The American Heritage Dictionary
, fourth edition, defines starship as the following:
starship (star•ship) n. : a crewed spacecraft designed for interstellar travel.
Few other words can evoke the same instant, overpowering sense of longing in most geeks. A simple word, this; a compound word indeed, but simple. A ship that sails the stars - and, as used, can reach them.
Most important: something that belongs to Man, in the cosmic sense; Man used to mean an intelligent race. Preferably one that we might induce to give us one, if we don't have our own by the time we meet them. After all, why does God need a starship?
For many American spaceniks, the word was introduced by the classic scifi television series Star Trek. In that context, Starship is a specific term; a proper noun, actually. It is a class of spacefaring vessel, in the service of the Starfleet of the United Federation of Planets. While other ships can reach the stars, a Starship is the jewel of the fleet. Huge, powerful, and designed for multi-year missions of exploration, a Star Trek:TOS Starship is only secondarily (or even tertiarily, if that's a word) a combat unit. It is primarily designed to explore. To (to borrow a wonderful, pithy, sacred phrase) explore strange new worlds; to seek out new life, and new civilizations. As such, it is the fulfillment of the promise of technology to us the hordes of geeks, spaceniks, dreamers, explorers, introvert heros and nerds. It is perhaps fitting that the Starship Enterprise is one of the first things we think about.
Of course, Trek wasn't the first use of the term, by any means. Heinlein used the term in 1959 as part of the title of his grand opera of Humanity at war, Starship Troopers. In that universe, while exploration was 'nice,' starships were first and foremost engines of war. Even if they did little that we saw in terms of fighting themselves, they served primarily to deliver the men and machines that did fight to the few small bits of real estate in the heavens that mankind cared about, even if it did so only because there was someone (or something) else on said real estate who needed their (or its) ass kicked.
Heinlein himself wasn't using a new term, either. G. Harry Stine published Starship Through Space five years before Heinlein's opus arrived. Countless pulp stories of the Golden 1920s and 1930s used it. But the term doesn't come from there either. It is difficult if not impossible to determine when and where the term was first used; it likely predates most easily-accessible records. The image of the flying ship in fantasy and fiction is an old one; likely, from the moment ships were available, someone thought about one that could take him or her up as well as out.
Various people have 'borrowed' the term for other things or pursuits over the years. Perhaps they sought to borrow the wonder. In some cases, they might have felt they could add to it. But it's still out there, somewhere in the future - or in the vastness of space, where we cannot touch it. Perhaps one day.