Sunday, February 11, 2007

Disoriented West

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 humanus. Humanicus* 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 bury: humo, humare, humavi, humatum -- not humando: a word I don't know. Thank you for pointing this out.]


  1. First: I'm glad I'm not the only one watching C-Span.

    Second: G-d bless you for this post. Cornel West... sigh.

  2. 'Humando' is not a word that I am aware of, it sounds more like the gerund form of 'humare' (which does mean 'to bury').

    Humare is derived from the word 'humus' (stem: humo-), which means ground. Why isn't the idea that 'humanus' might be derived from 'humus' too far off in my opinion? Because -anus is added to such nouns that relate to places. E.g. urbanus, from urbs (stem: urb-) which means city.

    And according to the American heritage dictionary, the latin 'homo' comes from Archaic Latin 'hemo' which meant 'the earthly one'. Since 'homo' is akin to 'humanus', I think that we can draw our conclusions accordingly.

  3. "Humanicus"? Got a citation for that?

  4. Anonymous, you are correct. "Humando" is not a word, per se. It is a declined form of the gerund or gerundive of humare, perhaps dative or ablative. It's bad enough for people to make up etymologies, but they should at least get the root correct (humare, the infinitive, "to bury" OR humans, the present participle, "burying").

    Humanus is certainly related to humus, as the ancients believed that humans came from the earth. Cf. the word "autochthony". Plato in the Symposium tells of the distant past before Zeus split men in half, when humans "copulated upon the earth in the earth in the manner of locusts". And, of course, the Earth Mother was the center of the ancients' spiritual belief.

    1. The word is HUMANO... hes just mispronouncing it.. rmbr we are neither anglo or ROMAN

  5. Thanks for the call out. I've updated the post regarding the mistake.

  6. Back to the earth; back to the dust; humanize , connect on a basic level, remind ourselves of the unifying fact of death; the word human may not have come from humando but the idea behind the claim certainly rings true: we are one. because we come from and return to the same stuff; all born of water in the maternal vessel , all returned to the earth , the space vessel ; we drink of the same water that our ancestors drank of ; we are made of the same recycled carbon ; we manipulate matter with the same energy source , Ra

    it is not more important to be correct

    it is more important to connect

    where is your love? where is your willingness to serve?

    does it come from debate?

    asking questions and exploring together is fundamentally different than debate; we will find out together and constantly be wrong as we refine our understanding


  7. Thank you anonymous, focus on his message of humando connectivity, not on the probable misuse of a single word.

  8. three points:

    1) it's not just a single misuse or mistake that i'm drawing attention to, but his repetition of a false etymological claim. he has nurtured and preserved the claim.

    2) this blog focuses on issues of linguistics, language, english history, and etymology. whether his intentions are good isn't my immediate concern in this space. i'm of course pleased that his intention is to connect with other humans. but that doesn't pull me away from my claim that he is imprecise about the origins and path of the word.

    3) i've probably made more mistaken claims about language than he has, given the years i've spent talking about language, and the number of claims i've made. i believe that being told those mistakes, and learning to adjusting my claims, and developing my ability to analyze language, are all part of a grand human connection that some people are hoping for. in fact, i would expect that professor west himself would be happy to learn something about the terminology and analysis of word histories that would help him to strengthen and refine his argument.

  9. I think that West's comment, his "etymology," needs to be contextualized a little bit here...
    West has repeatedly remarked in his use of "humando" that he is referring to Vico's assessment of human history (and a kind of anti-historical historicity). Giambattista Vico, in THE NEW SCIENCE, begins with the human through this conceptualization of the human condition as deeply linked to the condition of burying (or the corpse). For evidence see page eight in the text linked below:
    Certainly Vico's mis/use of "humando" may be reacted to in a similar fashion to West's...but does that reaction actually acknowledge the problems that Vico (and West) present? Does it help us navigate the positions of their text? The questions that they raise?
    Are they not intentionally providing us with a variation of (a different view of) "human" in order that we challenge our notion of human history?
    I think that these things are important to consider.
    Outside of this context, West is perceived as arrogantly creating his own language (an act of neglect) in order to generate a meaning that suits his rhetoric. I do not think that he is, in fact, doing this.
    I do believe that we have a duty to focus on a scholar's, well, scholastic challenge them and to make sure that they are not feeding us horse shit. But I do think that we need to view the intricacies of their arguments and the scope of their positions with equal rigor.

  10. Also (I posted just above) I would like to thank you for your academic rigor and the question that you raised about West. I am glad that there are people paying attention.

  11. it's true, that when west decides to speak of connections and 'etymologies' he is probably not making the same claims and speaking of the same relationships that historical linguists and lexicographers intend with the same words.

    it may be a matter of loose terminology, rather than misled belief. and your contextualization of his terms is helpful. i appreciate your input.

  12. HUMAN (is) more related to adverb HUMANDO as he openly quotes from a literary source... a state of being in the beginning and end of life. Humanity is more closely related to the latin (adjective) HUMANUS. I respect your supremacist objection to the scholarly professor w/ a PHD.. yet you are incorrect yourself. rmbr AMERICAN ENGISH is a bastard language.

  13. HUMAN (is) more related to the GALICIAN adverb HUMANO mispronounced HUMANDO as he openly quotes from a literary source... a state of being in the beginning and end of life. Humanity is more closely related to the latin (adjective) HUMANUS. I respect your supremacist objection to the scholarly professor w/ a PHD.. yet you are incorrect yourself. rmbr AMERICAN ENGISH is a bastard language or greco-roman tongue which is a bastard to hebrew, arabic and aramaic language.

    1. are people with a phd never incorrect? do you know what degrees i have?

  14. "take the D out" and we still have an imprecise claim about the origin of the word and the path to its current meaning.

    this is a blog mostly about language and etymology.

    i have a blog about morality and the equality of all humans and the importance of a connection to and memory of our mortality. on that blog i don't mention his etymological claims.


Thanks for reaching out.

You can also contact me at wishydig[at]gmail[d0t]com.