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I'm talking about those things:

enter image description here

They fly about in the sky, and when they land, enemy soldiers come out of them and try to kill you. Almost every video game has them, yet there is no such thing as a "dropship" in modern military. Where does the term come from?

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    It's used in science fiction in general, and is not exclusive to gaming. Nonetheless, since it has no real-life use, it might be of general interest to gamers. – Joachim Nov 6 at 7:46
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    There are plenty of such things in the military, they just don't have rocket engines and descend from space. – Alan B Nov 6 at 11:36
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    C-130 Hercules, V-22 Osprey, C-17 Globemaster, H47 Chinook, etc. are all famous (U.S.) military "dropships" in real life. The concept of airborne troop transport is as old military use of aircraft -- it predates even WWII. – TylerH Nov 6 at 15:32
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    I'm voting to close this question as off-topic because I don't think it belongs on this site; an expert gamer is not more likely to be able to answer this question than a complete non-gamer. – Oak Nov 6 at 17:42
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    I'm voting to close this question as off-topic because it is a better fit for Scifi.stackexchange (where this term originates from far longer than the scope of video games), or even english.stackexchange, for etymology purposes. – senpai Nov 6 at 21:44
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The term "dropship" was used in the December 1983 issue of Isaac Asimov's Science Fiction Magazine in the story "Remembering Siri" by Dan Simmons.

Page 36:

There were only five of us in the dropship. It was always a thrill to me to fall out of high orbit into the atmosphere of a real world.

Used also on pages 38 and 62.

Much earlier, in the July 1960 Amazing Science Fiction Stories in "All the Stars a Stage" by James Blish:

page 84

There was the beginning of a muted stir throughout the Javelin, as battle gear and drop ships began to be readied.

There is a very detailed 1978 description in Analog Science Fiction/science Fact (also in Best Science Fiction of the Year, Volume 7):

Because Celia's father was in the mining business, Lisa Maria batted her eyes at a handsome drop-ship jockey and he took them out to see one of the drop-ships being scrapped in a flickering of cutting torches. These were perhaps the heaviest spaceships ever built by man, rivaling in weight battleships of the Yamato class, but had only one flight in them, down. The jockeys who rode them to Earth called them rafts. They were assembled crudely of massive metal in a low orbit and needed to be able to perform only two functions: to hold together while they burned off their heat shield in the atmosphere and to float when they hit the water. Sometimes they were scrapped at Tongaro and sometimes towed all the way to San Francisco or San Diego or Yokahama.

But the oldest example is not from science fiction. Instead it is an actual military drop ship.

Richard C. Hottelet was a reporter who flew along with the 24 March 1945 Operation Varsity and wrote in a 5 May 1945 article in Collier's Magazine:

hundreds of C-47s flying along in tight formation ...

The three photographers, their cameras clicking away, jostled one another at the waist windows as we swooped around the drop ships.

P-Hour, the drop hour for the paratroops, was 10 a.m.

So the original "drop ships" were C-47s.

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    "fall out of high orbit". This is what a dropship is. Shuttles fly out of the mothership, but dropships are... dropped. That's why they're called dropships, not shuttles. – RonJohn Nov 6 at 17:45
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    Hey, DavePhD, funny seeing you with a "New contributor" tag. – Mindwin Nov 6 at 17:48
  • @RonJohn On the contrary, in the earliest sense it was the cargo that dropped, not the ship. (At least if all went well.) – Cadence Nov 10 at 23:51
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The term was popularized in Aliens(1986), where the military shuttle is referred to Cheyenne Dropship. Concept of dropship is very similar to space shuttle, a small craft meant to ferry passengers or cargo around.

What Aliens did, essentially, was to popularize term dropship to specifically refer to military shuttles. Shuttlecraft (another term not from real world, but borrowing term shuttle from the real world) had already been codified by Star Trek to specifically mean small craft meant to travel between mothership and planetary bodies for short distances, as opposed to longer distance made by starships.

Dropships do not exist in real world because the term was specifically coined for scifi. However, there have been concepts of a dropship for Mars travel, where a mothership "drops" shuttles into Martian athmosphere and they travel the rest of the way on their own power. In essence, being dropships, or dropshuttles.

TL;DR

Aliens called military shuttles dropships first (as far as I have been able to find) and everyone else followed the lead. Possible term variants might have existed before, but Aliens is the trope codifier.

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    First know usage of term "dropship" comes from Aliens. There is no real story beyond that. Aliens creators used the term dropship and everyone followed the example of "military shuttles are known as dropships". There is no records of where the Aliens writers got the name. Most likely they just made it up on the spot. – Mandemon Nov 6 at 11:37
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    Actually just on the above, ngram seems to suggest there might have been a use of the word dropship in the 1940s, and then a significant surge in use from the early 60s. books.google.com/ngrams/… That said, the leap of use after 1986 when Aliens releases - is massive - and definitely marks a solid point where it became suddenly more popular. – Bilkokuya Nov 6 at 11:49
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    Yeah, which is why I decided to cite Aliens as the source. IIRC the "drop ships" (two words instead of one) of Starship Troopers serve as different role from the "dropship"(single word). That is to say, their job to fly to combat zone and literally DROP the MI and maybe later come pick them up as slower pace. Where as the dropship, as popularized by Aliens, has dropships land, deploy troops and then take off. Effectively, they are military tactical air/space transports (Something like Osprey, Blackhawk or Chinook). – Mandemon Nov 6 at 11:51
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    Added extra mention that Aliens might not be original source of the term, but it is the one that codified the term. – Mandemon Nov 6 at 11:54
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    Just finished editing my post. – Mandemon Nov 6 at 12:41

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