By Dr Oliver Tearle
Where does the word ‘human’ come from? What is the origin or etymology of this most ubiquitous word? As is so often the case with word derivations, ‘human’ has an interesting back-story which is worth exploring. If you’ve ever wondered what it means to be human, you could do worse than start with the very origins of the word ‘human’ itself.
The word ‘human’ is from the French humain, which itself stems from the Latin hūmānus. This Latin word meant ‘of or belonging to people’, with ‘people’ here meant to distinguish between human beings and other non-human beings such as animals or gods (and other divine entities).
This Latin word hūmānus attracted a raft of associations over time: things which were linked with the very idea of being ‘human’. And so hūmānus came to incorporate the meanings ‘cultured’ and ‘cultivated’ but also ‘kindly’, ‘compassionate’, ‘considerate’, and ‘merciful’. It perhaps doesn’t need stating that ‘human’ is etymologically related to ‘humane’, and to act humanely is to act mercifully and compassionately towards others, including other human beings.
When one bears in mind how utterly merciless the Romans’ gods could be – gods which were themselves drawn from the earlier Greek gods, with Zeus becoming Jupiter or Jove, Poseidon giving us Neptune, Aphrodite giving rise to Venus, and so on – it’s no wonder that, as the Latin hūmānus was designed to distinguish between people and gods (and between people and the brutal world of the animal kingdom), hūmānus attached all of these self-flattering associations, naming qualities which the capricious and cruel gods never really aspired to possess.
Indeed, as Julia Cresswell points out in The Oxford Dictionary of Word Origins, ‘human’ and ‘humane’ were virtually synonymous until the eighteenth century, when the latter came to be used exclusively for considerate and compassionate people, rather than any people whatsoever, regardless of how merciful (or merciless) they were.
What’s more, ‘humane’ was the spelling used for both words – both ‘human’ and ‘humane’ -until the end of the eighteenth century, meaning the two words were truly interchangeable until that point. Kenneth Muir makes this point in his Arden edition of Shakespeare’s Macbeth, where he glosses Lady Macbeth’s famous reference to her husband being ‘too full of the milk of human kindness’.
In uttering these words, Lady Macbeth was giving us a new idiom, of course: one still with us, and one which owes a lot to early modern attitudes to milk (associated with softness and therefore weakness), but also to this fundamental lack of difference between ‘human’ and ‘humane’. (Even ‘kindness’, as Muir observes, is a kind of pun, summoning not just compassion but also ‘nature’, as in ‘humankind’. In other words, Lady Macbeth is telling her husband he’s too full of the milk of ‘humankindness’, i.e., the qualities associated with humankind, such as compassion, consideration, and the rest of it.)
This is all well and good. But what about the ultimate origins of the word ‘human’? The word may have come from the French humain, which itself came from the Latin hūmānus meaning ‘of or belonging to people’. But that Latin word was itself from the Latin homō, meaning ‘human being, person, individual’. And homō, by the way, has the same Indo-European base as the Old English gome, which meant ‘man’, and which survives in the word ‘bridegroom’.
If we trace these cognates homō and gome back far enough, we can see they’re both from a Proto-Indo-European parent word which meant ‘earth’. This makes sense because ‘human’ was meant to distinguish mortal people from creatures such as gods, remember: so whereas gods are heavenly or ethereal, humans or people are earthly, i.e., mortal. The Proto-Indo-European word *dʰéǵʰōm meant ‘earth’ or ‘soil’ and is not only where homō and hūmānus come from but also words like ‘exhume’, meaning to dig something up out of the earth.