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?

  • 1
    Is creature less confusing? Same meaning, similar etymological process. Dec 22, 2011 at 14:09

9 Answers 9


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.



... 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.

  • Yep. Gerunds becoming nouns happen all of the time. Dec 22, 2011 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. Dec 22, 2011 at 19:03

Here's a trio of early citations.

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


  • 1629's Practique Theories by John Gaule


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



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".

  • 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". Jan 26, 2012 at 22:20

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.

  • 1
    The 1615 edition of Foxe's Actes and Monuments contain no reference to "human beings" nor to the (translated) letter regarding the persecutions of Pius IV, nor indeed any mention of that pope. These do appear, however, in versions as early as the 1784 edition. I suspect the letter is an 18th-century addition.
    – Sven Yargs
    Jan 15, 2017 at 4:28

With regard to the exact phrase "human being" (or "human beings"), dictionaries indicate that the term emerged into common usage at a surprisingly late date. Merriam-Webster's Eleventh Collegiate Dictionary (2003) gives a first occurrence date of 1751 for "human being," although a Google Books search discloses an instance from 57 years earlier. From Mathew Tindal, "A Letter to the Reverend the Clergy of Both Universities, Concerning the Trinity and the Athanasian Creed" (1694):

The common Opinion of the Trinitarians, even from the beginning (if we may believe the Animadverter) has been, that the three Persons are not three Substances, Attributes, Properties, or any real, but only incompleat Beings, viz. three Modes, which he saith have no Existence of their own, such as Absence, Presence, Dependence, Change, (which by the Animadverter's leave are nor Modes, but Relations) or which will (as he saith) make one have a clearer Idea of them; they are the same in Divine, as Posture in human Beings.

This may be the instance that Etymology Online relied on for its dating of "human being" to "by 1690s," as noted in slim's answer.

In a Google Books search, the earliest match for "humane being" is even later than the first match for "human being"—from a 1702 edition of Roger L'Estrange's translation of Seneca's Morals. The first edition of this translation dates to 1679, however.

Instances of "human being[s]" begin to become somewhat regular in Google Books search results only in the 1730s—for example, from a letter written by Coquetilla, to the editor of The Auditor, reprinted in The Gentleman's Magazine (February 1733):

A FLAP (alluding to that Part of the Male Garment, which is more for Shew than Use) is a Creature with as little Sense as can be conceived in a human Being. He is in every Respect the Reverse of the sensible Part of Mankind.

And from Philomathes et Philalethes, A Choice Drop of Seraphick Love Tender'd to the Immortal Soul, third edition (1734):

GOD is Just, and absolutely requires a Recompence for thy Ransom, yea, His Justice will not suffer Him to pardon thee without; but who is able to purchase it for thee? Alas! No Human Being can, because all have sinned, and are under the lame Condemnation with thyself ; and no Angelical Created BEING can; as having no inherent Perfection of their own, and therefore none to communicate unto thee : Oh! Miserable Wretch that I am, where shall I turn?


Update (December 30, 2019): 'human/humane being' in EEBO texts

Inspired by Ernest Davis's valuable identification of a very early example of "humane being" in his question/answer Early use of the phrase "human being", I searched Early English Books Online for other early examples of the phrase. As noted above, the earliest Google Books match for "humane being" comes from an English translation of Seneca first published in 1679. My EEBO searches turned up a number of matches from the 1600s, but (obviously) none as old as the 1597 instance from Richard Hooker's Lawes of the Ecclesiastical Politie that Ernest Davis cites ("They of whom God is altogether unapprehended, are but few in number, and for grosness of wit such, that they hardly and scarcely seem to hold the place of Humane Being").

Altogether, EEBO finds eight relevant viewable matches for "humane being[s]" in works published during the period between 1600 and 1655, along with a considerably larger number of additional phrase matches that may be relevant but aren't vieewable without special EEBO database access.

The oldest of the EEBO matches is from John Florio's 1603 translation of "Of Uanitie," in his edition of Montaigne's Essays:

Sic est faciendum, vt contra naturam vniversam nihil contendamus, ea tamen conservata, propriam sequamur. We must so worke, as we endevour nothing against nature in generall, yet so observe it, as we follow our owne in speciall. To what purpose are these heaven-looking and nice points of Philosophie, on which no humane being can establish and ground it selfe?

