Can the word provenance be used in reference to a person, or should it only be used for objects?

For example, would it be improper to ask someone for their provenance?

Longman, and AHD, for instance, only mention it being used for 'things' / 'objects'.

1 Answer 1


Dictionary definitions usually restrict the association of 'provenance' to [inanimate] things:

provenance [noun]: the place of origin or earliest known history of something.

  • an orange rug of Iranian provenance

the beginning of something's existence; something's origin.

  • they try to understand the whole universe, its provenance and fate" a record of ownership of a work of art or an antique, used as a guide to authenticity or quality.
  • the manuscript has a distinguished provenance

[Oxford Languages, courtesy of Google]

provenance [variable noun] [plural where appropriate, provenances] [formal]

The provenance of something is the place that it comes from or that it originally came from.

  • Kato was fully aware of the provenance of these treasures. [+ of]
  • He had no idea of its provenance.

[Collins; adjusted slightly]

provenance: ... 2: the history of ownership of a valued object or work of art or literature


However, it is not unusual to speak of a valued animal's provenance:

  • Tracking and recording a horse's provenance makes these ... could be an offence not to have registered your horse's provenance with an approved ...

[Australian Parliament House]

And Merriam-Webster (op cit) licenses the broadening to cover associations, committees etc:

  • Self- serving bureaucracies are seeking to silence those who would question their provenance and purpose. [Caitlin Huston, The Hollywood Reporter, 21 Sep. 2023]

But applying the term to individual persons could be quirky, tongue-in-cheek – or rarefied – and could even be seen as insulting. Google 2-grams for 'his provenance' and 'her provenance' show that these are very much less commonly used than 'its provenance':

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So asking a stranger for their provenance is not recommended.


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