Lyfe: a new word for aliens that takes a leaf out of life

Steven Poole
·1-min read
<span>Photograph: Alamy</span>
Photograph: Alamy

Mr Spock never actually said to Captain Kirk: “It’s life, Jim, but not as we know it.” (That comes from the 1987 single “Star Trekkin”.) But the principle is sound. If we ever find extraterrestrial life, will we even recognise it as life at all? It might be so alien that it’s actually “lyfe”.

“Lyfe” is a recent scientific coinage defined as any system that combines four processes: “dissipation, autocatalysis, homeostasis, and learning”. Life in the familiar sense is merely “the instance of lyfe that we are familiar with on Earth”, but other much weirder types might exist.

The authors of the paper (“Defining Lyfe in the Universe”) don’t explain the reasoning behind the new spelling; “lyfe” was already a common form of, er, “life” in the 14th and 15th centuries, and meant “leaf” in Middle English. Perhaps the idea is that “y” is often used for the name of an unknown variable (when you already have an “x”).

Helpfully, our boffins do at least suggest a pronunciation (“loif”), and combinatory forms such as “lyfeform”, “sublyfe” and even “super-lyfe”. At least we can be pretty sure there’s no super-lyfe on this planet.

Steven Poole’s A Word for Every Day of the Year is published by Quercus.