From George Chapman's circa 1611 translation of Homer, The Iliads of Homer Prince of Poets— Neuer Before in Any Languag Truely Translated:

Thus, all things shooke and cri'd, / When this blacke bartell of the gods, was ioyning; thus arraied: / Gainst Neptune, Phoebus with wing'd shafts; gainst Mars the blew-eyd maid: / Gainst Iuno, Phoebe, whose white hands, bore singing darts of gold; / Her side arm'd with a sheafe of shafts; and (by the birth twofold / Of bright Latona) sister twin, to him that shootes so; / Against Latona, Hermes stood (graue guard in peace and warre, / Of humane beings;) gainst the god, whose Empire is in fire; / The watry godhead; that great flood, to shew whose powre entire / In spoile as th'other: all his streame, on lurking trod; / Xanthus, by gods; by men Scamander cald.

From a 1618 translation of Marcos of Lisbao, Bishop of Porto, The Chronicle and Institution of the Order of the Seraphicall Father S. Francis Conteyning His Life, His Death, and His Miracles, and of All His Holie Disciples and Companions:

Now I will proue that he can doe nothing by meane of any of thē. First, he can doe nothing by meane of the soule alone, for it is most cleare that the soule separated from the body can neither meritt nor demeritt: neither can he doe more by meane of the body only, because the body receaueth all his operation of his forme, and without the soule it hath no humane being, so that much lesse can it worcke, which is a thinge proper to the forme, and finally, yet lesse can he doe by meane of the composition, that is, of the body and soule vnited together: and if he could doe any thing, it should be by meane of the soule:

From Thomas Taylor, The Kings Bath Affording Many Sweet and Comfortable Obseruations from the Baptisme of Christ (1620):

Hereupon, namely, the excellency and dignity of his Person, ariseth the excellency, price, and merit of his obedience, both actiue in fulfilling the law, and passiue, in satisfying the breach. For, being the naturall Sonne of God, he cānot but be very God, of the same substance and Godhead with the Father; vnto which Diuine nature the humane being vnited, it receiueth an excellency and dignity aboue all created natures of men and Angeels: for, to which of the Angels did he at any time say, Thou art my Sonne, Heb. 1. 5?

From Edmund Bolton, Nero Cæsar, or Monarchie Depraued: An Historicall Worke (1624):

Therefore MARCVS CICERO (of all the gowned ROMANS one of the best patriots that euer ROME Ethnick could boast) oraculously pronounced, that no worthie man did euer foregoe his freedome, but together with his life. For what other thing is life it selfe, but a most fettred condition of humane being, and after a manner void of vse, or motion, when it onely hangs vpon a tyrants will?

From Philip Massinger, The Emperour of the East:· A Tragæ-comœdie (1632):

Pulcheria. At both, / And not alone the present, but the future / Tranquillity of your minde: since in the choice / Of her, you are to heate with holy fires, / And make the consort of your royall bed, / The certaine meanes of glorious succession, / With the true happinesse of our humane being, / Are wholy comprehended.

From Nathanael Culverwel, An Elegant and Learned Discourse of the Light of Nature (1645–1646/1652):

You may hear the Lyrick singing out the praises of this Law in a very lofty straine; 〈in non-Latin alphabet〉; This Law which is the Queen of Angelical and humane Beings does so rule and dispose of them, as to bring about Justice, with a most high and powerful, and yet with a most soft and delicate hand.

And from Francis Cheynall, An Account Given to the Parliament by the Ministers Sent by Them to Oxford (1647):

This is the great Article so often disputed and cleered in primitive times by the Apostles for the conversion of Jews & Gentiles. That Jesus Christ who took our nature of the blessed Virgin, is the true Messiah the son of the living God, God equall with his Father, nay the same God (though not the same person) with his Father, God by nature and yet Man by nature; perfect God, and perfect Man, both natures the divine and humane being inseparably united in the person of the son of God, the second person of the glorious Trinity.


