The Meaning of "Human"

adj. Of, belonging to, or characteristic of man

History: The Oxford English Dictionary (OED) offers the earliest instance of human in written English as being from 1398. That reference attributed the origin of human nature to God. At that time, the word was spelled humayne. It appeared as humain less than a century later and was finally standardized as the familiar human by the eighteenth century. The dictionary offers three additional definitions that appeared over the centuries. By the late fifteenth century, English speakers used human to mean "of the nature of man; that is a man; consisting of men." Examples from the sixteenth century indicate that writers used it to mean "belonging or relative to man as distinguished from God or superhuman beings." Early in the eighteenth century, "having or showing the qualities or attributes proper to or distinctive of man" appeared. (Of course, in each instance, the word man itself refers to any human person regardless of sex.) The OED also informs readers that though the stress was originally on the second syllable, as it was in the French original, it shifted to the first syllable to be consistent with general English usage early on. In current usage, the word human has all but lost its original connection to the Creator.

Etymology: Human derives from the Latin adjective humanus, "kind, humane; human." The American Heritage Dictionary connects humanus to the unattested Proto-Indo-European root dhghem-, meaning "earth." Evidence for the connection is also seen in the Sanskrit ksam- ("earth"), the Greek khthon ("the earth, solid surface of the earth"), and the Latin humus ("earth, soil"), as well as in other languages of the Indo-European family. In addition, dhghomon means "earthling, earthly being." It is also noteworthy that the Hebrew word for "man" is adam, which sounds like the Hebrew adamah, meaning "ground."

Effect: For more than six hundred years, human, regardless of spelling, has held a core meaning of identifying Homo sapiens. In its definition of human as a noun, the American Heritage Dictionary offers "a human being, a person." Here is where the materialism of contemporary society and the redefining push of the woke make a sharp departure from a word that has changed very little in over six hundred years. For example, Peter Singer, a professor of bioethics at Princeton, accepts the fact that a human fetus is a human being but rejects the notion that it is a person. Singer rejects human exceptionalism as an idea arising from religious beliefs that he regards as illegitimate (Writings on an Ethical Life, 156).

However, the concept of human exceptionalism depends upon a concept that has prevailed since the beginning of both Greek and Judeo-Christian thought, the two foundations of Western culture. Plato asserted that the primary distinction between humans and animals lay in the fact that the former had an immortal soul, and the central idea behind that first use of the English word human in 1398 was that human nature is a gift from God. That relationship between the human and the divine is best declared by the writer of Psalm 139: "I will praise thee; for I am fearfully and wonderfully made: marvelous are thy works; and that my soul knoweth right well. My substance was not hid from thee, when I was made in secret, and curiously wrought in the lowest parts of the earth" (vv. 14-15 KJV). Tragically, many fail to recognize that humans—all humans—are human because they are simultaneously spiritual and material creatures. When anyone is regarded as other than human, or when the understanding of what it means to be human dissolves in the acid of materialism, the foundation for the idea of human rights dissolves as well.

is a retired secondary teacher of English and philosophy. For forty years he challenged students to dive deep into the classics of the Western canon, to think and write analytically, and to find the cultural constants reflected throughout that literature, art, and thought.

This article originally appeared in Salvo, Issue #59, Winter 2021 Copyright © 2023 Salvo |


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