Philology Phriday––Human

23 Jul

Are we human or are we dancer? This is the question of the day. So important and pressing that I’d like to spend today’s philology phriday looking at the use of the word human.

It is an adjective that stems from the Latin humanus which meant, as the OED glosses, “characteristic of people, civilized, cultured, cultivated, kindly, or considerate”. The Middle French humain was used to specify characteristics belonging to people as opposed to animals or god(s), thus placing people in a very strange third space between the divine and the animal, almost as if humans are alone in this existence (just as god(s) and animals are) left without anyone to truly connect with besides themselves. A sad conception, no?

The word is also used in parasynthetic adjective combinations like human-headed or human-hearted, once again implying a sense of difference or speciality. The head or the heart is human as opposed to just being a head or a heart. Other uses of human are non parasynthetic, a big one being THE HUMAN CONDITION, which again classifies human existence as different from other existences, not necessarily special or better, but different. Some, however, would claim that the human condition is the best of the conditions. Mark Twain even wrote, although satirically, that the World Was Made for Man (man, of course, being the long-used sexist classification for human being (human also being opposed to just being)):

“Man has been here 32,000 years. That it took a hundred million years to prepare the world for him is proof that that is what it was done for. I suppose it is. I dunno. If the Eiffel tower were now representing the world’s age, the skin of paint on the pinnacle-knob at its summit would represent man’s share of that age; & anybody would perceive that that skin was what the tower was built for. I reckon they would. I dunno.”

I think I have implied heavily-handed enough what this idea of difference between human and non-human does. The well-known Australian philosopher Peter Singer also had something to say on the matter. He is famous for his argument against “speciesism” or discrimination based on species. He argues that a utilitarian ethic should take into account the well-being of all beings, and that “speciesist” favoritism of human beings over other beings is an incomplete utilitarianism. I’m unsure if he’s actually on to something. But if I had to state my own beliefs, I would only say that it seems near-impossible for human beings to consider the well-being of all beings, proven emphatically by our incessant lack of regard for our own species. Then again, who am I to say what approach toward a more just world is appropriate. If it takes a holer holistic approach, then so be it. But let’s tread lightly, as we’re still wondering if we are human or dancer, still not really knowing what each term really means only how it is used in certain (musical/philosophical) contexts.


2 Responses to “Philology Phriday––Human”

  1. Jess July 23, 2010 at 7:41 pm #

    Oh god. So damn good.

    • Jess July 23, 2010 at 7:41 pm #


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