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I am confused by the use of the word being to refer to a static thing. How can this word that appears to clearly be a verb gerund get turned around to be used as a thing?

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Is creature less confusing? Same meaning, similar etymological process. –  TimLymington Dec 22 '11 at 14:09
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6 Answers

The Online Etymology Dictionary may be right, but unfortunately it gives no citations in support of its claims. Being does indeed first appear as a noun in the fourteenth century but in the sense ‘a living creature, either corporeal or spiritual; especially a human being, a person’, the OED's earliest citation is dated 1666:

If there were no Sensitive Beings, those Bodies that are now the Objects of our Senses, would be but dispositively, if I may so speak, endowed with Colours, Tasts, and the like.

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http://www.etymonline.com/index.php?term=being

... says early 14th century.

There are lots of such nouns; happening, turning, meeting, gathering, passing, clearing...

http://www.etymonline.com/index.php?term=human says the construct "human being" is attested by the 1690s.

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Yep. Gerunds becoming nouns happen all of the time. –  JSBձոգչ Dec 22 '11 at 13:35
    
It may sometimes be a bit contrived (My dreaming helps me make sense of the world), but it seems to me that quite possibly all gerunds can potentially function as nouns. –  FumbleFingers Dec 22 '11 at 19:03
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By definition, a "gerund" is a verb that is being used as a noun. If you say, "My thinking on the subject is ..." you mean, "the thoughts that I am thinking". If you say, "Fighting will not be tolerated" you mean "people engaging in fights", etc.

This one doesn't seem particularly mysterious. A "being" would be "something that is", that is, "something that exists". We regularly talk about "different types of beings in the universe" and so on.

It seems to me that it's a very useful word. It makes sense to use it when we want to describe a very general case or want to be very careful not to imply something that we don't want to imply. Like if you want to talk about life on other planets, you wouldn't call them "humans" because presumably they are a different species. "People" would be debatable -- does "people" mean "humans" or could it refer to some category of non-humans? But if you say "alien beings" then the term is strictly accurate.

Likewise if you are discussing theology or philosphy and you want to discuss who or what created the universe, you wouldn't refer to this being as a "human" because a human surely is not capable of creating the universe. You wouldn't call this being a "creature" because that word means "something that is created", and the ultimate creator must not have been created by something else. You don't want to say "God" if that's the end point of your argument or you'll be talking in circles. Etc. So all you can really call him/her/it is a "being".

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Agree with all except maybe your definition A "being" would be "something that is" leaves a key characteristic unspecified. Bearing in mind how we actually use the word, I think you'd have to say "something that is, and knows that it is". A God or an alien that was unaware of the fact of its own existence probably wouldn't qualify as a "being". –  FumbleFingers Jan 26 '12 at 22:20
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Here's a trio of early citations.

  • 1625's The Booke of Honour: or Five Decades of Epistles of Honour by Francis Markham:

1625

  • 1629's Practique Theories by John Gaule

1629

  • 1630's A Discoverie of the Sect of the Banians by Henry Lord:

1630

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Foxe's Book of Martyrs (1563) contains the following on page 134:

I tremble at the manner of putting to death, as it resembles more the slaughter of calves and sheep, than the execution of human beings.

-original ref source

Caveat: There were several editions of this book even into the 1600's. I have not found an edition number for the online version I cited.

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Indigenous tribes of the Americas (pre-Spanish settlements) used to refer to themselves as true ones, only ones, real people, the people, and human beings. It just depends upon which tribe used what term. I believe the Navajo used "the people". So combining "human" and "being" was originated by these spiritual peoples. Kind of makes you want to take a step back and think about what the US may be like today if they were running the show. Could only come up with a flimsy speculative story, at best. All humans make very very poor decisions no matter what time period nor demographic.

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Your answer would be improved by the addition of contemporaneous sources. –  Michael Owen Sartin Dec 14 '13 at 21:07
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