Have you ever thought about how strange that term, human being, really is?
First of all, couldn’t you just do away with the being part entirely? Wouldn’t human just suffice?
This is something I’ve only started to ponder fairly recently. I think what prompted it was seeing the equivalent in French: être humain. This is basically a direct equivalent (être is the infinitive form of the verb, so would more strictly translate to to be, but French often uses the infinitive where in English we use an -ing form of a verb, so in this context it’s an equivalent). Seeing that in French it’s made up simply of the verb to be and the noun human (and it’s also the same in Italian: essere umano), made me step back metaphorically and notice the same thing in English.
And then I realised how odd it is.
I mean, it does kind of make sense. We are all being, by existing. We are. But then, so is everything else. We don’t talk about a cup being, or a dog being, or a bed being. Just human beings.
I decided to look up the origins of the words to see if there were any previous distinction between a human and a human being.
Both words individually, human and being, are obvious both very old, fundamental words. Human first entered English in the mid-15th century, and being, originally referring to the entirety of existence, can be first traced to the early 14th century. Late in the 14th century, it had come to be used to also refer more specifically to any object in existence. The term human being came a while later, at the end of the 17th century.
There’s not much useful there really. And of course I’m prepared to accept that there isn’t a reason, because there doesn’t always have to be one. It might simply be the case that after being came into use to refer to different creatures, people started to use the term human being without much thought, as humans are beings, like the other animals, but we’re also smarter than them, hence still emphasising human in human being.
Or, perhaps it’s because in less-enlightened times, we had less information about how the universe works than we do now, and were more likely to believe in the supernatural and the intangible. Perhaps then, we came to emphasise a human being as something that most definitely exists, is, on this plane of existence, as opposed to various ghosts, gods, and demons. Or it was to emphasise our mundane, earthbound side, and not our souls, or other supernatural aspects of our selves.
Or, you know, maybe human and human being are just the same and no need to worry about it.
One thought on “I am a Human Being!”
Endonyms are extremely … hard to not walk around several times, like an unqualifyable statue in a garden or museum. The ones seen in the (North American) Indian languages are particularly so, to me.