January 20, 2013

Are we people, persons, or individuals?

I got into a back-and-forth with kentuckyliz in this comments thread. She experienced "individuals" as dehumanizing, and I found "people" irksome unless the reference is to the collective. We both accepted "persons," but I acknowledged that "persons" feels awkward, unnatural, or even incorrect to some... people.

So, let's check the etymology of the 3 words. I'll use the Online Etymology Dictionary.
people (n.)
late 13c., "humans, persons in general," from Anglo-French people, Old French peupel "people, population, crowd; mankind, humanity," from Latin populus "a people, nation; body of citizens; a multitude, crowd, throng," of unknown origin, possibly from Etruscan. The Latin word also is the source of Spanish pueblo, Italian popolo. In English, it displaced native folk.

Meaning "body of persons comprising a community" first recorded late 13c. in Anglo-French; meaning "common people, masses" (as distinguished from the nobility) first recorded c.1300 in Anglo-French. Meaning "one's own tribe, group, etc." is from late 14c. The word was adopted after c.1920 by Communist totalitarian states to give a spurious sense of populism to their governments...

person (n.)
early 13c., from Old French persone "human being, anyone, person" (12c., Modern French personne) and directly from Latin persona "human being, person, personage; a part in a drama, assumed character," originally "mask, false face," such as those of wood or clay worn by the actors in later Roman theater. OED offers the general 19c. explanation of persona as "related to" Latin personare "to sound through" (i.e. the mask as something spoken through and perhaps amplifying the voice), "but the long o makes a difficulty ...." Klein and Barnhart say it is possibly borrowed from Etruscan phersu "mask."...

Of corporate entities from mid-15c. The use of -person to replace -man in compounds and avoid alleged sexist connotations is first recorded 1971 (in chairperson). In person "by bodily presence" is from 1560s. Person-to-person first recorded 1919, originally of telephone calls.

individual (n.)
"single object or thing," c.1600, from individual (adj.). Colloquial sense of "person" is attested from 1742.
A majority can never replace the individual. ... Just as a hundred fools do not make one wise man, a heroic decision is not likely to come from a hundred cowards. [Adolf Hitler, "Mein Kampf," 1933]
Latin individuum meant "an atom, indivisible particle;" in Middle English individuum was used in sense of "individual member of a species" from early 15c.
I see the Online Etymology Dictionary is trying to scare us away from "individual" by quoting Hitler, but how do I know they're not communists? Let me switch to the Oxford English Dictionary (which, unfortunately, I can't link to). It's a much richer source of quotes and it always gives us the earliest quotes that can be found.

The earliest use of the noun "individual" to mean "single human being, as opposed to Society, the Family, etc." is from 1626:
J. Yates Ibis ad Cæsarem ii. 12 (margin) ,   The Prophet saith not, God saw euery particular man in his bloud, or had compassion to say to euery Indiuiduall, Thou shalt liue.
And here's one from 1899:
J. Monro Gibson in Expositor Feb. 144   It will not be as Churches but as individuals that we shall all stand before the Judgment seat of Christ.
The oldest quote for "person," meaning "An individual human being; a man, woman, or child" is from 1225:
Ancrene Riwle (Cleo. C.vi) (1972) 236   Abute sunne liggeð six þinges. þet hit hulieð..Persone. stude. time. Manere. tale. cause. Persone. þe dude þe sunne oðer wið hwam me hit dude.
That's a tad hard to read, but I quoted it anyway, because I liked the "dude." If we crank forward to 1440, we get:
R. Rolle Eng. Prose Treat....   The fifte comandement es þat ‘thou slaa na man..’ And also here es forboden vn-ryghtwyse hurtynge of any persone.
"Person" is interesting in that it has been used to denote "A man or woman of high rank, distinction, or importance" and, alternatively, "An individual considered to be of low rank, status, or worth." An old example of the former is:
1709 J. Addison Tatler No. 116. ¶1   She had a Mind to look as big and burly as other Persons of her Quality.
And the latter:
1704 Swift Tale of Tub Ep. Ded. 2   It is amazing to me, that this Person should have Assurance in the face of the Sun, to go about persuading Your Highness, that our Age is almost wholly illiterate.
Another function of the word "person" is to distinguish a human being from things or from other animals, as in:
1678   T. Sprat Serm. preached before King in Serm. (1710) 168   A zeal for persons is far more easy to be perverted, than a zeal for things.
Finally, "people." I'd forgotten about the singular, colloquial usage, noted in 1891:
J. Maitland Amer. Slang Dict. 201   ‘He is great people’ is used in a commendatory sense of anyone.
OED also quotes "The Sopranos":
1999   J. Cahill Guy Walks into Psychiatrist's Office in Sopranos (television shooting script) 2nd Ser. 24   Lee's good people. He came all the way from the village on an hour's notice.
But basically, "people" is a singular noun and we're interested in it here for the way it's used interchangeably with person/individual when there are more than one persons/individuals. So I have to exclude the definitions that go with quotes like "I speak to the people as one of the people." (1771   ‘Junius’ Stat Nominis Umbra.)