There seem to be three lines of meaning in instances of the term "humane being" as used prior to (and after) 1650. One line involves using the phrase to refer to "human existence." This is the sense in which "humane being" appears in Bishop Marcos's 1618 chronicle of the life of St. Francis, Bolton's 1622 book on Nero, and Massinger's 1632 play.

A second line involves using the phrase to mean something like "human aspect, essence, or intelligence." This seems to be the sense in which the term appears in Florio's 1603 translation of Montaigne's Essay "On Vanity," in Taylor's 1620 disquisition on The King's Bath, and in Cheynall's 1646 account of a ministerial conference at Oxford.

A third line involves using the phrase to mean "person"—the meaning that the OP seems to be particularly interested in. This is the sense in which the term evidently appears in Hooker's 1597 Lawes of the Ecclesiastical Politie, in Chapman's 1611 translation of The Iliad, in Culverwel's 1647 Learned Discourse. It is possible to read Hooker's use of "humane being" as invoking the "human aspect, essence, or intelligence" sense of the term, but the "person" sense seems at least equally plausible. As for the instances "humane beings" in Chapman and Culverwel, their use of the plural form and the context in which they appear make any reading of the term's meaning other than "persons" quite difficult to sustain.

It follows that "human being" in the sense of "person" was in use in English probably by 1597 and certainly by 1611.


I found this conversation while searching for the origin of "Human Being" to gain a deeper understanding of the peoples my father credited with the origin.

My answer or insight on the true origin of Human Being is based on personal experience. Research into anything my father told me has always proven his answer to be correct. The subjects were always obscure and documentation is usually found traveling and searching on microfiche.

I had no idea that the origin of human being would become more than a one click search.

Here is my personal experience with my curiosity of the phrase "human being":

My father was H. Bruce Greene II, a published anthropologist who earned an honorary PHD for his work with the Isconahua Peoples of Peru in the 1950's.

When I was 6 years old I asked why we call ourselves "human beans". His explanation stuck with me to this day. (He corrected the bean and I am sure he must have been chuckling inside.)

He said the term came from a very ancient Native Tribe.

He said their language referred to or acknowledged everything as is in a state of "being".

The past, present and future were all acknowledged in the foundation of their language.

All physical objects are simply "being" in the physical state they are in now.

As the object came to be in it's current state from be-ing something else in the past, the object will change and be something different in the future hence Human Be-ing.

Our language implies a state of permanence, immortality, on all physical objects.

We say Human; they would say Human Be-ing; Being human; Being a seed; Being a Tree; Being a chair; Being Fire Wood; Being Ashes; Being Soil...

Pretty cool was my thought at 6 and now at 53, I want facts.

The post about the Navajo is the first time I have seen Native Americans credited. I wish there was some citation.

All the cited dates of first use start in the 1600's. Enough time for language impressions from the New World to make it back into European writings.

Maybe my fathers explanation will give some recall and something to cite by other readers. I am looking forward to finding anything other than obscure connections. Guess I am traveling again.

  • Did your father (or you) know Roald Dahl prior to 1982 or is the BFG's use of 'Human beans' just an example of the parallelism of great minds?
    – BoldBen
    Jan 17, 2017 at 7:36

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.

  • Your answer would be improved by the addition of contemporaneous sources. Dec 14, 2013 at 21:07

"being" implies change - movement through time and space - "communication" with. it is a word that reflects an understanding of an "interconnectedness" with a greater whole - a "collective consciousness".

human being implies such an existence - a path of expression with the world.

"being" is a "noun" originating from, and therefore, perhaps, better understood by, a pre-industrial emergent consciousness. This was a time when human beings existed in greater cooperation and connection with the natural world.

it is not surprising therefore that people of the post-industrial and industrial era are lost from this understanding, though it is alarming.

Love emerged from existence through human being and is a human choice of being

Love is a world wanting to breathe and to be.

It is a choice.

Alien to you?

There is no "afterlife" but for the life left for future generations. What sort of existence do you wish for your nieces, nephews, children, grandchildren?

Nouns and verbs. Love is both. All is in motion. All is and is expressing. Nothing is static - a gift of relative perspectives, including of "static" itself, and ceaseless change.

The only absolute is "being", lost from truth by relative perspectives

Love is a choice, truth found through being with

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