Etymology of the word “human”

Disoriented West

February 11, 2007 (wishydig.blogspot.com)

A quick observation. Tonight on C-SPAN I watched the broadcast of the State of Black America presented by Tavis Smiley. On the panel were several speakers who shared their visions and concerns for American race issues openly and passionately.

Cornel West spoke ambitiously. And he made a powerful etymological claim. According to West the word human comes from the Latin humando which means ‘burying.’ Yes humando means ‘burying’ in Latin. No, human does not come from humando.

I did a little searching to see if this is a favourite claim of West’s. It appears he does like to use this claim when he speaks. He made the claim at Stanford in 2004. And at the Commonwealth Club of California a few days later, where he says “our English word human derives from the Latin humando which Vico reminds us in the twelfth paragraph of The New Science is defined as burying…burying….”

He didn’t develop the device recently. On the website for Loma Linda University (my sister’s alma mater) I found a transcript from 1997 when West addressed the Black Alumni of Loma Linda and La Sierra Universities (BALL). He has apparently simplified his claim in the last few years. Back then he said:

Let us always remember the word, “human,” comes from the Latin Humanicus, derived from Humando which means “to bury.” To be human is to bury your dead, to bury your loved ones, to put those beloved corpses in the grave, and somehow connect yourself to them. To never forget.

Human comes from the Latin adjective humanusHumanicus* means “affairs of humans” or “events of life.” Neither “came from” humando, though they are related to the verb by a shared Indo-European root *(dh)ghom- or *dhghem- meaning “earth.” I’m sure I’m not the only one to call him on this etymology. It may be an honest mistake. But it’s probably based on the common mistake of overeager etymologists to overlook the important difference between a direct historical derivation and a more complex etymological relation.

[Update: It’s amazing what an active link will do to bring you back to a forgotten post. And how helpful comments are in highlighting mistakes and needed clarifications. *I can’t defend humanicus. It should be humani, plural of humanum.

When I say that human and humanicus [sic] are related to “the verb” I mean an actual verb that meant buryhumohumarehumavihumatum — not humando: a word I don’t know. Thank you for pointing this out.]

One thought on “Etymology of the word “human””

  1. This is a perfect example of “we don’t know the actual answer so we’re just going to make something up that fits our current understanding and belief systems”. It doesn’t make any sense that “dhghem“ should be the original root of ‘human’, as there is no settled explanation of the sound changes involved. More likely it is from https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Hu_(mythology)

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