I want the usage that you see in the song "People" when 2 individuals realize that each was a half and they've become whole, they add up to people. So even 2 is enough to make this kind of people. We're not talking about the masses or the populace or "We the People," just any number of human entities exceeding one (or one-half if these entities are the luckiest people, people in love).

I wish I could show you the long page in the OED that I'm combing through. I don't think any of the definitions fit what I'm looking for, even though it is exceedingly common in American speech. 


chickelit said...

In French, you're a nobody if you're personne.

chickelit said...


AJ Lynch said...

Come on- you are both wrong. We are "some folks" or "you folks" according to just about every speech Obama has given.

Hagar said...

It all depends on context and intonation. All these terms can be complimentary, insulting, or (cruelly)neutrally descriptive.

edutcher said...

Individual is more of a legal or philosophical (as in rugged individualism) term, it seems to me.

People has a bad connotation thanks to the Commies, but it seems to have a variety of meanings from We, The People to, "She's good people".

To answer the question, we are all.

Paul Zrimsek said...

"People" and persons" are both fine for general use. "Individuals" is a bit more specialized.

What has etymology got to do with it? The question is "Are we people, persons, or individuals?"-- not "Were we people, persons, or individuals?"

David said...

Just relax, people.

Just relax, individuals.

Just relax, persons.

In the south it's "peeps" and "y'all." Works nicely.

Just relax, y'all.

Lincoln: "Of the persons, by the persons, for the persons."

Got a gun on on your individual?

So many possibilities . . .

BDNYC said...

The transformation of individual from an adjective only into a noun was a particularly bad corruption of the language. The worst offenders are professors and police officers, both of whom are just trying to find a fancy word for "person." Professors do it pretentiously and police officers do it because to them it sounds more technical and appropriate for an official report, kind of like their preference for incorrectly substituting the adjectives "male" and "female" for the nouns "man" and "woman."

KnightErrant said...

We are people.

They are persons.

All folks who are exactly alike are individuals.

Meade said...

Living outside D.C. in 1973, at a Rockville, MD drugstore, I had the somewhat surreal experience of running into Watergate burglar, James W. McCord, Jr.

Peoples Drugstore. I always laughed at how the name Peoples smacked of communism.

tiger said...

We are all three; what's the problem?

tiger said...

We are all three; what's the problem?

Chip S. said...

Living outside D.C. in 1973, at a Rockville, MD drugstore,

Did you live above the store, or in a back room?

Lem said...

In Dominican Spanish... when you mean to criticize someone you say... 'ese individuo'... its a put down.

Inga said...

Impeopleate. Individualate. Impersonate.


betamax3000 said...

This is why I like Robots. Less to parse.

betamax3000 said...

Are we people, persons, or individuals?

To an alligator they are all 'bite-size'.

wyo sis said...

"You can call me Ray.
Or you can call me Jay.
But you doesn't have to call me Johnson."

betamax3000 said...

An alligator would eat F. Scott Fitzgerald, no problem. Probably a fatty liver. F Scott Foie Gras.

steve uhr said...

Speaking as a lawyer, since corporations are "persons" under the law, "individuals" often is used to refer only to flesh-and-blood people.

betamax3000 said...

An alligator would find Faulkner more gamey.

betamax3000 said...

Alligator would eat naked Bob Dylan.

Alligator would not eat Naked Bob Dylan Robot.

Naked Bob Dylan Robot is greater than Bob Dylan.

betamax3000 said...

Naked Bob Dylan Robot would understand Alligator. Alligator is much closer to Robot than to Human.

Alligator does not need adjectives.

RichardS said...

There's this bit from the 1780 Massachusetts Constitution--the first in the U.S. to be written by a special convention, and ratified by the people.
"The body-politic is formed by a voluntary association of individuals: It is a social compact, by which the whole people covenants with each citizen, and each citizen with the whole people, that all shall be governed by certain laws for the common good."

