detected, far beyond our sun. So are neutrinos, which pass through the earth at amazing speed, all the time, in countless quantities.

In a recent TV appearance, former President Barack Obama, who had access to classified research, said: "What is true, and I'm actually being serious here, is that there are, there's footage and records of objects in the skies, that we don't know exactly what they are.

"We can't explain how they moved, their trajectory. They did not have an easily explainable pattern. And so, you know, I think that people still take seriously trying to investigate and figure out what that is."

So Obama was just stating what we've known for years: Unexplained, unidentified things have been noticed. Call them UFOs if you wish, but their mere existence doesn't tell us what they are. Time to retire the phrase and focus on identifying the unidentified.

Dan Janison is a member of Newsday's editorial board.

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