Kirk said...

Personally, I believe that 21st centurions have created an identity crisis for themselves. Imagine that people.

betamax3000 said...

Alligator does not need Standardized Test.

Alligator test is easy: bite down. Eat if possible. Next.

Meade said...

Robot'd call, say, "Beware, doll - you're bound to fall"

betamax3000 said...

Alligator does not have tears that are isolated and unpunctual.

Neither does Crocodile.

kentuckyliz said...

Individual is like being called a unit.

That's so 80s Valley Girl.

Parental units.

Meade said...

Chip S. said...
"Did you live above the store, or in a back room?"

I was homeless. With no direction home. Scrounging around for my next meal. I was like a rolling individual stoned robot.

betamax3000 said...

Naked Bob Dylan Robot understands Meade Unit: Rolling Stone has Function.

Naked Bob Dylan Robot has no need for direction home. Home is inside Naked Bob Dylan Robot.

kentuckyliz said...

Happy to have rated a top level post! Another post for my tag, like a notch on my steering wheel (or lipstick case, a la Pat Benatar). LOL

kentuckyliz said...

My 5th notch/post.

Meade said...

From Wikipedia, the people's free encyclopedia:

City voters have supported the Democratic Party in national elections in the last half-century, and a liberal and progressive majority is generally elected to the city council. Detractors often refer to Madison as The People's Republic of Madison, the "Left Coast of Wisconsin" or as "78 square miles surrounded by reality."

Meade said...


There are two People's Republics which do not subscribe to communism:
People's Republic of Bangladesh
People's Democratic Republic of Algeria

The current communist or socialist states that include the words People's Republic in their full names:
People's Republic of China
Lao People's Democratic Republic
Democratic People's Republic of Korea

betamax3000 said...

There IS a Naked Pat Benatar Robot. It is manufactured in Japan.

For lonely men.

Robot shakes head unit.

m stone said...

I think Meade is doing the "people-communism" association very effectively. By afternoon's end, we'll all be individuals.

betamax3000 said...

Naked Bob Dylan Robot on ""Like a Rolling Stone"

Human Units fear isolation, craving Recognition from Recognition Software. With no Recognition or Reinforcement Input the Human experiences Loneliness, and absent from the Manufacturer. No Manufacturer, no Purpose, an aimless circular silicon chip.

"You used to ride on the chrome horse with your diplomat
Who carried on his shoulder a Siamese cat "

In Robot you don't ride chrome horse, Chrome Horse Unit rides you.

n.n said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
n.n said...

We are mathematical constructs. However, in this specific context, we are described by set theory. An "individual" is congruent to "person", and both are elements in the set "people", which is congruent to the plural element forms.

We are strings resonating to a melody played in a symphony.

betamax3000 said...

People are Paper, Individuals are Rock, Robot is Scissors.

Naked Bob Dylan can never beat Naked Bob Dylan Robot in 'Paper/Scissors/Rock'. Robot Scissors always win.

betamax3000 said...

If Naked Pat Benatar Robot had Robot Scissors things would be different.

For lonely Japanese men.

betamax3000 said...

Naked Bob Dylan Robot wishes Naked Bob Dylan wrote "Mr. Roboto."

Naked Bob Dylan Robot is programmed for Wistful.

kentuckyliz said...

For an interesting treatment of the Communist treatment of the word "people," read from the bottom of page 8 through page 11 of this.

kentuckyliz said...

The intellectual or administrative or military or law enforcement use of the word "individual" is to strip the humanity from the person. It is a distancing maneuver.


kentuckyliz said...

Distancing, and it sets the user of the word over the person about whom he or she speaks.

kentuckyliz said...

Now that all y'all are enlightened on this issue, you will start hearing and discerning this for yourself.

Bender said...

Soylent green is people.

Paddy O said...

In Christian theology Persons is orthodox while Individuals would be heresy.

kentuckyliz said...

Paddy, that's probably where I get it from. And persons is a frequent word we encounter in trinitarian creeds, doxologies, and hymns.

Then there's the personalism of JPII, who heroically resisted the Communist regime. He skipped individuals and The People and went straight to the person.

Saint Croix said...

We used the word "person" in our 14th Amendment, so that all human beings would have the equal protection of the laws.

In Roe, of course, Harry Blackmun pretended he had no idea what the word meant. So he wanted to see examples in the Constitution of how the word "person" is used in a sentence.

The upshot of this is that babies are now defined as property under our Constitution.

Justice Scalia, in his Casey dissent, helpfully added that some societies define newborns and the "incompetent elderly" as non-persons, too.

Whenever somebody has trouble defining what a person is, I always think, "Nazi."

Saint Croix said...

And our same Supreme Court says a corporation is a person.

I mock the Court here and here

Bender said...

And our same Supreme Court says a corporation is a person

That corporations are legal persons has been recognized for a COUPLE HUNDRED YEARS in the law. It was not a modern invention by the Supreme Court.

By the way, the very word "corporation" is from the Latin "corpus," meaning "body." I suppose we could object that corporations don't have bodies, but that would only further prove that we as a people are so sorely misinformed about so much.

Saint Croix said...

That corporations are legal persons has been recognized for a COUPLE HUNDRED YEARS in the law. It was not a modern invention by the Supreme Court.

Yeah, but that's a polite lie. Dehumanizing babies is a rude lie. And it's worth reminding the Supreme Court how dishonest they can be with language.

Unknown said...

I don't know about you guys but I'm a worker or so I'm told.

n.n said...

Saint Croix:

According to our national charter, our unalienable rights of Life, Liberty, and the pursuit of Happiness are endowed by our Creator from creation, which is presumably from conception, either biological or, as you have suggested, emergence of consciousness. The latter should be acceptable to Jews and Christians, as in Genesis, God distinguishes between "man" and "living soul".

"And the Lord God formed man of dust from the ground, and He breathed into his nostrils the soul of life, and man became a living soul."

dreams said...

When I was in basic training in the Air Force many years ago I noticed we were called people. We lined up to march with the tallest people to the front and right which left the shorter people to the rear and invariably they would tend to straggle causing our DI to yell "step it up little people", I was one of the little people.

Saint Croix said...

According to our national charter, our unalienable rights of Life, Liberty, and the pursuit of Happiness are endowed by our Creator from creation, which is presumably from conception...

I think conception is clearly the point when creation starts.

...or, as you have suggested, emergence of consciousness.

Not to pick nits, but a baby at six weeks doesn't have consciousness. She has little blips of brain activity in her brain stem. Under our law, that's all a human being needs in order to be alive.

"And the Lord God formed man of dust from the ground, and He breathed into his nostrils the soul of life, and man became a living soul."

It's kind of ironic that Christian theories about souls might allow us to get off conception as the critical point.

You would think that atheists would focus on our bodies, since they are materialistic. But they seem quite happy with brain activity. (It's the law in all 50 states). Presumably because brain activity seems rational to us.

Anyway, we can't measure souls. But brain activity is our proxy for life and death. So it seems to be our recognized biological criteria for when a person dies. And of course, for religious people, that's when our soul passes on. The body is still there. But the person is gone.

rcommal said...

I see the Online Etymology Dictionary is trying to scare us away from "individual"

Oh, bullshit. In this particular case, I can well and truly attest that this sort of intent is entirely made up in your own mind and in no way is true of the person behind the Online Etymology Dictionary.

Full stop.

rcommal said...

Or, at least, to be more precise (in terms of the third bit of my comment), "[this] in no way is true of the person behind the Online Etymology Dictionary" is what I can stand by, full force, based on more than 25 years of first-hand knowledge and experience. This is not back-pedaling. It's what **I know** and you, Ann, do not, about a particular--what? person? individual? Whatever. I know the name, the person and the individual, plus more.

Regarding the second bit of my comment: "I can well and truly attest that this sort of intent is entirely made up in your own mind," of course that is fundamentally nonsense. Who am I know to whether you made it up or not, or in your own mind or not, or whatever? That was cheap. Fine. Whatever. Ordinarily I would apologize, sincerely, and be done with it. The truth is, if I were to apologize at this moment, it would not be sincere, and therefore I would not be done with it. Thus, I won't, despite having acknowledged the logical error.

Regarding the first bit of my comment--to be specific, "Oh, bullshit,"--I stand by that fully--in other words, full stop.

Saint Croix said...

Whenever somebody has trouble defining what a person is, I always think, "Nazi."

I actually did not mean to go Godwin on this thread, by the way. I just meant that's where my thoughts actually go. I immediately think of slavery and the Holocaust. Because "non-person" was a legal definition that made both of those happen.

In general, playing around with words in art is fun. But you can't actually do that in law.

Art is highly individualistic. (Althouse calls it "right-wing"!) But law has to be grounded in common understandings of language. So what's fun in art can result in a huge amount of strife and anger in law.